Soccer-Hungry China Looks to New Pro Teams

Article excerpt

SOCCER coach Xu Genbao says China is edging toward professionalism and a free market in sports.

In December, the former star player launched a soccer club that he considers the forerunner of professional sports in China. Although underwritten by a conglomerate with interests in real estate, transportation, and communications, the Shanghai Shenhua Soccer Club is legally independent, signs its own players, is responsible for its own profits and losses, and plans to start its own self-funding businesses.

That's a departure from the sports norm in China. Ever since China returned to international competition after the launch of economic reforms 15 years ago, soccer teams have been controlled and subsidized by the now cash-strapped government.

But unlike the country's success in swimming, track, and table tennis, men's soccer has been a flop. Although Chinese women have done admirably over the years in international competition, the men's national soccer team has been an acute embarrassment and was eliminated early from qualifying for the 1994 World Cup.

Mr. Xu, the former head of the national team who quit after Chinese officials hired a German coach, says soccer's mass appeal and commercial potential make it the ideal foundation for pro sports here. Still, Chinese soccer won't become an international contender until clubs are economically independent and can cultivate their own players through a network of soccer schools and junior teams, the coach says.

"Looking down the road, it's impossible for the state to continue to finance soccer," Xu predicts. He began playing soccer as a boy in the narrow streets of Shanghai and became one of China's best-known players.

"This will be a very major structural change if we can finance the club from our own businesses," he says. "The condition for survival of Chinese soccer is to upgrade our skills. Otherwise, spectators won't be interested."

In a country starved for exciting soccer, many Chinese have been eagerly following the World Cup. Chinese newspapers printed special supplements and sponsored soccer quizzes. The official English-language China Daily reported that 100 million Chinese - the world's largest soccer audience - were expected to tune in to matches, including those televised live in the predawn hours here.

China has never qualified for the World Cup finals, much to the unhappiness of soccer fans here. International sports competitions elicit a fierce nationalism. China, not content to sit on the sidelines, is bidding to host the World Cup finals in 2002, and in the last year has moved to raise the national profile of soccer.

In August 1992, the China Football Association established a Chinese Professional Soccer Club and designated Shanghai, Beijing, and 10 other cities to host teams. …