China leaders desperate to improve national team

Already pressed to keep the economy humming and ensure political stability, China’s leaders have another worry: How to raise the deplorable state of the national football team.

Members of the central leadership have recently grown “extremely concerned” about the state of the team, Deputy Sports Minister Xiao Tian was quoted as saying in an interview with state media on Monday.

“Society and the ordinary people are not satisfied and the pressure on us is great,” Xiao said. “We need to quickly come up with some methods of resolving this problem and engineering a turn around both in the level of football and the football market.”

Xiao did not say which government officials had registered their concern, but his comments follow remarks on the state of Chinese football by Vice President Xi Jinping earlier this month.

“Why is it that we can win a gold medal in pretty much every other sport but football,” Xi was quoted as saying while on a visit to Germany. “We’ve got to resolve to do something to raise it up, but this is going to take a long time.”

Cabinet member Liu Yandong was also recently quoted as calling for “reform and development” of Chinese football along scientific lines. She didn’t say how that would work.

Despite topping the gold medal tallies at the Beijing Olympics last year, China and its famed sports schools have failed to produce much football talent.

China’s two earliest exports to European football fared well, with Sun Jihai and Fan Zhiyi joining Crystal Palace in England in 1998, but since then nobody has reached any great heights in Europe.

Defender Sun played 130 matches for Manchester City in six seasons after leaving Palace but was troubled by injuries and finished his stint in England last season with Sheffield United.

Fan, a stalwart of the national team, played 88 matches for Crystal Palace between ’98 and 2001 and was captain of the team at times.

China’s poor showing on the international stage and lack of individual stars has been a constant source of frustration both for Chinese fans and those who follow the game. The national team is currently ranked No. 102 in the world, squeezed in between the Cape Verde Islands and Estonia.

China was knocked out of 2010 World Cup qualifying last year, failing to make the top 10 sides in Asia. In its only World Cup appearance, in 2002, China lost all three games while failing to score a single goal.

Xiao said his bureau bore some responsibility for the failures, but seemed to lay the blame mainly on the professional league that has generated a seemingly endless stream of chaos, controversy, and scandal.

Professional teams are run by private businesses whose decisions on the field are driven primarily by the profit motive and not the desire to nurture talent and win matches, Xiao said.

“At the same time, the sports bureaus are powerless to intervene. This is something we need to fix,” Xiao said. “The level of Chinese football is low, young players are fewer and fewer – there’s no question that it’s a problem, everyone can see that.”

Although football remains hugely popular in China, many fans have given up on the local teams and instead closely follow the professional leagues in England, Spain, Germany and Italy.

Newly appointed national team coach Gao Hongbo has set qualification for the 2014 World Cup as a target in his quest to revitalize the beleaguered team.

Gao’s selection marks a return to Chinese coaches after experimenting with a string of foreigners, most successfully under Bora Milutinovic in 2000-2002.