China Soccer as China Business Metaphor

China football

In Whither Chinese Soccer? [link no longer exists], we get an expert opinion as to why China cannot field a world class soccer team.  Per the article, China’s soccer shortcomings stem from six things, including the following two:

  • The Education System.  “The dog eat dog nature of the Chinese education system is unbelievable. From a young age, kids must go from the “right” elementary school to the “right” junior high to the “right” high school if they have a prayer of getting into the “right” college. The concept of “playtime” doesn’t exist for most kids, they get out of school (later than in most places in the world) and then go home to study or to an after school program. They don’t have time to kick a ball around and their parents would be unhappy if they caught them using their time in such a frivolous manner. There are no grass roots weekend youth soccer programs like you find in the US, but even in the few that do exist, expat kids are in the majority. Among some in the middle/upper class in China, who’ve been educated and/or spent a lot of time abroad, there is a growing looseness and allowing their kids more time to be kids, but they often will only choose a single activity and those tend to be something along the lines of golf or hockey, a more “exotic” sport that makes their kid unique among his peers. The large size of China’s population, the reason why so many people think it should be so easy to find 11 decent soccer players, also hurts it, with so many young people competing for a finite number of university spots, an hour or two kicking a ball around is seen as a waste of time.”
  • Soccer Can’t Be Taught. ‘The sports China excels in, ping pong, badminton, diving, weightlifting, etc., are all sports that are focused on a repetitive motion. Practicing the same motions 1,000 times a day, day in day out will perfect your skills and lead to success. Soccer doesn’t work that way, it isn’t possible to “teach” the game in the same way. Players need to be creative, anticipating not only what the opponent will do but what their teammates will do, and everyone needs to work together as a team, not just 11 individuals. In China, more often than not, the team’s play a rigid form of soccer, lacking the creativity and the flair you see elsewhere in the world, and when players display that flair, it often fails because teammates don’t expect it. Young Chinese talent needs to go overseas to train and play against other people, to build up that mental database of different ways to play and different systems.”

This post reminds me of a post I did during the Olympics on why China has no good point guards in basketball:

But I feel compelled to discuss one thing I have noticed in watching the Olympics and that is that China’s basketball team does not have a single point guard worth a damn and I have to wonder why.

Is it further evidence of the shortcomings of a planned economy? Does China pull out the great athletes for other sports, leaving only tall people for basketball?

Is it further evidence of a lack of innovation or take-chargedness (I know I am making up this word, but it works) in China? Great point guards have to be willing to innovate and take the heat. Is the coaching so tough that no player is willing to step up?

Seriously, why?

Apparently, Heart of Beijing wonders the same thing, in citing this line from an AP story: “China has more than a billion people, but there’s not an elite point guard among them.”

So why is China so mediocre in team sports like basketball and soccer, and what significance, if any, does this have in terms of innovation and business in China?

6 responses to “China Soccer as China Business Metaphor”

  1. Respectively sir, this is your pet theory. The variable of skill is a function of the amount of money being injected into the sport, first year econ tells us that much. China can catch up on sports where development of the sport is limited to a handful of enthusiast but where big money/high public interest is involved the bar is set higher. Think about it, basketball, soccer, football, hockey what do they have in common? wide spread public interest/money.
    And why is china’s woman’s program catching faster? less funding for woman’s sports in the west.
    You are repeating some tired stereotype of Chinese un-inventiveness and inability be creative. I hate to trod out another tired cliche to counter yours but think the compass, paper, printing, etc……

  2. You’re right to link Chinese sports with the Chinese education system. Sports in China are completely diferent from sports in the U.S or U.K.. China’s sports system is not even close to the club system in the U.K. or high school / college system in the U.S. Athletic talent in China, whenever it gets identified and tracked for professional development, is usually chanelled into the provincial P.E. colleges and Olympics-specific events development. Success in those programs depends on the strength of individual development and individual psychology. In such an environment, there is no reason or opportunity for developing a team psychology.
    For such a reputedly “collective” society, it can be shocking for outsiders to realize that it is so “individualist” in reality.

  3. Spot on Dan…..The blog is 100% correct and is a great correlation to the business world and managing talent here. Like you said, a great point guard will be creative and take the heat for the failure. But 5000 years of Chinese history and culture has brow beat innovation out of them for fear the “boss” or “elder” might get angry at them and lose face. I play rugby here in China and the same can be said about our great sport. It is a team game of 15 players that required not only team work, but individual flare and risk taking. Certainly the Chinese teams can do all the “set pieces” very well and are very well drilled at the breakdowns, etc, but all of them lack that individual play making that is required at time in the game to make a big break or turn the game around. In the office, the same thing happens, they can do all the “set pieces” well, but ask them to be creative or work outside the box to get a deal sealed or a project done and if all falls apart.

  4. Fun post for World Cup time. I heard two things about soccer in China in addition to what MLF reports. First, the soccer leagues are run by a commercial entity – the Chinese Football Association, which is more concerned with money. To the extent that the state is involved, it provides a dueling directive, confusing the leagues further. LA Times reported on this:
    Second, they say that there is loads of corruption in the sport, much more so then any other sport. Check out this article:
    Personally, I think for a country to rise up in a short amount of time to dominate the summer Olympics like China did, it is a lot easier to do for individual sports – training individual athletes – like divers, gymnasts, etc. Even for the few sports where there is more than one person, it’s usually just two people. But for team sports, I think that is much harder to build up in a short amount of time.
    But none of these reasons explain why there isn’t some soccer super star like Yao Ming, that would be exported to Brazil or some place to play with a better team.

  5. China actually has some really great sports programs geared towards developing elite athletes. Just look at their gymnastics. Those kids leave their normal lives behind and travel far away at young ages to train. I don’t think the same couldn’t be done for soccer. But I think the real problem here is in your second point: the nature of their coaching. They tend to like and excel at sports that are incredibly repetitive and soccer isn’t always like that. They also don’t put much of a premium on players thinking for themselves, which puts players at a disadvantage in a sport like soccer.

  6. Replying to Justin,
    The hard truth is – China is comparatively uninventive compared to the West, a direct reflection on China’s education, management and governance systems. Of course not all Chinese are uninventive; there is plenty of innovation coming out of Taiwan and Hong Kong which are under different systems. Justin does raise a valid point about money and publicity, but the cultures of management and education are critical.
    And what about compass, paper, gunpower, printing? That’s great 4 inventions in the last couple of thousand years, not that great a record. Also no great invention has come out of China since the establishment of the Ming Dynasty in 14th Century.

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