Can the Chinese play football? Would they?

Still the one

One of things that keeps me awake at night is thinking about Chinese footballers. Not only footballers from People’s Republic of China, but all footballers of Chinese descents. The only names I could think of are Brian Ching from United States and Chan Siu Ki from Hong Kong. The former because he made it to 2006 World Cup and the latter because I enjoy playing Hong Kong in 2010 FIFA World Cup game. I don’t really remember any Chinese national player on the top of my head. I thought about Shi Jiayi, but he plays for Singapore. Alright, I thought about Shao Jiayi.

Japanese kids had their heroes – Kazu Miura, Hide Nakata, Shun Nakamura, and now Honda and Kagawa. South Korean kids had Kim Jung-Soo, Seo Jung-Won, Ahn Jung-Hwan, Park Ji-Sung, and now Park Chu-Young (well he’s doing great for the national team) and perhaps Ki Sung-Yueng and Ji Dong-Won. What about Chinese kids in the last 20 years? Or Hong Kong kids? Or Chinese-Singaporeans? Or ethnic Chinese in Australia, UK, and Netherlands?

Certainly there are some Chinese-Dutch footballers. I can think of Calvin Jong-a-Pin, playing for Shimizu, and Cerezo Fung-a-Wing, who played for Volendam and Waalwijk. There are also  Tschen La Ling, who played for Ajax and Marseille in 1970s and early 1980s, and Etienne Shew-Atjon, who just retired. Their parents came either from Suriname or Indonesia.

A burning question coming from United States fans, satisfied with the class of 2010, was “where is China? Why don’t China play in the World Cup? Are not they the new Soviet Union in sports?”. Indeed. The steady downfall of the women team is astonishing, especially when newcomer Japan don’t only become the first Asian team to win the World Cup, but also producing a woman who wins the Golden Ball. Back to men football, many American fans are astonished to hear that in Asia, China are less dangerous than Uzbekistan and…Iraq.

British journalists have covered the state of football in China. Not good. Besides the standard corruption and violence in the league, Chinese boys are not that interested to become professional footballers. Afterall, they are the only child and football is not the state’s favorite sport (i.e. it won’t guarantee a gold medal in Olympics). Currently only one Chinese player is in Europe – Zhang Chengdong is on loan at Beira Mar in Portugal, his second loan after playing in Leiria two seasons ago. Which is not that bad considering that his parent club is Second Division Mafra. Besides him, only Huang Bowen plays outside China, for Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.

Nevermind China, what about Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore? Perhaps for those island nations (*ahem*) there are not enough men to play football. But the case against lack of men equals lack of footballers, of course, lies in Scandinavia. For extreme argument, refer to Montenegro. Population: 600,000. That’s 10% or less the population of Hong Kong. Failed in the last moment to qualify to Euro 12, but prevailed in group stage against Switzerland and Bulgaria. Only one of its top 22 is playing in domestic league, the rest are playing in Israel, United States, Korea, and of course Russia and Italy.

Taiwan has no professional league. As I mentioned in earlier post, Xavier Chen plays in Belgium because he’s born there. Hong Kong has a long tradition of utilizing players who were born overseas, either Brazilians or Africans who are naturalized, or British who grew up in Hong Kong and are expected to play for five years or less. There might be several players who were born in mainland China too. As for the league, roughly only 1500 people attend each First Division match, with more fixing attention on the English Premier League. The only Chinese name in the top-scoring list is Cheng Siu Wai from mid-table Sun Hei.

It’s never easy to find a Chinese name in Singapore. I’m still not certain if veteran goalkeeper Lionel Lewis is half-Chinese or not. Besides Shi Jiayi, there’s Andrew Tan, and also naturalized Qiu Li. So we have to settle for Andrew. In fact Malaysia have more homegrown Chinese players: Yong Kuong Yong and Joseph Kalang Tie. Two to one. One and half, maybe.

So, what’s this about? As for the lack of Chinese football stars in Asia, I think culture is the main culprit. Chinese parents and community discourage their sons from becoming professional footballers, even if they come from the working class, as most footballers are. I don’t know, maybe some even think that football is not a Chinese trade? Certainly this kind of thought is absent in Japan and Korea, looking at how Hide Nakata and Lee Chun-Soo remember fondly their fangirls back in high school. But I remember that back in school girls didn’t come after Chinese guys who were good in football, although every boy played football and talked about del Piero and Owen.

