Friday, July 02, 2010

Ask a Korean! News: Culturalism at Work - Why Is China So Bad at Soccer?

Before anyone takes out his flamethrower, the Korean must note that he did not come up with the title; the good folks at New York Times did:
The Chinese are enthralled with World Cup soccer. Nearly 24 million viewers in China watched the match between Greece and South Korea, making it the single biggest audience in the first days of World Cup play. But the Chinese team failed again to qualify for the World Cup, when even North Korea has made it to South Africa. Corruption in the Chinese soccer organization, which is a state enterprise, and the arrests of several coaches and players have added to the humiliation.

Why does China lag far behind in soccer when it competes so aggressively in many Olympic sports?
Where Are China’s Soccer Stars? [New York Times]

The reason why the Korean notes this particular item is not to sneer at Korea's westerly neighbor's inability to qualify for the World Cup. The Korean noted this item because this is an excellent example of culturalism.

What is culturalism? The Korean wrote previously that culturalism is the impulse to explain away people's behavior with a "cultural difference," real or imagined. Although few people focus on culturalism at this point, the Korean is convinced that this issue will become more important in the future. The danger of culturalism is plain -- by relying on an easier, "cultural" answer, we rob ourselves of more penetrating analysis. Instead of getting to the root of an issue, we settle with a facile cultural answer that is often incorrect. New York Times asked four experts about why China did not qualify for the World Cup, and the answers from those "experts" is a ridiculous parade of culturalism.

At the heart, having a national team that is good enough to qualify for the World Cup is a relatively micro-level issue. Remember, the question is not about why China is not winning the World Cup; it is about why China is not among the top three or four teams in Asia and qualify for the World Cup. At most, the scope of this question only needs to deal with the top 50 players of a country (from which the 18-men squad will be formed,) the manager of the team, and the governing body for the national team that oversees the entire process.

But instead, each writer's response in the New York Times reads like the list of "Things I don't like about China." None of the four respondents to the New York Times' question mentioned anything about China's top players. Nor did they say anything about China's manager. Only one respondent bothered to discuss the governing body, and only tangentially. Rowan Simons, chairman of China ClubFootball FC, says that the Chinese Football Association is a top-down, government-controlled body that cannot advance Chinese soccer. Simons wrote: "The simple truth is that China needs a system of community-based clubs that are run by the people for the people."

Really? South Korea qualified for World Cup seven times in a row since 1986, but it doesn't really have any community-based club. (Although it does have elite academies for top-flight players, like China does.) And good luck finding a community-based club team in North Korea, Mr. Simons.

Susan Brownwell, professor of anthropology at University of Missouri - St. Louis, says more of the same. "Why is there no Chinese soccer team at the World Cup? To answer that question, one has to ask why China has this state-supported system narrowly focused on Olympic medals rather than grassroots sports."

Like hell. Again, South Korea had no grassroots sports in 1986; in fact, South Korean sports apparatus of the time was not much different from the Chinese sports apparatus of today. Both were elite-oriented and government-driven. But South Koreans in 1986 cranked out seven consecutive World Cups over the next 24 years. And again, North Korea has no grassroots sports. This should be obvious to anyone who cares even a little bit about soccer in Asia.

Ray Tsuchiyama (a contributor to The China Tracker blog with no apparent expertise in soccer) says maybe the Chinese government does not want local clubs:
Perhaps the Chinese government feared that small soccer clubs proliferating throughout China would become a “bottom-up” societal movement that would challenge the Communist Party. Allowing thousands of small grassroots soccer clubs in semi-rural areas, provincial towns and cities would bring families, neighborhoods together and potentially create loyalties to the club over the state and its sports bureaucracy.
The Korean might admit that a local soccer club might be a more attractive draw than a local chapter of Falun Gong, but Tsuchiyama's point is laughable. English Premier League soccer and NBA basketball are exceedingly popular in China already. If the Chinese government is worried about sports stealing the loyalties of the people, wouldn't it prefer the loyalty-thieves to be stars of the local soccer clubs instead of Wayne Rooney and Kobe Bryant?

But wait, there's less -- Tsuchiyama conjectures that the "high-fat diet and sedentary lifestyle of children in many Chinese cities" might have something to do with the Chinese' soccer aptitude. Um, no. The fattest country in the world -- the mighty United States of America -- has no problem qualifying for the World Cup. Tsuchiyama also thinks that Chineses education system might be relevant, but South Korea's education system is no less grueling and sedentary.
Xu Guoqi, history professor at the University of Hong Kong, throws out everything but the right answer:
Too many factors contribute to China’s poor performance in soccer, including its political system, lack of a decent pool of soccer players, and Chinese parents’ overemphasis on book learning and academic examinations over everything else, soccer included.
Again, South Korea is a complete disproof to everything at which Xu guesses. South Korea's political system -- economy-focused authoritarianism -- was about the same as China until mid-1990s. South Korea did not even have a pro soccer league until 1983. And Korean parents take no backseat to anyone in whipping their children into scoring high in exams.

