By Elaine Dunn
Xi Jinping has propagated his “Chinese Dream” since 2012. But, being a BIG soccer fan, he has been sowing seeds for another dream to become reality - a dream soccer team. In January 2016, China published its first soccer instruction kindergarten textbook nationwide. There also are textbooks for middle and senior grades. Soccer has become serious business officially.
Chinese are competitive. However, much to the chagrin of the country's soccer fans, the Chinese national team has only qualified for the World Cup once, in 2002, where it failed to score a single goal and was eliminated in the group stage! During the 2014 World Cup opening match, there was a single fan waving a Chinese flag in the stadium. That met with mixed sentiments on the Internet. "Does he mean to remind the entire world that China failed to qualify?" was one pointed comment! Ouch.
As if that’s not bad enough, the sport has been riddled with scandals -- scandals that have paralleled China's decline in the sport's world rankings. The men's national team was ranked No. 37 in December 1998 by FIFA, the world's soccer-governing body, but by March 2015, it ranked No. 83, behind Asia powerhouses like Iran (No. 42) and Japan (No. 52). The women's team was No. 13.
Xi Jinping would like to put an end to this type of disgrace. In March 2015, he linked soccer success to the "rejuvenation of the Chinese civilization." Serious. And, to further emphasize his intentions, during the 2014 World Cup, Xi announced his "Three Wishes for Chinese Football": to qualify for the World Cup, to host the World Cup, and to win the World Cup.
Back to the textbooks: These are aimed at students at schools nationwide to begin studying soccer knowledge and techniques. They incorporate pioneering new features, such as QR codes, 3D graphics and high-resolution pictures. "Every QR code will lead to an authentic tutorial video," said Chen Keqi, head of the Physical Education Department at People's Education Press. Chen also added that the gender ratio of demonstrators within the book was carefully balanced to avoid giving the impression that football is a male dominated sport.
For lower grade kids, the book focuses on establishing their habit of using their feet and body parts to touch the ball. Middle grade students are introduced basic soccer skills. Shooting and passing the football are what higher grades are expected to learn.
Beijing Youth Daily reported in March 2015 that more than more than 30 soccer education professionals and teachers put together the materials. However, this is not without dissent. Critics say the country’s soccer shortcomings stem from the lack of coaches and that it will take more than textbooks to revitalize the sport in China! Another complaint is that China’s exam-oriented education system downplays the importance of physical education, a condition that will be hard and time-consuming to reverse.
The State Council had set out goals – short-, medium- and long-term - for the sport. Mandatory soccer classes are now in play to increase the skills of future players. Football tournaments are in primary, junior and high schools. Businessman Hui Kayan, founder and chairman of Evergrande Group (China’s second-largest property developer), spent US$200 million to set up the world’s largest soccer academy, which trains 2,300 young players.
Beijing authorities hired American coach Tom Byer, a youth development expert, as consultant to the Chinese Ministry of Education. He’s been tasked with teaching good technical skills to the kids and also to impart a love for the sport to the kids. Byer’s method focuses on ball control and how to address various problems the kids might encounter on the field, AND he also has to develop events and content that will introduce the sport to the millions of Chinese kids.
Xi is driving the momentum for soccer success by overhauling government departments that were running the sport. He’s implementing changes through the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reform. Key to the plan is to sever the Chinese Football Association (CFA) from government control. Instead, it is to be run by a panel of sports officials, representatives from local soccer associations and leagues, and people from academic circles and the public.
Alisports, an influential Chinese sports marketing company, was in talks with former U.K. Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho for a consultancy role to improve the national team, the top clubs and coaching techniques in China. Mourinjo and Byer are not the only foreigners being sought by the Chinese. Recent “acquisitions” include Brazilian forward Alex Teixeira who joined Jiangsu Suning early February where he will be hooking up with former Chelsea midfielder Ramires Santos do Nascimento. Colombia striker Jackson Martinez joined Guangzhou in late January.
However, former Guangzhou coach Italian Marcello Lippi have told the Chinese club directors that spending lots of money on foreign players isn’t the way to reach the top. Lippi stressed developing a solid base of home-grown players. So back to those textnooks!
The road to achieving Xi’s soccer dream is going to be a long, hard journey.