Why Is China's National Soccer Team So Bad?

A 5-1 loss to the under-23 Thailand squad has brought out the shame -- and the cynicism -- among the country's fans.


China's national men's soccer team last qualified for the World Cup in 2002 (Petar Kudundzic/Reuters)

Chinese soccer fans have already become used to disappointing performances from their national soccer team. But a recent shameful loss has stirred national anger -- and pushed discussion about the country's soccer system to a new level. On June 15, in a friendly against 142nd-ranked Thailand, the 95th-ranked Chinese team lost 5-1. Making matters worse for China, it was the Thai U-23 (under-23) squad delivering the drubbing. It was also a home game for China.

In addition to anger outside the stadium that night, frustration filled Sina Weibo. Unlike the typical complaints, which usually die down after a day or two, discussion of this most recent loss has continued. That's partly because the after-effects continue to cascade: the termination of the head coach Jose Antonio Camacho soon after the loss, as well as the publication of a letter of apology from the Chinese Football Association, a de facto department of the Chinese State General Administration of Sports.

User @白雨童鞋 asked, "Why bother to keep defaming the national soccer team? If I'd bet on its losing over the last three years, I could afford to buy a house by now." @是时候改个好名字了 joked that Chinese soccer has at least been consistent. "Though our skill is the worst on earth, we have the thickest face [Chinese slang for indifference to humiliation]! And our results have also been stable!"

People have been so quick to lampoon their own team in part because they feel a sense of hurt pride. Chinese Web users often criticize their government, but they also evince a strong sense of national identity, and are highly sensitive about their country's image. Team-based sports such as soccer and basketball should, theoretically, represent the unity of the Chinese state. Instead, as taxpayers who subsidize the national soccer team, Web users feel as if they have made a failed investment.

As @bbschn wrote: "I don't know why the national soccer team exists ... I don't know what else it does besides wasting taxpayers' money, losing face internationally, and bring us Chinese down." @ 夏末__秋至 had this advice: "Disbanding the team and the Chinese Football Association is the simplest and most effective way. Don't hesitate, just let it go if we can't do it, don't make we the people share the shame with you."

The team's putrid performance against Thailand also underscored the contrast between Chinese sports and its improving performance in other areas, like the country's high-octane economy. In fact, the best season on record was 2002, when the team advanced to the World Cup -- which took place in South Korea and Japan, making it easier for China to get in -- for the first time. In that tournament, the Chinese men's team scored not a single goal, lost all three group matches, and was promptly eliminated.

Some within China have at various points argued that genetic differences could be to blame -- perhaps Asians are just worse at soccer. But the fall to Thailand ripped off that last shred of the national soccer team's proverbial fig leaf. A popular phrase spreading on Weibo: "Japan keeps proving that Asians can play soccer, while the Chinese National Soccer Team has been working hard to refute it."

User @一条河934 described the contrast: "Watched the FIFA Confederations Cup between Italy and Japan this morning. Though Japan lost a close one 4-3, it was with honor. Their hard offensive, fine skills and unspoken cooperation are a combination of the Brazilian style as well as the bravery of the Germany team. They have won global respect and admiration. Also from Asia, the Chinese national team lost 5-1to Thailand and the whole nation feels shameful."

This feeling of helplessness, tinged with bitterness, is often directed not just at the players, but at the country's soccer system, and even the society that surrounds it. "Chinese national soccer is actually a snapshot of society," @逸仙周刊 wrote. He continued:

About 20 years of Chinese soccer markets' 'professionalism' has created a market freak with a strong bureaucratic flavor: an administrator-controlled 'pseudo-professional' league where officials hook up with businessmen. It's an insider's embezzlement job ... The administrators pursue political achievements, [and] the goal of professionalism is always [subordinate to] the goal of winning the gold medal.

This is not a rootless complaint. In reality, collusion has been a crux of Chinese soccer's problems, and anti-corruption actions have stirred up Chinese soccer before. In 2009, the Ministry of Public Security began a large-scale investigation into the sports betting, bribery, match-fixing, and other violations. The vice chairmen of the Chinese Football Association, Nan Yong and Yang Yimin, were dismissed and arrested.

User @逸仙周刊 concluded that the ultimate disease is social, not systemic: "Chinese soccer was ruined by the system, and what ruined the system is the social sentiment of pursing quick success, the unwillingness to be unsung heroes, and an impetuous attitude." @ToneMan illustrated the problem with an anecdote:

Have been in Thailand for 6 days and finally figured out why we lost 5 to 1: In China, a child fell in love with soccer, but his parents told him that playing soccer can't make money and would break his leg; his teacher told him not to play soccer because he needed to study hard for exams; and his friends told him there was no field to play soccer. So he went home.

This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.