The most basic comparison involving the most successful national soccer team in Asia (South Korea) or the most headline-generating national soccer team in Asia (North Korea) would have shown that the success of a national soccer team (as long as "success" is defined as "qualifying for the World Cup") is not about having club teams or a particular political culture or educational system. The Korean does not doubt that all four respondents to the New York Times' query are intelligent people. And this goes to show the virulent strength of culturalism -- the intelligent is not free from its grip.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. TK,

    Chinese are just plain and simple horrible at soccer, and India as well. You would think countries with over a billion population can turn out 11 footsies, but neither seemed too interested in it.

  2. Can't anyone do simple math anymore because the Chinese are nowhere near "enthralled" with World Cup soccer when only a measly 24 million out of 1.325 billion tune into a telecast?

    This is what you call massive spin doctoring at its finest.

  3. This is extremely insightful, and I'd like to hear more thoughts about culturalism. It seems to me to perhaps be an overreaction to simple racism.

    "They do it like that because they're barbarians/savages" becomes "They do it like that because of their culture", but still no actual deep analysis.

  4. Good point, TK. Although I wouldn't rule out some element of culture (or cultures, seeing that China is a huge country encompassing many different cultures), limiting a problem to merely the effect of culture does seem ignorantly simplistic.

  5. I know you're all more interested in culturalism than the actual soccer, but here are my thoughts.

    The Chinese had a pretty tough qualifying group in the third round. The way Korea were playing at the time they could easily have gone out at that stage too if they'd been drawn in the same group.

    But China did manage to win on the road in Australia which is no mean feat even if qualification had already been decided at that point.

    Historically the Chinese have lagged some way behind Korea. But the 3-0 Chinese win over Korea in the finals of the East Asian Championship in February shows that things are changing and changing fast. That's the first time EVER that the Chinese have beaten the Koreans. Both teams were mainly made up of domestic-based players (China's more than Korea's) but it shows that the Chinese game is catching up fast.

    One thing that is telling is the number of people turning up to soccer games in domestic and Asian leagues. The crowds are much healthier in China than in Korea. Look at the Asian Champions League. 1,500 turn up to watch Seongnam play Beijing in Bundang, then 30,000 turn up to watch the return game in China. 20,000 turn up to watch Henan play Suwon, the NY Yankees of Korea, then only 11,000 turn up for the return. Suwon are supposed to be Korea's best supported team.

    Getting Koreans to support their local clubs has proved very difficult despite the success of the national team and in the long run that's not a promising sign.

    Korea does have community based teams. There are a number of "citizen clubs" but the experiment has largely been a failure. Incheon, Daejeon, Daegu have all been pretty poor in recent years and haven't been able to get the same level of support as the chaebol backed teams. Seoul United look to be all over the place despite intial enthusiasm.

    The Chinese game does have a problem with corruption and perception of that corruption. Ask many Chinese people and they'll tell you that Chinese soccer players are corrupt sleazebags who gamble and sleep with prostitutes. The perception is not entirely false given the recent scandals that have rocked Chengdu and Guangzhou.

    The overseas players are also changing in China's favor. China's Hao Junmin plays in Germany at the same club as Edu, who was basically the best player in the K-League for a number of years. But Hao is a much more regular starter there.

    I think the Koreans need to wake up and worry about this, both on a general level and at the higher levels of the Korean soccer federation. China is coming.

  6. Lots of good observations, but it still doesn't explain the actual reason to the question I've been wondering since the world cup started? Where is China? They push themselves to be the best at the Olympics, so where are they at the World Cup, the only worldwide sporting event that can even compare with the Olympics??? And as one reader mentioned, in a country of more than a billion people, they couldn't find enough good enough, groomed from youth, or or just plain talented soccer players? Anyway, maybe Eunjin has a point that they're just on their way and they'll be there soon.

  7. Great Analysis!! I actually think its not culturalism at work but rather what i see as leftover 'cold war' mentality whenever anything negative about china is said by the west...all the reasons the 4 'experts' gave have one common theme, that is criticism of the political system of china and the chinese govt. It seems everytime anything negative happens in or about China, they blame the chinese govt and the chinese lack of democracy when its got often nothing to do with that! All their arguements are baseless when you factor in North Korea which has a political system and culture 100x as stifling and as restrictive as the chinese one and yet they manage to qualify for w/c.

