Ichiro Suzuki China is missing in Qatar. For the fifth time in a row, Chinese men, ranked 79th in the world at present, are not in the FIFA World Cup. The only time China qualified the World Cup was in 2002 in Korea-Japan. In its only appearance so far, China lost all three group stage matches without scoring a single goal. Such an abysmal state is where Asia’s sports behemoth stands in the the world’s most popular, and hence competitive game. It stands in sharp contrast to China’s dazzling Olympic performances that rack up medals. For this matter, the U.S. has never been a soccer powerhouse. American men did not qualify the 2018 World Cup, and had a long 40 year absence until 1990. That said, America’s struggle has never been as extreme as China’s plight. Chinese President Xi Jinping must not be too happy with soccer in his country. Like many authoritarian rulers before him, he loves to display his country’s greatness through sports. Since returning to the Olympics after Mao’s death, the Chinese Communist Party has established a system to train elite athletes in state-run programs patterned after those in the Soviet Union and its satellite states. Beginning with gymnastics in the 1980s, China’s sports system has made steady progresses in their results, winning greater number of medals in each Olympics they participated, and blossoming in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The system deftly pinpointed the events in which the state makes investments. They tend to be the ones not so overly competitive globally, and women’s events that are often less competitive than men’s. Since the time China came back to the Olympics, the International Olympic Committee kept adding events that were not parts of the Games originally, in order to enable a greater number of countries to bring medals back home. The IOC also made a move to add women’s events to the competitions that were limited only to men prior to the 1980s. Women ran their first Olympic marathon in 1984 in Los Angeles. The first women’s soccer tournament was held in 1996 in Atlanta. China aggressively exploited these two trends. While marathon and soccer are too widely competed for a relative new comer to excel instantly, Chima became a powerhouse in table tennis, which became an Olympic event in 1988 in Seoul. With its strong tradition in table tennis, China has been a dominant force since the 1996 Games in Atlanta, both in men’s and women’s events, and in mixed doubles. The same is true with badminton that was first played in the Olympics in 1992 in Barcelona. Badminton brought the first-ever Olympics gold to Indonesia, which had a good tradition in the event. Indonesia also topped overall badminton competition in Barcelona. Since 1996, however, China has been dominating badminton, driven by ruthless efficiency of the state-run system. And there is Eileen Gu. When its system can’t generate medals, China doesn’t hesitate to recruit foreign-born talents though such a practice is relatively common, not limited only to China. Soccer, however, is different. It has been long played in every country on earth with at least some seriousness, and in many countries with great frenzy. Little boys (and girls) play sandlot football on alleys or empty spaces in their neighborhood. Skills, team-based as well as individual ones, thus become deeply rooted in the community and the society. Accumulated skills over a long time are passed onto the next generation. These are not something a state-run system with a big budget can easily instill into elite young kids brought to the program by the state, even if they are trained by highly paid coaches from abroad. In addition, the Super League, China’s professional soccer league, has not lifted the levels of the game though wealthy club owners showed little hesitation to pay lavishly to foreign players. This is about tradition, and it matters in soccer a big time. Not even the Soviet Union came close to winning the World Cup despite many Olympic golds, though its Eastern/ Central European satellites often won Olympic soccer golds before pros were allowed to participate in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. (USSR/ Russia’s best showing was a loss in a third place match to Portugal in 1966 in England.) After all, soccer that could only bring one medal by 11 men may be inefficient to authoritarian rulers, as opposed to individual events that allow one man or woman to win a few golds. Cameron Wilson is a British Journalist who has lived in China for almost two decades and is the founding editor of the website “Wild East Football”. Here is what he says: “China is bigger than most things, so China is used to doing things on its own terms. Football is one of the few things that is bigger than China. And I think that is where problems comes in because they do not make the fundamental changes that are necessary.” “In short, Chinese football is not about football. It’s about politics, business and self-interest. These things are of course far from absent elsewhere. But in China they are all-dominating, because the ecosystem…is not designed for passion and love for everything not related to the bottom line.” “FIFA rules stipulate very clear(ly) that football associations should be run free of political interference. The people who are running football in China are not football people. They are politicians and administrators who do not understand the ethos of the game.” The U.S. and Japan have not been big soccer countries. The U.S. did not qualify the World Cup for 40 years, until American men played in 1990 in Italy. Japanese men made their first appearance only in 1998 in France. In both countries, other sports competitions have been dominant: baseball, basketball and American football in the U.S., and baseball in Japan. In both countries, it took soccer people’s decades of great efforts in their loved game, until soccer took root. These efforts obviously contributed to their women’s performances. American women are dominant forces both in the World Cup and the Olympics and Japanese women won the 2011 World Cup beating Americans in the final. With great deal of patience to build a right ecosystem over the long-term, soccer in China should make progress, but it would not happen overnight. In the meantime, the FIFA expands the next World Cup in 2026 in Canada, the U.S., and Mexico to 48 countries, way up from 32 in Qatar. Eight and a half places, including inter-continental play-offs, will be given to Asia up from four and a half today. The expansion raises a chance for China to qualify. Nonetheless, without improvement in the quality of the game, Chinese men might end up with performances that embarrass President Xi.
About the author: Mr. Suzuki is a retired banking executive based in Tokyo, Japan.