China Sucks at Soccer: What Does That Tell Us?

I can understand a great deal about a country by going into a few of its grocery stores and by watching five basketball games with its best players. I have a friend who is a dancer and she says she can understand a country by watching its people dance. I know basketball and I know food, but I do not know soccer, but if I did, I am sure that watching soccer games would help me better understand a country as well.

I mention this because a reader just sent me an Economist article, Why China Fails at Football, along with a note saying the following:

China is never going to get its act together in football and for the same reasons, it’s never going to get its act together in the big picture either. They play football like they do everything else. Selfishly and by rote. That works fine for factory work, but when it comes to innovation, it’s worthless.

The Economist also does not shy away from using soccer as a metaphor for China writ large:

Solving the riddle of why Chinese football is so awful involves unravelling much of what might be wrong with China and its politics. Every Chinese citizen who cares about football participates in this subversion, each with some theory—blaming the schools, the scarcity of pitches, the state’s emphasis on individual over team sport, its ruthless treatment of athletes, the one-child policy, bribery and the corrosive influence of gambling. Most lead back to the same conclusion: the root cause is the system.

The Economist sees China’s soccer problem as stemming from a top-down system that is good for individual sports, but not team sports:

Whatever ails Chinese football, it is not a lack of passion from the country’s leaders. If anything, the opposite may be the problem. China’s Party-controlled, top-down approach to sport has yielded magnificent results in individual sports, helping China win more Olympic gold medals in Beijing in 2008 than any other country. But this “Soviet model” has proven catastrophically unsuitable for assembling a team of 11 football players, much less a nation of them.

I do not know enough about soccer or Chinese soccer to engage in real analysis here, but it certainly does seem like a good area for discussion.

What do you think? See also China Sucks at Basketball: What Does That Tell Us?

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