Sliding Into Obscurity

Chinese soccer has long been a running joke domestically, but while things looked like they were improving for a little while, the current situation is more dire than ever before. Some of the events that brought China to this point:
  • Failure to advance from the group stage at Asia Cup 2007
  • the Women's squad losing in the quarterfinals at the Women's World Cup 2007 (hosted by China)
  • Failure to advance out of the first round of World Cup Qualifying earlier this year
  • The Women losing to Japan (of all teams) and bowing out at the Olympics
  • Firing the Olympics coach less than a month before the start of the tournament
  • The Men's team earning only 1 point (and only scoring 1 goal) in 3 games at the Olympics
  • The Wuhan scandal that has plagued the domestic Chinese Superleague this season
  • China's FIFA ranking dropping to 97th, down from 73rd in July 2007

In the leadup to the Asia Cup in 2007, there was a lot of hope for Chinese soccer. The domestic league appeared to have fully recovered after the "Black Whistles" scandal and corruption of a few years before and big crowds were turning out. A number of Chinese internationals were finding success in Europe, the men's team looked good going into the Asia Cup, and the Women's World Cup would take place in China.

The picture today is an absolute disaster, the men's team is without a legitimate coach, the domestic league is in turmoil and is being ignored again, the majority of internationals have returned or gone to lesser European clubs, and the women's team is experiencing lean times.

Xie Yalong was (rightfully so) pushed out of his position at the top of the Chinese Football Association (CFA) only a month ago. Calls for his head have been sounded for a year, though they got so loud during the Olympics, even when China wasn't on the pitch, that it became a sort of web/sms joke. It got so bad that during the Paralympics soccer competition, fans could be heard shouting "Xie Yalong xia ke" and a number of websites and forums have been created using this name. The length of time it took the CFA to finally dump Xie and his own surprised reaction to finding out he was being removed says more than anything about how out of touch with the public the CFA has become.

When Fan Zhiyi, the former Chinese captain who led the squad during the World Cup 2002, was asked if he'd be interested in heading up the CFA, he basically said "no chance in hell" as the fan's expectations are so high and the CFA structure is such that success is near impossible.

The CFA is calling for reform of Chinese soccer and forming a new squad in December to prepare for Asia Cup qualifying, which is to begin in January, but all of this sounds so familiar. Part of the problem is the form, the CFA is stuck as a governmental department under the National Sports Administration. Bureaucrats like Xie are regularly appointed to take charge, instead of people with actual soccer knowledge or success. Past failure and snap decisions by the CFA has led to an environment in which no coach would feel comfortable and so no matter how much money is offered, it will be impossible for China to lure a top, international coach to try his hand at turning the national team around.

So what comes next? Will a former national hero like Hao Haidong have the power to reform things or will his regional connection to Dalian further divide the national squad? Will the CFA be able to find a foreigner with a solid resume to revolutionize the current squad or will such an individual be stifled by the CFA's red tape?

Even for the most optimistic of fans, the future looks dismal.

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