The directive from the Chinese government's propaganda department came down last Friday with a message that was nothing to cheer for: "It is forbidden to use the pretext of reporting on the World Cup to make fun of Chinese soccer."
China's failure to qualify for the international soccer tournament under way in South Africa has turned China's censors into the biggest of sore losers, despite the Chinese people's obsession with the matches.
Photos of nude Chinese young women, covered only in body paint imitating international team uniforms, have gone instantly viral.
For weeks now across this vast nation, the masses have been glued to restaurant televisions, Internet cafe computers and giant projector screens, garbed in their favorite teams' uniforms and honking on, yes, vuvuzelas made in China. Office openings have even been delayed to let employees catch up on sleep lost while watching games which last until dawn. Meanwhile, photos of young, nude Chinese women, covered only in body paint imitating international team uniforms, have gone instantly viral.
But for all the World Cup fever, the Chinese are suffering from a major case of performance anxiety marked by their embarrassing absence from the tournament. For a country that is nothing if not patriotic, missing out on the chance to best their rivals—from much loathed-Japan and South Korea to former-enemies Britain and the USA—is a rather stinging loss of face. After all, China ranked No. 1 in gold medals at the Beijing Olympics, beating the long-time powerhouse United States. And if the government can create an Office of Weather Manipulation, hell, it should be able to cultivate a dozen players capable of qualifying ahead of China's starving neighbor, North Korea.
So why, people here ask, does China suck at soccer?
The answer, which usually follows a nervous chuckle or deep sigh, is a complicated (and at times sordid) blend of genetics, social criticism and corruption—reason enough for the government's desire to quash public hand-wringing in the media.
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• Complete coverage of the World Cup"Soccer is a sport that can well mirror a society," says Yan Qiang, a local soccer columnist and vice president of Titan Media, China's leading sports publisher. According to Yan, China lacks high athletic participation and a real understanding of sports, which the Chinese generally watch with as much enthusiasm as their favorite song-and-dance variety shows. "They don't go to stadiums to watch live games, so they're not real 'supporters' or 'fans' of a team in this sense," he says.
Much of this lag behind Western devotion to team sports can be traced to China's Communist past, when the country's planned economy focused on production, rather than leisure. Plus, the societal chaos of Mao's rule allowed Chinese little opportunity for bourgeois Western distractions such as chasing after a ball.
But if soccer mirrors Chinese society, so then do the sport's recent problems here reflect the country's darker systemic failings, which go far deeper than stadium turf.
As China opened up in the '80s, interest in professional sports and the aspiration for Olympic medals grew. When China's professional soccer league began in the early '90s as the country's market economy kicked into high gear, hope that it would spur Western-style team fealty—and profit—soared too. These days however, the China Football Association, part of the government's massive sports bureaucracy, is notorious for corruption and match-fixing, resulting in the top men's Chinese Super League being little more than a punchline among the public.
In March, three former top officials in the China Football Association were arrested on charges of gambling and bribery, including the Association boss Nan Yong, who in 2006 was—get this—appointed to a task force meant to root out corruption in the league. Earlier this winter, three teams were removed from the Super League, while nearly two dozen players, referees, and coaches were also detained for their role in the scandal.
Rampant corruption—which has also tarnished China's professional basketball league—has alienated both soccer fans and players alike. These include Han Xu, the former captain of the premier soccer team Beijing Guo'an, who retired at 31 rather than play in ethically compromised games. "Everyone has his own standard and mine is I would never play in a fixed match," he says. "I believe that a man should earn wealth by honorable means, but unfortunately others do not."
The scandal, and the government's inability to police its own handpicked bureaucrats, has triggered a revolt among Chinese soccer fans. This is why so many are resigned to their country's failure to place in the World Cup.
"The sports officials failed in letting average Chinese know and enjoy the beauty of sports, which I think is exactly what they are supposed to do," says Yan, the soccer columnist.
Unfortunately China's female players are in no position to brag either. While not embroiled in corruption, the women's national team failed for the first time to qualify for the World Cup, prompting its coach to resign.
Aside from politics, some Chinese think their lack of World Cup talent may be genetically predetermined. "Asian people generally dont have the DNA to play soccer," says Song Zimang, 24, a university student from Beijing. "We're just kind of weak compared to Africans and Westerners."
Still, that perspective has not prevented the Chinese from supporting a potential winner. Song and his friend Wang Shu, 22, stayed up until 5 a.m. to root for Italy.
Whether because of scandal fatigue or just a hunger to get into the spirit of global competition despite no home-team to cheer on, the Chinese have tuned in to the tournament in record numbers. According to FIFA, China was the biggest audience in the first two days of the World Cup, with an average of almost 24 million viewers watching the Greece vs. South Korea match.
"I'm sad China's not playing but I'm still going to watch because I love the passion," says Song.
Perhaps this World Cup may inspire a new generation of Chinese to play the game—if their families allow it. "For Chinese parents it's not worth it to send their kids to play soccer," says Guo Ruilong, the former head coach of the China Youth Team and the China Super League team Shenzhen Jianlibao.
Unlike in the U.S., where extracurricular activities such as sports and arts are considered vital elements of a child's curriculum, China is obsessed with what is known as "yingshi jiaoyu," or "education for exams,"—schooling geared solely to sending students to the next educational level. In a country of 1.3 billion people living under the "one-child policy," competition for jobs is so fierce that parents are terrified their kid may lose out in life if they're not glued to their textbooks all of their waking hours.
Coach Guo feels this attitude not only stifles personal development but also the nation's athletic prowess, and hopes that one day the government will combine sports with education. Only then will China be able to crush future World Cup competition.
"If China begins doing this now, you can expect a stronger Chinese national team in 15 years," he says.
Whether China is willing to wait that long for World Cup victory is an open question. Until then, don't bother sharing your opinion with the censors.
Dan Levin is a Beijing-based journalist who has written for The New York Times, New York magazine, Forbes, the International Herald Tribune, and Monocle, among other publications.