Football in China has continually failed to reach the heights that its leadership so desires. The national team is ranked a lowly 95th in the world and having only qualified once, they are yet to score a goal at a World Cup. The domestic game too lags a long way behind the runaway train that is Chinese progress.
For years, the Chinese Super League has been trying to strengthen and some of the country's wealthiest real estate developers have invested heavily in clubs, bringing over European stars in an attempt to quite literally enrich the competition. Sven-Goran Eriksson is the latest major import, once again becoming Marcello Lippi's rival, though this time in the unheralded city of Guangzhou. Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka have both had stints in Shanghai while Seydou Keita and Frédéric Kanouté can still be found plying their trade in Dalian and Beijing respectively. However, if you've ever had the joy of watching a CSL game, you'll have noted just how poor the quality of football remains.
This rare low standard in a superpower that prides itself on excellence is certainly not down to a lack of public demand. In a nation with over a billion spectators, football is the most watched spectator sport. The infamous David Beckham stampede is further testament to the people's adoration.
An often supported, and well evidenced, reason for the predicament is corruption. Chinese football is about as clean as the bathroom of a cheap nightclub. My favourite tale of venality took place in September 2009 with Qingdao Hailifeng FC comfortably ahead in a mid-table clash in China's second division. In the dying minutes of the game, a Qingdao player nonchalantly chipped the ball goalward over the oncoming keeper, the ball bouncing just wide. The incident might not have aroused such suspicion had the keeper and goal not been Qingdao's own. It later transpired that the club's owner had wagered a significant amount on a total of 4 goals in the game - his team was 3-0 up.
Though unmatched in terms of absurdity, this sort of incident is not an anomaly. After all, bribery in sport is just another variant of the famous Prisoner's Dilemma. In other words: you snooze, you lose.
Corruption is not enough to be causing the difficulties by itself, however. Brazil and Argentina are two of the world's great footballing nations, but neither their politics nor sport can claim any sort of moral high ground. The same goes for most of Europe. Italy, especially, has hardly lasted a season in recent years without a match-fixing scandal of some sort and we all know about Mr. Berlusconi. The problem must run deeper.
In other sports, the top-down approach of the Communist Party has been rewarded with an abundance of gold medals, but football is different. You can develop high quality facilities for the elite and pump money into the game from all angles, but the grass roots have to exist underneath it all. Football is not learnt under floodlights; it's learnt in backyards, in the street, on the beach. In successful footballing countries, the amateur game flourishes in a way that it never will in a sport like diving or gymnastics or one of the many other sports in which China is so dominant. Rowan Simons' book, 'Bamboo Goalposts', covers the implications of this lack of amateur football in much more detail than I can here and is well worth the read if you have the time.
One of the many corollaries of this is that football is played predominantly in organised training sessions at 'football schools', which can be costly and thus inaccessible to the common family. As a result, junior football teams tend to be monopolised by rich kids and at the end of the day very few of them care enough to make the grade. There are hundreds, potentially thousands, of unearthed gems who just aren't given a chance at the right age.
There is a famous Chinese proverb that translates roughly into English as: 'Teachers open the door. You enter by yourself'. While I'm sure it sounds prettier in its native language, the message retains its relevance. Before emphasis can be placed on the professional game, China's football officials need to change the foundations. The shambles at the top will need to be cleaned up as part of the process but playing football needs to become more readily available to the common person. From there, it's a matter of the game becoming ingrained in the culture of childhood and football becoming more than a sport in which you train to end up a professional. It needs to become the livelihood of those children in the country whose passion it is. Until such a time arrives, Chinese football will continue to flounder.
As a football fan, there's actually something rather heartening about these struggles. While all-pervasive corruption has yet to cause any real trouble for China's industry and commerce, it's a piece in the puzzle when explaining the lack of development in its football. It may be over the top to infer from this that there's something intrinsically purer about the competition of football than that of the profit-driven economy, but with the growing domination of money in the game, it's a welcome reminder that there's at least a difference.