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. …