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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Football, basketball, volleyball… Why do Chinese men fail at team sports?

While women's teams buck the trend, the failure of men's teams to make a mark internationally might have deeper roots. What could be the sociological reasons for this?

Written by Shivani Naik | Mumbai |
Updated: March 15, 2021 10:16:26 am
Chinese professional footballer Zheng Zhi who currently captains Chinese Super League club Guangzhou Evergrande. (File Photo)

The Chinese called it their “big-ball bump.” In a space of five hours on the same day in January 2020, the country’s men’s football and volleyball national teams lost out in qualifiers for the Tokyo Olympics, sending fans into paroxysms of grief.

Alongwith basketball, where the Chinese men were pipped by Iran, failing to secure the direct Olympic spot for Asia from the FIBA World Cup which China hosted in 2019, the triple whammy of big bawling team disappointments was complete.

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What is China’s sporting dichotomy?

Of the 546 Olympic medals China have won since 1984, only 13 have come in team ball-events, all from women’s teams : Thrice gold medalists in women’s volleyball (also 1 silver, 1 bronze), besides medals basketball, field hockey, softball, beach volleyball and handball. But no big ball team medals for men. Effectively, 533 of those medals have come in individual events (or team medals in aggregated individual sports – eg. Team TT, Swimming, Gymnastics).

Where does China stand in football?

China started out claiming to have invented the sport – because it resembled their ancient sport, cùju. But domestic leagues stirred only in the 1990s. The national team qualified once for the 2002 World Cup, and went to the Seoul Olympics in 1988, later competing as hosts in 2008 Beijing. Ranked 75 in the world, the national team is dragging its feet at 7th amongst Asians, and a 2-0 loss to Uzbekistan at the AFC U23 last January, after going down 1-0 to S Korea ended their Tokyo hopes. What has brought on the latest flux is that Jiangsu FC, the freshly crowned domestic league champions abruptly closed after its owner Zhang Jindong, previously a billionaire who also owned Inter Milan, ran into debt trouble. It means corporations and retail tycoons expected to spearhead football’s surge in international performances have retreated and state control is back.

Why has Chinese basketball disappointed?

China enthusiastically hosted the FIBA World Cup in 2019, hoping to seal qualification at home for their beloved ‘lanqiu’. NBA is the most watched league with a fan-base estimated at 625 million. At the World Cup, Poland and later Venezuela blew them out. Nigeria’s athleticism sunk them wholly in the do-or-die battle. The team is now at the mercy of Canada and Greece with NBA’s hottest new name, Giannis Antetokounmpo in their ranks to qualify. Sensing that they might not, new coach Du Feng has assembled a fresh team with an average age of 20.7 years, looking to Paris.

How was the basketball slump perceived? “The team is going through a very difficult time. Our basketball players and fans can see the gap between us and the leading teams through the World Cup hosted at home,” Du said, even as Yao Ming, president of Chinese Basketball Association admitted the country was “lagging behind.” Outgoing coach Li Nan spelt out a litany of problems talking to CGTN: not enough hours spent training, lack of tough-battle experience, inferior individual ability, problems in passing, no player of calibre to revolve the game around and stars too comfortable in their clubs. A disgruntled fan was quoted by Sixthtone.com as saying: “I’ll just watch table tennis in the future.”

Why can’t the male spikers emulate the champion women?

For a country whose women boast of 3 gold medals in Olympic volleyball steered by iconic Lang Ping, the men have nothing to show. They competed twice at Olympics (1984 & 5th place at Beijing), have a best of 7th place at World’s in 1978 & 1982, and finished 22nd at last World’s in 2018. China’s last Asian Games gold in volleyball came in 1998 (9th at Jakarta 2018). In the 2019 Asian Championship, China finished at its worst ranking in 44 years. South China Post would quip: “Olympic powerhouse China is facing up to the reality that the state sports system is failing in men’s team sports.”

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How does the state look at this trend?

China.org.cn quoted Gou Zhongwen, director of the General Administration of Sport of China, as saying that “big-ball performances” is a priority for the country’s sports authorities. Sports sociology professor and former president of Beijing Sport University, Yang Hua told the same website: “Without breakthroughs at high-profile big-ball events, China will not cement its status as a global sporting power, even though we have won a lot of medals.”

Over-reliance on foreign players in leagues has come under fire from the state apparatus. With the CPC also coming down hard on conglomerates like Tencent (backing basketball), Alibaba (rugby) on unrelated antitrust matters, foreign collaboration is also under threat as state control swoops in.

What other big ball sports give China grief?

Chinese men won handball Asiad gold at Delhi in 1982. They are nowhere close to podium in last 25 years even in Asia (10th at Jakarta Asiad). In rugby – which the Chinese call yingshi ganlanqiu (British-style olive ball) – the game’s diehards are both in awe of and irritated by Japan’s massive strides – first beating Springboks, then making the World Cup knockouts. But the Chinese men’s team is dozing at 80th in World rankings, and utterly given up on the process of developing a 15s side, after the Olympics chose the Sevens format. Authorities jettisoned 15s, but ended up sinking the whole culture too. Zhang Zhiqiang, a former China national side captain, told a Centurion-Rugby blog, “Our national system is geared towards an Olympic strategy, and sevens, as one of the Olympic events, gets more attention. From 1990 to 2005 when we played 15s, we were among the top three sides in Asia. Our best world ranking was 37. But later, we turned to sevens and our performances in 15s got worse.”

What could be the sociological reasons for this?

While women’s teams buck the trend, the failure of men’s teams to make a mark internationally might have deeper roots. Simon Chadwick, Director of Eurasian Sport at Em Lyon Business school, reckons that embedding football into Chinese culture might take longer due to their predisposition to other sports – TT, badminton and even dragonboat racing. “It really doesn’t help that state intervention keeps taking football in different directions. If anything, with President Xi, maybe (one hoped) there could be some consistency and coherence of strategy. But maybe even in the Xi era, we still see some fairly dramatic changes in direction, in strategy. My view is that it’s affecting the culture change,” the expert says, adding, “But I don’t agree that China is incapable of or is going to struggle to put football teams together.”

Chadwick believes that soft-skills like decision making, independence, creativity, innovation, teamwork, problem solving might be deficient not just from Chinese (and Indian) educational systems but also from Chinese football.

Does the political system play a role?

“Contrary to popular opinion, China is a very individualistic society where success of individual people within individual families is much more important very often than collective well-being. And it is a common myth that because of a communist background, the collectivism helps to bring people together,” Chadwick notes. While Iran, Saudi Arabia, Japan and Korea lead Asia in team sports, Chadwick believes China might want to look at recent Saudi efforts to free football clubs from state control. “Saudi has gone ahead and privatised the top successful clubs. There are lessons there about excessive state intervention – and keep in mind I’m not arguing here for excessive free market economy for governing Chinese football. But a mixed economy is the best way to put it. Mixed economy of Chinese football needs to be strengthened. So football needs to be far less a state instrument. And far more a social democratic institution.”

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