Big china footie

ONE of the most dismal days in the history of Chinese national football was June 15th 2013, President Xi Jinping’s 60th birthday. Having lost to Uzbekistan and Holland in friendly matches earlier that month, China were thrashed 5-1 at home by a Thai youth team. Furious Chinese fans swarmed around China’s Spanish coach, José Antonio Camacho and smashed cars. Mr Camacho resigned.

Men’s football in China is a national shame. In FIFA’s world rankings China’s male players rank 88th; below Estonia, a country whose 1.3m people could fit with room to spare inside a Beijing suburb. China qualified for the World Cup once, in 2002, but failed to score. Its domestic league is blackened by tales of match-fixing and bribery. Investment in expensive foreign coaches has not been much help.

Mr Xi wants to change this. He has been a football fan since childhood, when he played for his school team. During his early career he attended weekend matches. He was in the crowd at a Shanghai stadium in 1983 when China lost 5-1 to Watford, a British club. (The People’s Daily, a party-run newspaper, says Mr Xi was enraged.) At a meeting in 2011 with South Korean leaders, when he was still vice-president, Mr Xi expressed three wishes: for China to qualify for, host and win a World Cup.

The country’s rise as a football power might have just begun. On November 27th it was announced that football would become a compulsory part of the national curriculum at schools. Wang Dengfeng, an education official, said improving the standard of football in China must “start with children”. By 2017 some 20,000 schools are to receive new football pitches and training facilities, with the aim of creating 100,000 new players. In 2016 football will become an option in the national university-entrance exam. This could help overcome resistance among parents to their children being distracted from their academic studies by ball-kicking.

The capital, Beijing, is pioneering these efforts. Its education bureau already has a football consultant, Tom Byer, an American who has worked to boost grassroots football-playing in Japan. Mr Byer says he is “very optimistic that the Chinese government is headed in the right direction”. He could be right: if more Chinese children are exposed to football, a far stronger corps of elite players will surely emerge—though not in time for Mr Xi’s next birthday.

 

Link to The Economist