Football World Cup and the absense of China and India

Perhaps the real reason why China, and India have so far not produced top ranked, or any ranked football teams is because of their size. Football is not necessarily part of the cultural mainstream in both countries and at present they both have the luxury to insulate themselves from the world’s culture

Last week with hundreds of millions of my fellow humans, I watched a match of the football World Cup final rounds. There are teams representing 32 countries in these rounds: I watched the rout by Croatia over Cameroon 4-0. Croatia?

What is a country that has a bit over 4 million people doing in the World Cup? Not only Croatia, but its neighbor Bosnia and Herzegovina with a slightly smaller population is also there. How can these tiny countries compete against giants like Brazil and Mexico? How did Croatia manage to field a team that thrashed a team from a country five-times its size?

Why is one of the leading athletic powerhouses, the US, ranked 14th behind countries like Belgium and Uruguay? More to the point why aren’t the two largest countries on the planet China and India not even represented? They rank 103rd and 154th respectively. Yet Shanghai and Mumbai alone both have more people than either Belgium or Uruguay.

There is a joke in China. The Buddha tells the people he can fulfill only one of their wishes. Someone asks: “Could you lower the price of property in China so that people can afford it?” Seeing the Buddha frown in silence, the person makes another wish: “Could you make the Chinese football team qualify for a World Cup?” After a long sigh, the Buddha says: “Let's talk about property prices.”

Lord Buddha may have started to grant the first wish, but the second is still elusive. This is quite odd. Both Chinese fans and their leaders love the game. Mao Zedong played keeper. Deng Xiaoping was a life long football fanatic. China’s present leader, Xi Jinping, has three wishes. He wishes that China will first qualify for the World Cup, host a World Cup, and finally win a World Cup. Despite this high level support, Chinese football has never come close to its promise.

Since its beginnings Chinese football has been exceptionally corrupt. It started out as teams sponsored by unaccountable bureaucrats in charge of state owned enterprises. Starting in 1994 during the early reforms it attracted more investment corporate sponsorships and these generated higher salaries. But the rot started early.

Investors started to fix matches as favors for local officials. They were called “favour”, “relationship” or “tacit” matches. Then the gambling syndicates and triads moved in and began excreting influence over players, coaches, referees and even the investors.

By the early 2000, the morals of the game were so bad that sponsors began to avoid it. No one was caught because the state organization, the Chinese Football Association, responsible for investigating and punishing misdeeds was the one involved in fixing games.

As investors and sponsors withdrew, the economic growth of China increased the level of betting. So players with less pay had larger incentives to throw games. This went on until an investigation started in Singapore in 2009 led back to China. This resulted in a scandal that couldn’t be hidden. So over 20 people were arrested and punished including Nan Yong, then boss of the Chinese Football Association.

Recently Chinese football has improved thanks to money from developers. Owners of 13 of the 16 clubs in the Chinese Super League are either developers or have big property interests. The developers have poured money into their teams increasing salaries. This lowers the incentives for players to take bribes. They have also hired former stars to raise standard. One, Evergrande, the owner of the Guangzhou club, has even built a enormous football academy with 2500 students and 50 football pitches.

Corruption is a real problem in China, but the real issue is the failure to encourage children to play the game. Between 1990 and 2000 more than 600,000 teenagers played the sport. By 2011 that number had fallen to little more than 100,000. The reasons for lack of young players are varied.

Some commentators cite the preference of Chinese parents for education rather than sport as a way to advance. To an extent this is true. Often the best players are from poor backgrounds. Professional football players start at age 13. In most of the world it is a working class game. Without a large pool of potential players, China has developed a few stars, but not the depth. Players get better because the guy on the bench is almost as good.

In India at least the clubs are looking for the poorest. The Pune club busses in orphans and slum kids to watch the games. They are a welcome addition to the few thousand paying fans. However, despite having 131 million fans of international football, it will be hard for the clubs to outdo the national obsession with cricket.

The US has a different obsession, American football. In February ,the country comes to a stop as 111 million Americans sit down on a Sunday to watch the championship game, known as the Super Bowl. In contrast, only 24.3 million Americans watched the 2010 World Cup a record, but a small fraction of the billion viewers worldwide.

It is common wisdom that the US is not a football powerhouse. This is incorrect. Actually it is, just not men’s football. Its women’s team is ranked number 1. In the past six World Cups, the women’s team has won it twice and has never been out of the top three.

Demography is what is really changing American Football. Originally a middle class sport, it has changed as the result of a 43% rise in Hispanics. Many of these Americans are from such football mad countries as Mexico and Central America. This fast growing market is the target of just about every US business, which has brought the dollars to the game. The result is that top league, Major League Soccer (football to you), has an average attendance of 18,600 per game ahead of both the Basketball and Ice Hockey Leagues. Where attendance and advertisers go, television is not far behind.

But perhaps the real reason why China, and India have so far not produced top ranked, (or any ranked) teams is because of their size. Football is not necessarily part of the cultural mainstream in both countries. It is adopted because small countries have little choice but to be aware of the world. They do not have the luxury to insulate themselves from the world’s culture. Globalisation intrudes from the foods they eat to the television they watch. In time this will change even in giants like India and China, but perhaps not for at least another World Cup.

(William Gamble is president of Emerging Market Strategies. An international lawyer and economist, he developed his theories beginning with his first-hand experience and business dealings in the Russia starting in 1993. Mr Gamble holds two graduate law degrees. He was educated at Institute D'Etudes Politique, Trinity College, University of Miami School of Law, and University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business Administration. He was a member of the bar in three states, over four different federal courts and speaks four languages.)

Mahesh S Bhatt
10 years ago
Sir respect your comments but Sepp Blatter with 17 years at FIFA Head has been branded corrupt by many Sr successful footballers including Maradona.Qatar winning Football bid is also being suspect of corruption.Olympics is also the same with corruption+ politics.

Sad thing is that IPL is great illegal machine for Business/Polictics to cash on.

So why blame China/India when it has all started from USA/UK/Europe.Let's have great depression for correction with correct Value Systems for Holistic Health Wealth(

China has great Table Tennis /Badminton records better than Lawn Tennis which is popular /richer in West but the fact is Badminton/TT are more aggressive/fast but with less money.So let's forget about Sports its another big black hole to fool innocent honest athletic individuals & make business out of the same.Even God also can't bless such Heads of Sports/Polictics.Amen Mahesh
shadi katyal
10 years ago
One can talk of many excuses but the fact is that we as a nation has no policy toward any athletic sports. The nation is not only poor but physically we cannot last so long. We will deny this but look at the players of other nations and show us few who can fit there.
Secondly we were kicked out of Olympics and I( am not sure if we are allowed to join the international Forum and it was due to our trying to dictate IOC how to run local boards. India is not member of FIFA.
With 1.2 Billions and have nothing to boast about when it comes to such games
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