BEIJING, China, Dec 24 – Beijing’s dream of making China a football powerhouse depends on millions of children taking up the sport, but even coaches say tradition-minded parents view the game as a wasteful distraction from school.
China’s President Xi Jinping, an avowed fan of the game, has declared three goals for the country: to host, qualify, and win a World Cup.
But the team are ranked a lowly 83rd in the world by FIFA — just below the Caribbean island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, population 86,295 — and are bottom of their qualifying group for the next World Cup, despite the recent hiring of Italian coach Marcello Lippi.
The Asian giant has made improving youth football programmes a national priority, with an official plan promising 20,000 academies and 30 million elementary and middle school pupils playing the sport within four years.
The goal is to make China one of the world’s top sides by 2050, the document said, to bring to life “the sports-superpower dream”.
But it faces steep social barriers, with trainers saying traditional attitudes towards education and children’s responsibility to support their parents in retirement make it difficult to secure recruits.
“The big challenge is that mindset in general, that football is a distraction to education,” said Tom Byer, a Japan-based football consultant hired by the Chinese education ministry to design pilot programmes for young children.
“If you look at families that have just one child it’s kind of a no-brainer. If you’re thinking about the future of your child, should you put an emphasis on sports… or should you nurture your child to be better academically?”
To assuage concerns, Byer tells Chinese parents that studies suggest kids who are physically active do better academically.
But parents online ask whether it is “irresponsible” for children to play soccer.
– ‘Just a hobby’ –
At a practice session for a children’s football club in Beijing, parents praised the sport for giving seven-year-olds the experience of overcoming challenges and defeat, but said they were wary of letting it interfere with studies.
Song Feng, 41, said soccer was “just a hobby, an exercise” for her 11-year-old son, and that studies would always have to come first “because China’s education system is just that way now”.
Gao Fei, father of another boy, said he “won’t let him become a footballer because China’s professional soccer scene is no good”.
Chinese media have weighed in to try to reassure them.
An article on internet portal Sohu cited French philosopher Albert Camus and Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who both played in goal for club sides, as proof that sporting and academic pursuits were compatible.
“Playing soccer means falling behind in studies? Teachers and parents wake up, don’t waste your child’s future!” it said.
While Beijing’s plans should see more football played in school, China’s education system still revolves around the highly competitive, all-important gaokao graduation exam, which determines university placement and many career opportunities.
That makes it difficult to stimulate a mass craze for football, as the structure “leaves very little space or time for sports”, said Mary Gallagher, associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan. “Will parents risk points on the gaokao for the chance to play soccer every day?”
The world’s most populous nation has 25 times more people than England, but lags far behind its 37,000 football clubs, says Rowan Simons, a football author and founder of a private football club in the capital.
– Long game –
Without grassroots teams and a deep pool of players, he said, “It’s irrelevant how much money the government puts into it — football can never flourish unless people love it.”
“In Chinese there’s just no history of civic society, that’s really at the heart of it,” Simons told AFP. “That’s why top-down national funding will never work.”
One challenge to developing players is China’s traditional training methods, says Mark Dreyer of China Sports Insider, in which the coach “is still the military drill sergeant where he’s barking orders and having them do repetitive drills. What kid enjoys that?”
In other countries, he said, “they play football with a smile on their face”.
Chinese Super League clubs are splashing vast sums on foreign coaches and players, many of them from Latin America, where Byer says children learn basic ball-handling skills at a very early age.
Countries that want to emulate the success of Brazil and others have to ensure that football is an activity at home as well as at school, he added.
“It will take a couple of decades,” he said. “When you’re dealing with youth development, we won’t know if we’re going to reap the benefits for 10 years.”
The question is whether the Chinese government’s footballing push can last that long. While President Xi is a soccer fan, he is expected to step down in 2022 and his successor may have entirely different priorities.
“Can they stay the course? It’s possible,” said Dreyer. “But in five, 10 years, who knows? If Xi Jinping goes, and the next guy doesn’t like football, then maybe it’s basketball and Yao Ming is going to lead the way.”