"Oh you're British - Manchester United, David Beckham!" gushes a local Beijing cabbie upon
discovering his passenger is from the UK. The comment is remarkably common, alongside
references to the Olympics and the Queen. The Chinese love football. They even claim the
sport was invented in their country, and tens of millions tune in weekly to watch national and
international matches. Yet their record on the field does not reflect their enthusiasm off the field.
When China first qualified for the World Cup finals in 2002, they failed to score in any of the
three matches. In fact, Chinese football is so woefully bad that it even features in national jokes.
During a famous tainted milk scandal in 2008, the joke ran: "Sanlu milk, the exclusive milk of the
Chinese national football team!"
But this has not stopped Guangzhou Evergrande recently appointing a new manager, Italy's 2006
World Cup winning coach Marcello Lippi. Nor has it stopped former Chelsea striking partner
Nicolas Anelka joining Shanghai Shenhua as their player-manager. And now speculation is high
that Didier Drogba is in talks with the same Chinese team. Does the signing of big international
talent signal a turning tide for Chinese football? Could the nation be as proud of their own game
as they are complimentary of the UK's?
The answer is - unlikely. Chinese football suffers from problems both at the top and the bottom
and a look at football quickly turns into a look at Modern China in general.
One of the biggest issues is corruption. At the end of April, former Chinese Football Association
(CFA) chief Xie Yalong stood trial for taking bribes in China's northeast. Xie had been the CFA
chief for three years before handing the job to Nan Yong. Nan was also tried on bribe-taking
charges around the same time.
These are just two examples of many senior government officials, referees and players who have
been convicted of match fixing in the state-run Chinese Super League (CSL). Corruption has
become commonplace, with large sums changing hands to engineer results. Speaking to a referee of an amateur team in Beijing, he said that he wished not to be identified when commenting on the
sport. "Otherwise they will look for me," the man said. It seems corruption reaches right down to
It has another effect too. "Chinese parents are not willing to invest time and money in their
children playing football because the national level is corrupt and not that good," the man added.
In a country where most families only have one child, investing in football is a gamble not worth
taking. "You see kids interested in football, but they are not being coached," commented another
man, who runs a football league in Beijing.
For both the men, finding facilities is difficult. China is crowded; pitches are rare and usually
artificial. Ball quality is not great either. The common man's sport is simply not that common.
But there are glimmers of hope. In an editorial in the BBC, Mario Bozic, another of Shanghai
Shenhua's foreign players, said the staggering wages that have been offered could not be the sole
reason foreign talent is arriving in China, since these men are already rich. "Maybe they want to
teach Chinese people how to play real football," Bozic speculated.
Either way the huge salaries, which are much higher than in the past for all involved, will take
away some incentive to match fix. Today's game has been described by industry insiders as the
cleanest in decades and there is nothing like killing chickens to scare the monkeys, as the Chinese
commonly say about public crackdowns.
Meanwhile, investors are splashing out on better facilities in a bid to get more Chinese involved.
The scale might be small, but the English Premier League wasn't built in a day either.
Last July Xi Jinping, China's current Vice President, who is tipped to be the next leader,
publically announced he had three wishes for Chinese football. He wants China to qualify
for another World Cup, to host a World Cup and finally to win a World Cup. These are bold
wishes. That is not to say they are unattainable, not least with the current tactic of introducing
international talent. Brazil 2014 might soon be a goal within sight.