The Chinese men's national soccer team's accomplishments, or lack thereof, stand in stark contrast with those of its two biggest Asian rivals, Japan and South Korea.
Both Japan and South Korea played at this year's World Cup in South Africa. The two both qualified for the second round of the biggest tournament of the beautiful game. And rubbing salt in China's wounded pride, even its penniless neighbor North Korea won respect by scoring against top-ranked Brazil in a 1-2 loss.
The Chinese men's soccer team is a sort of running joke. A popular online joke goes that when the team asks God when it will win the World Cup, God cries and runs away.
China has more than 1.3 billion people. But it seemingly cannot produce a squad of 23 men good enough to qualify for the World Cup.
China's sports system is much to blame.
With China's top-down management system, the general bureau of sport is responsible for the country's soccer development plans. Young, athletically gifted children are selected to enter sports schools. And those who do well are sent to provincial and national teams to become professionals and compete in international tournaments.
The system, which originated in the Soviet Union, focuses more on training individuals of talent to win awards than on making sports popular. But Chinese athletes winning many awards does little to help the overall development of sports in the country. A country's long-term success in a sport requires the sport be popular with a broad section of the population, not just a few top athletes. China always excels at table tennis, for example, because the huge number of Chinese amateur players ensures an ample talent pool.
China's sports system also inherently favors repetitive development of individual skills. So China easily dominates sports such as badminton, gymnastics and diving. Soccer, the "king of sports", requires not only talent, speed, strength and skills, but also cooperation, strategy and the right mentality between players and coaches. It is too hard for an individual-oriented top-down management system to develop players with all these qualities.
Soccer is the most widely played sport in the world and most countries that are good at it are at the top of the game because the sport is hugely popular among their general populations. Children in Brazil play soccer on the street and the beach every day. Their spontaneous practice helps them to gain outstanding skills long before they are selected to receive further training in professional programs.
China has a large number of soccer fans. Chinese people are said to have played the game for more than 1,000 years. But soccer is not popular among Chinese children right now. China's academic-oriented education system and the lack of playing fields in the country's dense urban areas curb the sport's development. Besides, unlike basketball, Chinese soccer offers no idols for children to follow.
There are other reasons for the failure of Chinese soccer.
More than 20 Chinese soccer officials, referees and players were arrested in fall in 2009 on charges of match fixing and gambling. Corruption does nothing to make the game more popular among Chinese people and may turn talented athletes to other sports.
Soccer is just a sport. Few people in other countries care that their table tennis players are not as good as ours, so we shouldn't care too much that our soccer players are not as good as theirs. Why not appreciate the beautiful game as it is?