China has been just eliminated from the 2011 Asian Cup in the first round: the last illusion vanished again. The nation’s emerging soccer culture is both weak and corrupt. Scandals appear to have become as international as the sport itself, especially when the game of private interest prevails on the field. In early May just last year, five players and twenty officials were arrested under corruption claims: many of whom belonged to either Chinese Super League (CSL) or the Chinese Football Association (CFA). Among these, international referee Lu Jun — also dubbed the “Golden Whistle” — risks the death penalty if found guilty. Still, it seems as though these arrests are only the tip of the iceberg. Chinese authorities are increasingly active on tackling the crackdown on crime and corruption. Hei Shao (literally black whistles) is the name fans give to blatantly bribed games, such as in the Chengde-Myanyang fame which ended 11-2 — the difference coinciding with the exact number of goals needed to avoid Chengdu’s relegation.
Investigations regarding the scandals are often lead by organs of the Chinese Federation, which were stranded in the light of a code of silence or nepotism. In fact, the State’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection boasted their claim of having found 106,626 government officials guilty of corruption in 2009, and the Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index still ranks China 79th in international charts. Recently, FIFA has tightened its grip on the control exercised on behalf of the government towards soccer officials, closing an eye when looking at China’s, for example (while it suspended Chad, Kenya, Iraq and Iran for exactly this reason). Scholars suggest it is exactly the close relationship between the government and government-owned entities that allows for these scandals to more easily happen. Socially, Chinese passion for soccer is also growing — alongside, and in competition with basketball. Recent figures show that soccer is the most viewed sport in China, where an estimated 30 million people watched the English Premier League on weekends, and about 180 million the CSL in 2009. Still, those who play are few, especially in regards to the country’s population. Less than 800,000 actually perform, of whom few, if any, are internationally renowned, the way China’s neighbors, Japan and Korea, can instead boast about. In the Middle Kingdom, one in every 1,800th person plays soccer. In England this figure is about one in every 55th. Also, China has seldom participated in global competitions, marking its one and only time in the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup. The team lost three games and scored no goals.
The 2004 Asia Cup, hosted in Beijing was witness to an even more humiliating score: 3-1 loss again Japan during the final match.
Historical and nationalistic feelings led fans to riots and clashes against opposing teams and local authorities. Unlike China’s unanimous growth, individualistic sports are developing instead, as celebrity athletes like Yao Ming are leading the way for less communal progress.
Single successes are dominating the sport arena, making the national soccer team move up to the 79th position in the FIFA world ranking after Saudi Arabia and before Finland: still, an significant leap from its lowest as 108th in July 2009. But China has a long way to go. Bad management, lack of football culture, too many hours of schooling, including afternoon hours, numerous defeats, and the vision of soccer as a tool for economic and social success are sickening China’s soccer fields. The art of strategy, teamwork, and unanimous victory seems to be limited strictly to the country’s economic growth.