Chinese athletes' impressive performance at the last two Olympic Games showed us how far China has come in the world of international sports. But the Chinese football team's failure to qualify for the World Cup reminds us how far China still has to go. This assessment aims not to critique the Chinese football team, but calls on China to keep moving its sports policies forward by rethinking its approach.
China's record-breaking gold medal count at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, amassed through achievements in events that China traditionally excels in and ones that are more unexpected, proved that it has the willpower and ability to shine in almost any sport. Football should be no exception.
Through the Beijing Olympics and this year's World Cup, we have witnessed how sports is a potent symbol of changing global dynamics. Events like the Olympics and the World Cup should be characterized as "sports-centered events" rather than just "sports events". They not only unite sports fans across political divisions, but also create opportunities for people to learn about other cultures.
Whenever a country hosts an event like the Olympics or the World Cup, it draws international spotlight. The sponsoring bodies, International Olympic Committee and International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), have keenly recognized the need to broaden the stage of international sports events to previously under-represented regions, namely China, South America and Africa.
Despite China achieving numerous milestones in recent years, Chinese fans, for better or worse, are still impatient. I urge fans of Chinese football to recognize that it takes time to build a strong team that is supported by a solid foundation of a national football culture. Given how much progress China has made in sports that it has only recently acquired, it makes sense for football to take cues from those sports and start its program from scratch. Compared with Europe, Chinese football is in its infancy, which can be a great advantage rather than a handicap.
I think China already possesses some unique characteristics that are conducive to nurturing football culture. The first comes straight from the generous spirit of its people. Even though many Chinese fans hang their heads in shame because the Chinese football team isn't competing in South Africa, I see a positive side effect to China's absence from the 2010 World Cup.
According to reports in China Daily, Chinese football fans, despite their disappointment, have demonstrated admirable sportsmanship by cheering on their East Asian neighbors, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the Republic of Korea and Japan. Chinese football fans' ability to rise above politics in the name of sports predisposes them as good fans who will support domestic regional teams with the right spirit. Second, Chinese television has been immensely successful in reaching the public through savvy business partnerships. The creation of a national football league will tap into existing business networks and create tremendous opportunities for sponsors and media outlets.
As for the mechanics of building China's football program from the ground up, it is essential that China keep its nationalism at bay in the interest of developing the best possible football program. During this developmental phase, China should use its resources to attract top international coaches in order to build a strong, skill-based foundation complete with well-developed regional centers all over China.