    Similarly, another example is the one child policy which western and foreign media loveeee to criticise when it has potentially lessened the earth's burden and natural resources crisis which is already troubling with the current world population of almost 7 billion ppl (shocking figure given that i rem merely 15 yrs ago, it was "only" 6 billion)...and also other stuff like gender imbalance is blamed on the one child policy (which is another hidden attack on the political system of china) when actually other things are more significant, for instance, why is the gender imbalance WORSE in India, the world's largest democracy>?

  8. As I sit here early this morning waiting for Lance's last stage one ride in Le Tour de France, I have to ask where are all the Asian riders? You would think China would be able to field a decent group of cyclists with so many in use around the country, but it isn't so.

  9. John from Daejeon,

    LOL... So True...

  10. There are some difference between China's showing at the Olympics and in qualifiers for the World Cup. While I'm sure China would hope to dominate every sport, which is not to different from any other country, there seemed to be more incentive for its showing in the Olympics. It was in their country, and they wanted to show off. They also spent a lot of resources trying to develop sports that they could get a lot of medals in. Most of these were individual and not team sports. My guess would the tendancy would be take a longer effort to show progress in teams sports compared to some individual sports.


    I agree it is easy to point to the government and level criticism. With respect to this matter, I think most saw the showing at the Olympics as being driven by measures taken by the government, so when it seems China is under-performing at the WC its easy to point to them.

  11. I would disagree with Eujin who said China is coming. They said the same thing back in 2000, and they've been saying that for past 10 years. China sucks because of myriad of reasons - crappy players, crappy infrastructure, crappy league. One of the key differences that experts point out is that its player mentality - a decent player in C-league can eke out a pretty good living therefore and instills complacency among its players. Ergo, its players therefore have no desire to improve. Because of this ingrained mentality, few players move to Europe and few that do give up so easily or cannot adapt - a case in point - Zhengzi, CHina's best player, was recently released by Celtic FC, not exactly a top European club.

    China sucks in football be it does.

    It would be erroneous to say that CHina cares more about Olympics in general that soccer. If you remember, despite the general success of the Olympics, many local CHinese still regard it as a failure because it failed to qualify for the next stage in Olympics football.

  12. China has qualified for the World Cup before, in 2002. They aren't a bad side. They finished 2nd in the Asian Cup in 2004, and they won the East Asian Cup in 2005 and in 2010 (both times finishing with a higher point total than Korea and Japan to claim the championship.

    The only reason China doesn't qualify consistently is because Asia is only alloted 4 or 5 spots in the World Cup.

    Europe meanwhile gets 13 or 14 slots.

    They need to raise the world cup to include more teams. It wouldn't be hard to add one more team to each group, for a total of 40 teams. You could play a lot of the games simultaneously and wouldn't even need to lengthen the cup by much

  13. @Eujin

    Maybe if the K-League were actually watchable then people would start going to see it.

    As it stands, all of Korea's top players go off to Europe. The good players go to the J-League. Korea's league is then left with just the less than good players, and foreign players who aren't good enough to make it in Europe, J-League, or even USA's Major League Soccer. I hate to say it but Korea has got to be their 4th or 5th choice.

  14. There are obviously many factors that contribute to China doing less well in soccer as compared to the Summer Olympics and I have no intention to list what they could possibly be.

    As a soccer player myself, I often play with players from China (albeit at a recreational level) and I notice they play poorly as a team. Spacing is poor and communication usually lacking; their play is usually disorganized. Their individual skills are usually much better than their team play. In contrast, even at the recreational level, I have often played with non-Chinese players who play very well as a team-each player sticks to his or her position, runs into open positions, and doesn't shoot unless there is a legitimate scoring chance. Sometimes I feel as if Chinese soccer is like Chinese driving (in China)-not much order, but a high level of individual skill in a bid to get to a final destination. Unfortunately, soccer is a team game where all eleven men have the same goal-to score goals.

    Sorry for leaving such a "cultured" answer. But from my years playing soccer this is sincerely what I observed (and got me frustrated sometimes) when playing soccer with Chinese players. I should probably also mention that I am a Chinese Canadian; this perhaps gives a bit more context to my comment.

