Ball Out of Play
A nation of football lovers, China lacks a team strong enough to reach the FIFA World Cup
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Cover Stories Series 2014> Football Fever> Archive
UPDATED: November 25, 2013 NO. 48 NOVEMBER 28, 2013
Faith in Chinese Football
A football coach remains confident that the Chinese national team will find success in the future
By Ni Yanshuo

DRAWING DEFEAT: China holds Saudi Arabia to a goaless draw at the AFC Asian Cup 2015 qualifiers in Xi'an, northwest China's Shaanxi Province, on November 19 (GUO YONG)

For years, Chinese football fans have suffered the pain and embarrassment of watching their men's national team fail consistently. China was eliminated before the final stages of the 2014 FIFA (International Federation of Football Associations) World Cup qualifiers, and hasn't made it to the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Asian Cup quarterfinals since 2004. According to FIFA statistics released in October, the Chinese national team ranked 97th out of the 207 competing globally, and is the ninth in Asia.

"It's really a shame that China, with a population of more than 1.3 billion, cannot find 11 people that can do a better job of playing football," Chen Wanyuan, an advocate for supporting a proliferating football culture, told Beijing Review.

Chen, 62, has been engaged in football for nearly 50 years, first in north China's Shanxi Province and then in Beijing. Now, he works for Yinchao Football Club, a training organization for children in Beijing. According to Chen, the blame for the dismal showing of the national side should be placed squarely at the door of the China Football Association (CFA), the top football body in the country.

"The football authority is shortsighted as it focuses on the national football team only for a quick success, but usually gets the results that run counter to its wishes," Chen said.

Core issues

The facts back up Chen's claim. Since the first FIFA World Cup was held in 1930, the Chinese team has qualified for the final tournament only once, in 2002. That year the event was jointly held by China's neighbors, Japan and South Korea, though China's national team lost all three of its matches at the event, failing to score a single goal.

Chen said that only if the CFA looks ahead and focuses more of its efforts on training talented players from younger generations, can it ensure a national team that performs.

Chen played football on behalf of Beijing when he was in primary and junior middle school. "I played football when I was a boy, and I personally know that childhood is a very important period for football players if they want to lay a solid foundation for the rest of their career," he said. During the years he worked in Shanxi, he coached children playing football whenever he had free time.

In 1990, Chen came back to Beijing and worked at the Sports Commission of suburban Tongzhou District and later for the CFA, where he was in charge of promoting football among children and young people. Two years ago, he retired, but he continued his work as a coach training young footballers.

"China will never achieve success in its national football team unless it popularizes the sport among children," Chen said. "Though the CFA realizes the problem, no one in the association ever does the work needed in a down-to-earth way."

Insufficient exposure to football while children are still young has a direct correlation to poor football proficiency among adults. "We cannot find enough children that are interested in football and we cannot find enough football pitches for them. Schools focus too much on students' studies and ignore their physical development," Chen said.

According to a survey conducted in 18 primary schools in Beijing's Haidian District by the city's education and sports authorities in May, only four of the schools have standard football pitches and only three have football courses in their curriculum.

"The schools should reduce students' homework load so that they can go out and play. Otherwise, Chinese football can never develop," Chen said.

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