Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Panda Futbol: My South American Experience in China

On its website, FIFA credited England for developing football into the “beautiful game” we have come to enjoy today.  However, it also took note of the sport’s Chinese roots, as follows:

“The very earliest form of the game for which there is scientific evidence was an exercise from a military manual dating back to the second and third centuries BC in China.  This Han Dynasty forebear of football was called Tsu' Chu and it consisted of kicking a leather ball filled with feathers and hair through an opening, measuring only 30-40cm in width, into a small net fixed onto long bamboo canes.”

And so, with that, we now know that football came from China.  And yet, if we were to look at the state of football in this country of over 1.3 billion people, then even the word “sorry” would be somewhat of an understatement.

Rowan Simons’ “Bamboo Goalposts: One Man’s Quest to Teach the People’s Republic ofChina to Love Football” is an excellent account of the trials and tribulations of promoting grassroots football in China. 

Rowan runs ClubFootball in Beijing, which organizes amateur leagues and competitions, mostly 5-a-sides.  During my three and a half years in Beijing, I played in a team that was part of that league.  We were called Suramerica, because most of us came from Venezuela and Colombia.  We also had Argentinians and Chileans.  I was the only non-South American, but because I spoke Spanish, Federico, our team captain, baptized me as an honorary Colombian by making me drink some very strong rum.

Playing with Suramerica was a whole lotta fun.  I wasn’t the best player in the team; in fact, I was actually one of its weakest links.  But the guys always made feel welcome, and there were times when my presence in the field was important to ensure that we had enough players to avoid forfeiting games. 

The guys were serious about football; so was I.  We were old-timers; diplomats or traders by day, footballers by afternoon, and salsa dancers by late nights.  We started in the third division and slowly climbed up to the second division.  Along the way, our uniform went from AC Milanesque black and white, to Tottenhamish white and blue, to Napoli-like baby blue. 

Yesterday. I searched the internet and looked up our team in the most recent edition of Club Football’s competition.  A photo showed a much younger team; nothing like me, Federico, or the other old-timers.  Apparently, since my departure, we have made it all the way to the first division.  We’re actually competing very well, winning last autumn’s league and being somewhere in the middle of the pack this time around.  Not bad at all..!

For me, playing with Suramerica was like being part of a community.  The Suramerica community, and even bigger, the footballing community of the capital city of the world’s next superpower.  It mattered that we won our games.  But it mattered more that we had the chance to enjoy the game that we love so much, the game that makes us all feel more alive, the game that’s more beautiful than Zhang Ziyi’s coquettish wink.  To be part of something, and that thing being a part of me.

My kind of football
Rowan explained in his book that this is exactly what’s lacking in the development of football in China.  While more and more people are becoming interested in big names like Barcelona, Manchester United, and Inter Milan, the interest in playing football locally, and nurturing local football is limited. 

Yes, it’s true that the Chinese Government have poured money to develop a competitive Chinese national team, however, its pursuit is mainly for glory (i.e. to raise China’s stature in international sports), and not the actual development of football in the country.  As a result, while the national team may be able to compete against the likes of Indonesia and Viet Nam, it always fail to be at par with the Japanese and South Koreans, which have national teams soundly rooted their respective local footballing communities.

And so, why is it that the birthplace of football is devoid of a strong footballing culture.  Throughout the book, Rowan provides glimpse of why this is so (according to my reading of the book):

1. For the longest time, any grouping of more than 4 people required a permit from the Government.  The Communist Government was, and continues to be paranoid about people getting together to form an opposition.  How can one have a football game with less than four people?  Well, I guess this explains why badminton continued to thrive while soccer dwindled to limited existence.

2. With the one-child policy in place, not too many parents are keen about their one and only son playing football, and risk the possibility of cuts, sprains or broken bones.  Yes, kids would be wearing Lionel Messi shirts in the malls, or while playing video games.  But, unlike kids from other parts of the world, Chinese kids are unlikely to end their days on a soccer pitch.  Their Messi shirt would remain pristine.

3. Historically, football flourished in Chinese cities conquered or ceded to foreign control during the latter parts of the Qing Dynasty.  However, this meant that football was only played by the elite, which had close contacts with the western people in those cities.  As a result, the sport (its modern post-Britain version) never gained popularity beyond the coastal cities.  That’s why Qingdao has a strong football culture, but not Xi’an.

4. Football is being run from the top down, with heavily involvement by the Government through Chinese sports association.  As a result, there is very little resource for regeneration.  National team players are not picked from a pool of players from amateur leagues, but nurtured in an alienated fashion only for the benefit of the national team.  Heavy Government involvement also ensures that if things don’t go a certain way, then the Government would intervene in some of the damnest ways.

5. Owners manage their teams like a subsidiary of their company.  They see things from a profit-loss perspective.  Players a bought and sold without paying so much attention as to how they matter to the team’s chemistry.  And when things start to go the wrong way, many owners simply abandon their projects, cutting all losses before they ebb to other parts of their businesses.  There is not enough heart in Chinese football leagues.

6. Clubs did not put effort into developing emotional ties with the community.  Three years in Beijing, and I’ve never seen any Beijing Guo An stuff, let alone a fanshop.  I was so desperate to get a Guo An shirt that I finally got one, from the internet, on Taobao, and not a fan website.  Shanghai people cared less about Shanghai Shenhua, until the team got big names on their roster.  And even then, people came to the stadium not necessarily to enjoy the football, but to see these players that the rest of the world regards as stars.

Kung-fu Football
Rowan ended the book with some positive indications, because if football is kept as simple as possible, then it would not require any effort at all to sow the seeds of the beautiful game in China.  I like idealists.  At the same time, Rowan highlighted that the problems facing football in China is very much symptomatic of the problems the country is facing, as it becomes the world’s economic powerhouse:

“The lack of space for team games such as football reflects the glaring absence of any kind of unifying social force in China today beyond money and a raw sense of nationalism that can rear its ugly head all too easily.”

Much lesson learned.  Can’t wait to play football in Beijing again.  However, this time around, I don’t thing I’m good enough for my old team.  Maybe, just maybe, I’ll see if after these years amateur football has gained grounds in China, and set up my own team.

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