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Is a title challenge possible for Man Utd?

Manchester United
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China struggling to compete in global game

As a nation, the Chinese boast some of the most passionate fans around. Whether it's cheering on Yao Ming in the NBA, or Ding Junhui in snooker, one of the world's busiest countries has always shown a passion for sport. Except, that is, when it comes to domestic football.

While the attraction of a World Cup, Champions League or Premier League fixture remains a big draw in terms of getting people to watch the sport, China's Super League (CSL) is on a downward spiral that could ultimately lead to its demise.

For a nation of 1.3 billion it is an odd state of affairs. Culturally, socially and financially China seems ideally placed to reap the benefits of the global boom in the sport. Yet, despite many projecting the country's rise over the past few years, it has never happened and the finger of blame has been pointed at the national team.

The side won't be at the 2010 World Cup after being knocked out in Asian qualifying in the Third Round and they did not make the knockout stages of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing either, with China's official news agency Xinhua maintaining that they "failed disgracefully" in their inability to beat the likes of Belgium and New Zealand.

Indeed, the only time China have qualified for the World Cup was in 2002 and even then it lost all three games and failed to score a single goal. While it remains a great honour to play for your country, many now see the Chinese national side, not as a source of national pride, but of embarrassment.

The team is nicknamed guo zhu, or "national pigs", because it is phonetically close to the phrase for "national team", guo zu; and they were derided by the Chinese media for a 'sex scandal' during the Olympics which saw three players reportedly take girls back to their hotel rooms before the defeat to Brazil.

Furthermore, local media reported last month that CSL runners-up Beijing Guo'an had shelved a plan to play their home games at the country's top Olympic venue, the Bird's Nest stadium, because they didn't want to bring shame to it with their "low-level" football.

Evidently fans are voting with their feet. An average attendance of around 10,000 would look out of place in a stadium built for 80,000 and many have grown disillusioned by match-fixing scandals and poor crowd behaviour.

While the Olympics were seen as a great success around the globe, football still has a long way to go, but the problems in China cannot be attributed solely to the failure of the national side. It is hardly their fault if there has been no established framework at grassroots level and, domestically, the country has been unable to locate the kind of stars that could help promote the game to a larger audience.

The state-run sports machine, which produced 51 Olympic gold medals, boasts the likes of Charlton Athletic's Zheng Zhi or Dong Fangzhuo - a player who made just one Premier League appearance in four and a half years on Manchester United's books - but little else.

In an effort to boost interest in the game, China created a reality television programme called 'Soccer Prince' last year, which resulted in Everton signing one of the winners, a 19-year-old named Jin Hui, with two others joining Bolton Wanderers and Nottingham Forest.

With an estimated audience of 130 million, the programme's intentions are honourable in the development of young players, but the reality of the situation is that those who try to progress football in the country will always be fighting an uphill battle.

One of the main problems is violence. A high profile brawl between the Chinese Olympic side (in the UK to foster Far-East links with Chelsea) and QPR during a game in 2007 saw seven players sent home in disgrace after the referee was forced to abandon the match 15 minutes before full-time. Hardly the right kind of PR needed for a side already under pressure.

But it is not any better domestically. The China News Agency recently likened Super League games to "a Kungfu movie" and some players to "martial arts heroes," after clubs from Beijing and the neighbouring city of Tianjin were embroiled in an on-pitch battle as both sides pushed to qualify for the Asian Champions' League.

As a result the country's government-run broadcaster - ironically named CCTV - has taken top CSL games off the air, with the channel's controller, Jiang Heping, providing a stinging assessment of the Chinese game.

"There is so much negative news for every round of games," he told the Titan Sports newspaper. "Is there any 'professional' style in such league matches? Some players lack basic professional ethics. Their behaviour is embarrassing for TV audiences and more embarrassing for football, the noble profession."

While the measure of removing games is only a temporary one, it may force the authorities to take a closer look at a league that has also been blighted by crowd trouble, gambling and match-fixing allegations.

The most high profile case came in 2003 when a Beijing court found referee Gong Jianping guilty of accepting bribes and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. Since then the CSL have attempted to ensure fairness by using referees from other nations in the Asian Football Confederation, but have been unable to remove the stench of corruption from the game.

The worst fears of many were realised when Chi Shangbin, sacked as coach of Shenzhen Jianlibao in 2005, claimed that his former players (some of whom were Chinese internationals) had "the power to control a match" and were "behaving like gangsters."

Allegations of corruption in the CSL can be seen as one of the main reasons for driving the league's fan-base away, as many of those who continue to go to matches often chant "black whistle" every time a referee makes a dubious decision in favour of an opposing team.

Worries over illegal gambling syndicates may have its effect on the fans, but they have also been guilty of violence, with armed police called in on more than one occasion to break up trouble in the stands.

With such problems it is hard to see how the world's most populous country can ever truly embrace the world's most popular game.

The country still fosters hopes of winning a bid for the 2018 or 2022 World Cup, but with a national team ranked 98th in the world (just ahead of Georgia and Barbados) and ever-increasing problems in their domestic league, it seems there is still a lot of work to be done before the ''embarrassment'' is forgotten.

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