Where Are China’s Soccer Stars? [New York Times]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?
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.
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