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China men's water polo team out of its depth

By Sun Xiaochen | China Daily | Updated: 2011-08-01 08:16

SHANGHAI - Due to lackluster international performances, the Chinese men's water polo team plays in the shadow of its eye-catching swimming and diving compatriots.

Not to mention the fact that the women's team has made it into Friday's final against Greece.

Providing the cheapest tickets at the Shanghai World Championships, water polo drew little interest and the media area at the stadium was always quiet as few people ever worked there, while the mixed zones and conference rooms at the diving and swimming venues were packed all-day long.

However, the players remained upbeat despite the lack of attention.

"No focus on us? Yeah, that's true. Anyway, it's fair because we do not have any dazzling results yet. No trophy, no attention. It's natural," said the team's veteran goalkeeper, Ge Weiqing, after it lost all three of its group matches and missed out on finishing in the top 12.

Accepting the team's lowly status, Ge, 34, is fully aware of the difficulties and expects no sudden improvements.

"The European counties are so strong because they all play in developed professional leagues. But we have only four teams domestically. We play less than 20 games each year while they have more than 50 on their schedules," Ge said.

Drawn in a tough group with world champion Serbia and powerhouses Australia and Romania at the Shanghai event, Ge and his 14-member team aim to tune up for next January's Asian Zone Olympic preliminaries, which will generate only one berth for London.

After China finished 15th in the 16-team tournament with only one victory, head coach, Cai Tianxiong, sees a clear gap between his team and the world's best, but feels helpless to narrow it down.

"We have no market, no sponsor, no broadcasting and no policy support. If not for the National Games, the sport would have disappeared in the country," said Cai.

Despite the current low, the hugely physically demanding sport hit a peak in China in the 1980s when the men's team finished ninth at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics and 12 teams played in the domestic tournament.

After slumping to 12th at the 2008 Beijing Games and the 2009 Rome worlds, the sport's decline has been attributed to a lack of experienced coaches and a shrinking talent pool, said team leader Li Xiangdong.

"We have only about 100 athletes to select from for the national team. And most of the players won't go into coaching after retirement due to poor pay," Li said.

According to Ge, his average salary each month is 2,000 yuan ($309) and the coaches usually earn less than that.

However, Cai and his fellow team members are confident the event will gain in popularity after the women's team stormed into the Shanghai worlds' final for the first time under the guidance of Spanish "water polo godfather", Juan Jane Giralt.

The men also plan to hire foreign coaches and have formed a partnership with the Serbian swimming association to send leading players to its professional league, said Li.

"We know it's not going to change in a short time, but we will never give up," said captain, Li Bin.

China Daily

(China Daily 08/01/2011 page23)

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