China the great underachiever looks to punch at its weight

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Roving writer Stefan Bienkowski peeks behind the bamboo curtain to see if a potential sleeping giant is waking up...

Has there been a more contrasting story than that of modern China and its struggling football team? When admiring the increasingly dominant economic power and its athletic achievements at the last Olympics, you would be forgiven for assuming such athletic poise reached all regions of its sporting landscape, including football.

Unfortunately, that isn’t the case, and as with many countries in this part of the world, China’s anxious attempts to get the domestic game up and running have been set back by people looking to take advantage of a naive institution in a desperate situation.

For a country with a population of 1.3 billion – as many as there are in the entirety of Africa and South America – China redefines g‘underperforming’ and has found itself in quite a mess.

The root of the problems began within the Chinese FA itself. The arrest of seven officials on suspicion of match-fixing has snowballed into a nationwide investigation, arresting a grand total of 22 individuals ranging from club presidents to referees to former top players. The scandal eventually led to the relegation of two top-flight clubs.

Although betting in any form is illegal in China, foreign-based online betting companies make billions each year from gambling cartels fixing matches.

Despite the attempts to clean up Chinese football, many think match-fixing and bribery will always exist. Left to their own accord under the great shadow of European football, markets like Asian football are often ideal breeding grounds for betting rings and money-laundering. The locals have a term, ‘Black Whistles’, to describe their corrupt referees and rigged games.

Chinese FA chief Wei Di pledges to end the corruption

As concerning a situation as it is, one would be forgiven for misinterpreting the Chinese approach to the problem as little more than a bemused reluctance to confront the deep-lying crisis throughout their game, a preference for the quick fix rather than addressing the long-term concerns of youth programs and league structure.

Yet the troubles don’t stop there. Earlier this year, the official league sponsor Pirelli decided to drop their investment after persistent legal troubles surrounding the association. Crucially, China Central Television chose to stop showing Super League games, leaving the league to begin the domestic calendar with no sponsor and no televised games.

It's a sorry state of affairs, but the Chinese already know how to make a success of sport – witness the Olympic Games. However, for the domestic league and national team to succeed, Chinese football must start from the grassroots up.

There is a belief within the country that football is counter-productive – and certainly since the league's professional introduction in 1994, the football association and government have done little to encourage parents of the cultural significance of the sport, in contrast to their promotions of Olympic sports.

Small initiatives have began sprouting up throughout the country – particularly in the Shandong region, where local schools have started integrating football within the kung-fu curriculum. Similarly a number of Beijing schools have begun setting area aside for local football pitches.

It remains to be seen whether the rest of the country catches on, but if so, the world had better watch out. FIFA figures from last year stating that a mere 2% of the population participate in the sport at any level – one of the lowest in the world. Imagine if China matched Costa Rica's planet-leading 23% participation rate…