  15. First of all, it is not "soccer". It's "football". Football is an English game where you kick a ball with your foot, that's why it is called that way. “Soccer” sucks. I have the theory that every country that calls this game “soccer” instead of football they don’t get what it is all about and therefore has no chance of winning the World Cup, and so far, my theory proves to be right.
    Now, why does China suck in football?
    Easy answer: how on Earth are you supposed to be good at something that you don't understand?
    Let’s compare football with language.
    I’m from Argentina, so my mother tongue is Spanish. I began learning Spanish since the day I was born. I also know English and Italian, and I’m having a very bad time trying to learn Korean.
    I can speak English, but it’s not something that’s come out naturally. The same thing happens to me with Italian. And there are a lot of words, phrases and idioms that I don’t understand because they are not in the books I used to learn those languages. I could have written this post in Spanish in a tenth of the time I wrote it in English.
    With football it’s pretty much the same thing. There are countries where football is like the mother tongue, and there are countries where football is a second, third, or fourth language: they know it enough to understand what’s going on, but not enough as to catch all the details.
    You learn your first language naturally, but if you want to learn a new language, you have to make an effort and you have to study.
    In football, you interact with the players of your team, and with the players of the rival team. If both your team and the rival are good, you learn more and faster. If they are not so good, you don’t learn so fast. Like in my English lessons: first I interacted with my classmates, and when I had the chance, I interacted with native speakers in their own country. And then, I was able to understand those words, expressions, and phrases that are not in the English books. And I had fun learning it. I can understand them, but I can’t use them as fluently as I would like to. Why? Lack of practice.

    If you come from a country where football is the most popular sport, you know what I mean.
    Countries like USA, South Korea and Japan developed in the past decade more competitive leagues, and they have more and more players playing in Europe (were football is the first language). USA hires European and South American football players that are too old to play in the most competitive leagues of Europe and South America, to improve their own league. They made an effort to understand it. And it’s working.

  16. In the past World Cups, it was very easy to defeat them. They were too naïf. They knew the written rules but they were ignorant of the tricks of the game. The big teams won the matches “with the T-shirt” meaning that Brasil, for instance defeated USA only because it’s Brasil, without any other effort. Today, they do play. And they play well. They know what they are doing. They are confident in themselves. And although they don’t have big stars, they play as a solid team. Good for them!!!
    Why countries like South Korea, Japan and USA got places to play in the last 4 World Cups? Because they are the best of their continents. And because the remaining countries of their continents are just too horrible.
    And why those three countries managed to pass to the round of 16? Because they did their homework well (more competitive national leagues and more players learning how to play in Europe).
    Why they don’t pass the round of 16 to quarterfinals? Because they are not good enough. They will, eventually, but not yet.
    32 teams are more than enough for the World Cup. And each continent has places enough to get their best teams in it. If a team is good enough, it has no problem in getting a place.
    Take a look at the FIFA ranking:
    The only Asian team among the first 32 is South Korea, which had no problem in getting its place for every World Cup in more than 2 decades. China, on the other hand, is 73th in the ranking, and only once got a place (Korea-Japan 2002), and lost the 3 matches that played, without scoring a single goal. So why does China deserve a place? Well, it doesn’t. If you want a place, play better. Learn the language. Make the effort. If you don’t, stay out. You don’t have the obligation of liking the game, so if you don’t like it, then play something else.
    Until China doesn’t learn the basis of football language, it won’t have the chance to send professional players to play in the best leagues of Europe. And if China does not become an attractive destination for South American and European players, no good players will improve its league. Without those two things, it will never have good football, because there’s no chance of being good at it, if you don’t interact with the best. Football is not something you can learn by yourself. Anyway, they are not obligated to do it.
    The World Cup is a championship where the best football of the planet is played. Quantity doesn’t mean quality. There’s no point in having a lot of matches of low quality, risking the best players in the first round, when the real World Cup starts at the round of 16, and when, let’s say it, some of the 16 are not that good either.

  17. Ahem, Warrioress, "soccer" also happens to be an English word meaning the same as English football. Americans or any other nation that uses the word did not just invent the word on their own.

    Having said that, most nations that use the word "soccer" for English football do not play the game as their most popular sport. Off the top of my head, USA, Japan, Australia, Canada(?), Korea(?), etc. Part of the reason why they don't field the best teams in the WC

    And yes, most in the US would concur, "Soccer sucks". Of course not this American. I find the entire spectacle very entertaining, at least during the WC!

  18. 15 years ago when I was a university student I read an article that sort of addressed this. The gist of the article was that the government was embarrassed by the poor performance in never yet qualifying for the World Cup and had selected 20-odd 10-12 year olds to go and spend the next 5+ years learning football in Brazil. It would be interesting to know what came of them...


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