Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Chinese football is in nobody's court

By Xin Zhiming (China Daily) Updated: 2014-01-24 07:13

Cai Zhenhua is a much-loved figure in China, both as a former world table tennis champion and coach of the national team. Before he took over as coach, the Chinese men's table tennis team had been pushed by European players to play second fiddle in international competitions. His leadership, from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, however, ensured that the Chinese squad regained its unconquerable position.

Little wonder then that Chinese soccer fans have high expectation from Cai, now that he has been appointed as chairman of the Chinese Football Association. But Chinese soccer fans need to be realistic.

Cai, given his accomplishments as a world-class table tennis player and outstanding manager, is the right person to build a strong national men's soccer team. Yet the Chinese men's soccer team has a history of letting down the largest group of soccer fans in the world, irrespective of the person in charge. Can Cai really change history? We hope he can.

Still, the core problem of Chinese soccer has little to do with who is in charge of the national governing body. The core problem is whether the country has a pool of young soccer talents and a high-quality league for them to showcase their skills. All the top soccer powers in the world rely on these two aspects to build their national teams. China should be no exception if it wants to excel even in Asia, which lags behind Europe and Latin America in soccer.

But returns in sport, as in any other field, cannot be instant. It takes time, money and energy to cultivate young players.

The Chinese football league started in the 1990s. Since it is young compared with other countries' leagues, a long-term strategy still does not figure high on the agenda of many decision-makers in the league, such as CFA policymakers, club managers and investors and local officials. What they care most about is how to make the national or club teams win more titles or how to get greater returns on their investment, instead of focusing on how to train young players at different levels to ensure the long-term strength of the senior team.

For many years, therefore, decision-makers in soccer governing bodies have prioritized selecting good adult players, famous coaches, or, in the latest case, a soccer ambassador, with the aim of fast-tracking the national or club team to success.

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