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China’s football crisis shows money can’t buy success

Beijing (AFP) – China’s latest football defeat has left the country’s World Cup hopes in tatters, led the national team’s coach to fall on his sword and even prompted state media to ask if the programme should start again from scratch.

China coach Gao Hongbo announced his resignation at a press conference in Tashkent following a 2-0 defeat to Uzbekistan on Tuesday night, the latest in a string of humiliations, including a World Cup qualifying defeat at home to war-ravaged Syria a week ago.

China’s crisis — they have lost three of their World Cup qualifying matches and are bottom of Asian qualifying Group A — comes as huge sums of money are thrown at the game in the hope that cold hard cash can end years of underachievement.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s call for the country to host and win a World Cup by 2050 has triggered a flood of investments by eager-to-please executives.

Enormous sums — more than 400 million euros ($440 million) this year — have been splashed on bringing in foreign players to the Chinese Super League.

And companies from the world’s second largest economy have either bought outright or taken out huge investments in clubs in Italy, England and Spain.

– ‘Start again from zero’ –

The massive injection of capital has done nothing to raise the standard of the national team, making both fans and even state media second-guess the country’s game plan.

“Should Chinese football start again from zero?” asked a provocatively titled op-ed on the website of the People’s Daily.

The amount of money being spent on the sport covers up fundamental weaknesses, the article said Wednesday, creating an illusion of progress when in fact it was just “marking time or going backwards”.

On Thursday, the state-owned China Daily cautioned that Chinese companies should “invest carefully in European soccer”.

Mark Dreyer, a Beijing-based sports analyst, agrees.

“Investments in importing foreign stars to the CSL and in acquiring football clubs have made headlines, but have almost nothing to do with improving the fortunes of the national team,” he said.

China’s national team are ranked a lowly 78th in the world by FIFA — just below the Caribbean island nation of St Kitts and Nevis, population 50,726 — and have qualified for the World Cup only once in 2002 when they lost every match and failed to score a goal. 

“Simply put, the Chinese players are not good enough to qualify for the World Cup and no manager in the world… could realistically be expected to change that,” Dreyer said.

The government’s increased focus on getting into the team to the FIFA showpiece has only “increased the pressure on players and officials”, he added. 

– Next generation –

Chinese fans and officials need to resign themselves to at least another decade of disappointment, according to commentators who follow the country’s football programmes.

The Asian giant has made improving youth football programmes a national priority, with an official plan promising 20,000 academies and 30 million elementary and middle school pupils playing the sport within four years.

The goal is to make China one of the world’s top sides by 2050, the document said, to bring to life “the sports-superpower dream”.

From the far western region of Xinjiang to the capital, schools are making the beautiful game an integral part of their physical education curriculum.

China has the right ingredients for success, said Marcus Luer, founder and CEO of marketing agency Total Sports Asia: “Deep human resources, money‎, political will and hungry athletes.”

The question is how they were managed: “They need to be put into the right structure and results will show.”

But even under a best case scenario, such initiatives will take time to show results, he added.

“It’s a process which will take time, patience and money. It normally takes at least 10 years of methodical planning before you see a major turnaround in sports.”

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