China's soccer reform enters deep water#China Newsweek#-Sino-US

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China's soccer reform enters deep water

The ongoing 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia is reaching the quarterfinal stage without Germany, Argentina, and Portugal, and of course not China because it has not been able to reach the last 32 after 2002.

Millions of Chinese soccer fans watch the soccer matches of the World Cup, and many of them would like to criticize and be angry at Chinese national soccer team.

They love the game and the Chinese national soccer team. From having the big hope of “going outside Asia and taking part in international matches,” in the last century, they now expect China to be a soccer power in the world.

How to fulfill the goal? From top leadership to grassroots level, there is a consensus that reforms are needed to improve the game, and China has also taken some measures, but there has been no visible improvement.

In its 23rd issue of 2018, the China Newsweek magazine ran a cover story on the country’s soccer reform, analyzing the situation and reform prospects.

Below is an excerpt of the article.

The FIFA World Cup 2018 kicked off in Russia in mid-June, and though Chinese national soccer team did not get to the field there, Chinese companies have played an important role in the event.

Data from the market research company Zenith showed that companies spent a total $24 billion in advertising during this World Cup, including $835 million by Chinese companies, far more than the $400 million by the US companies and $64 million by Russian companies.

Bai Yansong, a TV host from China Central Television, said that for the World Cup, except for the Chinese national team, others who should have been there were there.

Though without the Chinese national team, there are some familiar faces on the stage of World Cup. According to the FIFA name list of the 32 teams, nine players play in the Chinese Super League.

Chinese clubs invested a lot to bring in good foreign players into the league, which has raised the level, and the value of the league has also increased. Since 2015, the number of viewers for each match has reached 23,000 on average.

The good performance also raised the fee for the league’s broadcast rights. The China Sports Media purchased the rights for 2016-20 at a cost of 8 billion yuan in 2015.

In the meantime, authorities started to take measures with an aim to improve the performance of the national soccer team, such as limits on foreign players and player’s wages and the requirements on players under 23 to play more.

These measures have damaged the competitiveness of teams and their performances, which has prompted China Sports Media to renegotiate with the Chinese Super League on the cost, and under the new deal, China Sports Media has to pay 11 billion yuan for the period 2016-25.

Zhao Jun, the general manager of China Sports Media, said that the new price is still about 20 times higher than the last deal before 2015, and because of the soccer reform, the company still believed China’s soccer market has big commercial potential.

While Chinese clubs have invested a lot on bringing high level players, they have achieved good performances in the Chinese Super League and also the AFC Champions League. Guangzhou Evergrande has won the AFC Champions League twice.

But the Chinese men’s national soccer team has performed badly since 2002 World Cup and finished the second at the 2004 Asian Cup. The team has never been to the last four of Asian Cup since then.

The State Council, or China’s cabinet, issued a national soccer reform plan on March 16, 2015, and a leading group on the reform was set up later with Liu Yandong, then vice premier, as its head, which showed the resolution of the leadership.

The reform plan highlighted that since the country started to explore professional soccer in early 1990s, the reform has brought some vitality into the game, but the value has not been realized.

Further, the plan said short-sighted thinking and behavior are very serious problems in the game and the management system is lagging behind; the game is short of talents, infrastructure facilities and supervision; and corruption is pervasive.

“The 50 articles of the reform plan have pointed out the current situation, providing detailed direction, such as separation of management and operation, improving infrastructure facilities, and strengthening youth soccer training,” said Gu Jianming, a committee member of the Chinese Football Association.

“Working on the detailed plans issued by various ministries and commissions, Chinese soccer has made noticeable progress at the basic level in recent years,” Gu said.


Soccer has been regarded as a test field for China’s sports reform. The new round of soccer reform reflected the central leadership’s emphasis on pushing forward mass sports, competitive sports and the sports industry after the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China.

The reform plan issued in 2015 is a general guideline, but still covers numerous areas, such as the reform goal, management organization, the building of clubs, competition system, school soccer, talent training, the building of national team, and construction and management of pitches.

One of the important changes is separation of the administrative management and operation, which is not different from the reform of 1994, said Zhang Lu, a well-known football commentator who took part in the drafting of the new reform plan.

From the start in 1990s, the central leadership held the view that the CFA could not be an administrative authority but a service organ for the game, but the CFA still held administrative power, which has been criticized much, Zhang said.

The separation has attracted people’s attention because of several cases, he said.

In 2004, seven clubs of Chinese Super League protested because of unfair refereeing, and they asked for the separation of management and operation.

Former CFA leaders Nan Yong and Xie Yalong have been sentenced to over a decade in jail for accepting bribes, and some soccer players such as Shen Si and Qi Hong were also involved in corruption.

Lang Xiaonong, a planner of the Chinese Super League, said that the corruption cases were linked to bad atmosphere and the system. They wanted to use administrative power to manage the market, he said.

According to the reform plan, the CFA was restructured to be a social organization in February 2016, having independent rights to set up its units, making plans, personnel management and international exchanges, “delinking with the General Administration of Sport of China.”

A new operational unit should be set up for running the Chinese Super League matches, according to the reform plan.

A major disagreement happened between clubs and the Chinese Super League on setting up the new unit, since the Chinese Super League insisted that it will govern the new unit and has right over the personnel, such as nominating the chairman.

Many preparatory meetings have been held for the new unit since 2016, but there is still no information on when it would be set up.

“Soccer is a professional game, and managers, dealers and operators should be professionals. As for the separation, is it real? The CFA Chairman Cai Zhenhua is an official. How could an official be an industry manager?” Hao Haidong, a former soccer player, asked.

Local soccer associations have also separated with the government authorities and become social organizations. They have the right to organize some local matches.

By the end of 2017, 33 out of 44 local CFA branches have become social organizations and they should make money to support themselves through different ways, but some branches in poor areas are still connected with the government.

Youth training

The future of Chinese soccer will depend on the youth training, and an important part of it is school soccer, which has been identified as key for soccer development worldwide.

According to the CFA data, by the end of 2015, 12 provinces and regions, including Anhui, Shanxi and Hunan, had not registered young amateur soccer players, and had only 37,490 registered young players.

In comparison, Germany has more than 6 million registered players, and Thailand has up to 280,000.

Soccer development has two key aspects: one is to improve the youth training; and the other is to improve the quality of the league, offering opportunities for young players, said Wang Jianlin, founder of Dalian Wanda Group. “It can't be done overnight.”

According to a government notice in 2016, China is expected to introduce soccer training at 20,000 schools by 2020, and have more than 30 million students at primary and middle schools take part in playing soccer.

But factors curbing the development of school soccer include the shortage of qualified teachers, lack of time and money, as well as lack of venues.

Wang Dengfeng, an education official, said that an investigation carried after the Ministry of Education took charge of the school soccer since 2014 found the lack of venues and teachers to be the major bottleneck.

The government notice said that by 2020, there will be more than 70,000 pitches.

School soccer tournaments at different levels should be set up, which will improve students’ skills and ability, said Zhang Lu. He also stressed that because of the high demands of the sport, some students would not be able to become professionals, so they should still pay attention to studies.

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