Chen Weihua

Soccer mania in China limited to TV

By Chen Weihua (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-06-15 07:27
Large Medium Small

Many people think Americans hate soccer. That was mostly true years or a decade ago.

I remember observing an editorial meeting at the Time magazine in New York in May 1994 when the chiefs decided not to use the World Cup coverage in the domestic edition.

The editor ruled that Americans were simply not interested. And that year, the United States was hosting the FIFA event for the first time.

Just five years ago, at an American football game in Stanford, California, the man sitting next to me, ironically an immigrant who arrived from Europe some 40 years ago, scoffed at how boring and girlie soccer was in comparison with American football.

All these seemed long absent Saturday afternoon when I tried to get into the spacious Stout sports bar in New York for the US versus England match.

It was already fully packed and was admitting no more customers. Despite this, there was still a long line waiting outside. I opted for a less crowded (albeit crowded) bar next door.

In fact, many of the bars in Manhattan are running full these days due to the World Cup fever. They have prepared well for the influx of fans by adding multiple large TV screens and more waitresses.

These days the South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan looks like a real soccer kingdom, with large screens outdoors and daily World Cup parties in bars and restaurants. A small soccer pitch has also been set up by the sports goods manufacturer Puma.

You definitely encounter little hate or scorn for soccer, and only love, spirit and passion for the world's most popular sport.

Although soccer is still far less popular than baseball, American football, basketball and ice hockey in the US, Americans have come a long way in accepting and welcoming soccer. The sport has become ever more popular on US campuses in recent years. And the US national team has qualified for the World Cup finals a couple of times in recent decades.

What is puzzling and humiliating is that the Chinese national team has never really "qualified" despite the soccer mania across the nation. It only played in the World Cup finals in 2002 when Japan and South Korea as host countries did not have to compete for Asia's quota.

China has more soccer fans than any other country in the world. And soccer is also far more loved than ping-pong or badminton, which Chinese are good at. The frenzy for soccer has continued regardless of the poor record of its national team and the various scandals involving match fixing, gambling by players and bribing of referees and officials at club and national levels.

It was reported that 16 percent of the world's TV viewers of last week's opening game between South Africa and Mexico were Chinese.

Yet, that soccer craze seems to be limited to TV screens only. While quite a few may blame the appalling corruption in soccer for the setback of the sport, a lack of soccer fields available and affordable to the public is the root cause.

Of the limited number of soccer fields in cities like Shanghai and Beijing, the one-hour rent could easily run between 500 yuan ($73) to 2,000 yuan, an astronomical sum for children and a big sum for adults as well. The high fees and a shortage of fields have curbed the growth of this sport at grass-roots level.

Meanwhile, in Flushing Meadow east of Manhattan, elementary and high school students play league matches every afternoon this season in the several green soccer fields there. In fact, everyone can use the field and it is completely free.

My colleagues and I, who have been utilizing the beautiful turf a lot this year, cannot believe that we are playing in a pitch that looks like the one in Shanghai's Hongkou Stadium or the one in the University of International Business and Economics opposite my Beijing office, which charges about $200 per hour.

Unless China builds and opens more soccer fields to its people, the country's soccer ambition and mania would never go beyond the TV screens.

(China Daily 06/15/2010 page4)