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China cannot rely on the numbers game

Just last week China ended Japan's four-decade occupation of second spot in the global economic league and the continued rise of the Middle Kingdom to become the world's biggest economy is regarded as inevitable. The United States is still streets ahead but according to different models, that gap will disappear faster than Beijing's famed old Hutongs. In uncertain economic times, the growth of China, already the planet's No. 1 exporter, has been, so far, a constant. In football terms though, China is barely even an Asian power, never mind a global one. That is still forecasted - with a regular refrain that goes something like "with more than a billion people it is only a matter of time before they find eleven good players" - but it is by no means a given. Exports to Europe, such as they were, have dried up, domestic demand has stagnated somewhat and in June, when football's G32 met in South Africa, China had to watch from the sidelines. When it comes to reasons why, it's hard to know where to start and, as far as the beautiful game goes, many children never do. The competitive nature of society means that taking up football is a huge risk for youngsters. In a way much more direct than in the west, the schools you attend in China go a long way to determining what university you go to and that goes even further to determining what kind of job you get. A kickabout may be fun but is not often seen as a productive way to spend time when there is study to do. As Bora Milutinovic, the man who took China to their only World Cup back in 2002 once said: "In football two plus two doesn't always equal four". Investing in football doesn't bring set or certain returns. The government has seen individual sports as quicker and more reliable routes to glory and Olympic golds - an understandable policy perhaps when you see that since Seoul 1988, China's golden return has increased from five to 51. But it is not just the government. Stories abound of parents not only pushing their offspring (and having one child often encourages such pushiness) to take up golf or tennis but mortgaging their futures to ensure they get the best coaching. Good golf courses are plentiful (such is the growth of golf, banned until the eighties for being too bourgeois, that just on the island of Hainan alone it is predicted there will soon be over 100 courses) but well-maintained grass pitches are still uncommon. There may be 1.3 billion people but not many play on a regular basis. But still, children in South Korea, and to a lesser extent, Japan, two nations with continued success on the Asian and global stages, would recognise such a system. And if you were to ask why North Korea, a nation with an amateur league, poor facilities and little exposure to international football, can qualify for the World Cup but China can't, you will struggle to get an answer - though perhaps in this case, there isn't one, merely an exception that proves the rule. You can argue about the social, cultural and economic factors but corruption, a disease that is almost as dangerous in suggestion as it is in actuality, is a problem. Outbreaks of this are perhaps the only thing about Chinese football consistently reported by the international media. Wei Di replaced Nan Yong as president of the Chinese Football Association (CFA) in January after Nan was questioned by police over match-fixing. Wei has promised transparency and accountability but it will take time to make the changes and even longer to win the trust of the fans and journalists who perhaps more than any other in Asia look down on the local league. Looking up has been a problem. It is not only that previously in China, too much has been focused on building football from the top-down rather than the bottom-up but it is an attitude that has been harder to shift than elsewhere. The constant changing of officials, which is just as damaging as the rapid turnover of national team coaches, is a frustration for sponsors. Companies that have invested (and continue to invest) significant sums of money complain at having to deal with different people every time they try to discuss long-term strategy. It is easy to list the problems and speculate as to the reasons why. Much more difficult is trying to find solutions. Changing the nation's education system and cultural habits is not really something the CFA can do, closely linked to the government though it is. Much is about the grass-roots. Investing in areas further down the pyramid is wise and with the help of a private sector keen to gain access to young Chinese consumers, not difficult from a financial point of view. China's size makes implementing a nationwide system tough to organise and maintain but it is something that is at last beginning to take shape. Helping kids to play the game in large numbers is the goal. It is all about numbers in China and when it comes to football statistics; it is not all doom and gloom. The latent passion is there for the local game, especially in hotbeds such as Xi'an. Here, crowds of 50,000 are not unheard of, despite a relative lack of success and despite an almost complete absence of away support. Beijing Guoan averaged 38,000 in 2009. The national team under Gao Hongbo is younger, fresher and hungrier than before, has enjoyed some excellent results in 2010 - a 3-0 win over South Korea and goalless draw with Japan in Tokyo look more impressive after the events of June, even if the 1-0 win over France does not - and has given fans something to be proud of. There may be too much focus on the national team when it comes to looking at China's domestic health, but there can be no doubt that all levels of the game benefit when the best eleven does well. They will get a chance to show what they are made of at the 2011 Asian Cup in less than five months' time. CFA chief Wei is demanding nothing at that tournament. "As long as the China national team shows its real technical standard and a good fighting spirit, I'm ok with it," he said recently and added, "Football is a long-term development project and it just does not make sense if I or CFA are in a hurry." If Wei can find a way to stick to that statement and implement a genuine and sustainable long-term vision for football in China, that really would be an achievement as impressive as any in his nation's rise to economic superstardom.

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