Governments and investors themselves are hardly serious about club and league developments. One ironic thing about the S-League is its constant struggle to gain sponsors, despite the richness of Singapore. Many Chinese-Singaporeans are of course not interested to see Malays playing football in empty small stadiums, when they can watch MU v Chelsea in glitzy sports bars and meet real Mancunians. The Singaporean FA chooses to defer from Champions League rather than disbanding foreign clubs, which are not only paying rents but also providing potential Lions (Frederic Mendy, anyone?). One downside of having a Commonwealth island like Hong Kong and Singapore is that the Chinese have been used for too long to let the other groups doing sports for them.

Taiwan still puzzles me, anyway. They can create good cartoons on EPL incidents…so why don’t they get on with a professional league like Japan did twenty years ago? You know, when Japan was still suck with football?

That’s in Asia. What about in the West? The NBA now has Harvard graduate and New York hero Jeremy Lin. Here’s I thought that even when family and community don’t hinder Chinese boys playing football, another foul factor is at play – the low glass ceiling, which is also hindering Asian artists. Once I spoke to a Chinese girl who played high school soccer in United States. Other girls targeted her because she’s Asian. The worst haters were not whites, but black girls. I know, many Asian Westerners must have tried football and other sports. They are not just that good enough to make the cut. But when they make the cut, not everyone’s happy.

Some Americans cannot face the fact that Jeremy Lin and ice skater Michelle Kwan are American athletes, and I only hope that the road is bit easier for women hockey goalkeeper and Olympic gold medalist Julie Chu. Certainly Lin must faced shits that African-American players faced back in 1950s and are supposedly unacceptable now (and surprise, now is getting intensified in European football). While there are great coaches and managers who see an athlete’s potential despite his or her ethnicity, perhaps in football it’s still hard for Asians to be selected unless they have a parent who is not Asian (I’m thinking about Brian Ching and Issey Nakajima-Farran).

So, can the Chinese play football? Of course they can. Would they? No, for dozens of reasons. The big question is, will the next Chinese star in Europe play for China? Or will he play for United States?

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Homare Sawa: Still Unsung

The Number 10 wears kimono

It’s the picture that should have made headlines across the world: Lionel Messi next to a Japanese woman in kimono. He is the best footballer in the world. Actually, he’s the best man in the world in playing football. She is the best woman in the world to play football.

The news that Homare Sawa wins the award, the first Asian to do so, still does not ring outside the following circles in English-language media: international Japanese media, mainstream American sports media, and official sites of football authorities. For the rest, there’s only Barcelona with Neymar’s goooooollllllllll on the side.

In many macho part of the world, report on Sawa’s victory follows to only what Reuters and AP have provided. Here in Indonesia, some ever omitted the news, as a headline on Messi and Barcelona is really what the readers are after. I guess maybe for Westerners the image of a champion footballer is a roaring amazon in her black sports bra, while for the rest of the world (China included), it is Ronaldinha. Not a Japanese in kimono.

On second thought, let alone Sawa, Neymar also had his fame put very, very, sidelined. Before showing his rampage with Portuguese commentary, ESPN Asia had to maintain its English-centric view and ran Rooney’s scissor against City (not there was anything wrong with it).

The problem, of course, lies with the appeal of women football.¬† In the Promised Land of women football, Women’s Professional Soccer only has five active teams, with the team with most catchy name magicJack (in an Asian mall it’s a good name for a frozen yogurt outlet) is already defunct. That is why the world champions stick to semi-professional L. League (well done Japan, now Latvia and Lebanon can’t rebrand their leagues). Well, that the Proper Ladies of Japan had their time in America were handy, so that American media could say “she played for Washington Freedom”. United States’ best player, Abby Wambach, is currently without club, and even last season in magicJack she was the player-manager. So even despite Americans’ high interest for the last World Cup, and the inclusion of women football in American nationalism, Americans still don’t see the appeal of watching a week in week out of women football. Maybe after all, Americans still see that their national teams serve only one function: to pummel out the world during random summer. Maybe that what is what “USA! USA! USA!” is about.

On the other hand, I can only *imagine* that the Homare Sawa craze in Japan is less subdued than the past exposes…like for Miwa Asao or volleyball stars like Saori Kimura and Megumi Kurihara (let’s not go into Megumi Kawamura). Certainly it’s less like Korean craze for Kim Yuna. Sawa’s a national hero alright, but facially she’s less attractive* than the mentioned stars (hey, even America has soft spot for Hope Solo). But considering the hype Japanese media can build for the flavor of the week, maybe the normal level of exposition of Sawa is alright. But already there’s a scam (here’s another Japanese tradition) for ‘photo opportunity with Sawa/Nadeshiko’. And yes, this year is Olympics’ year. duh.

*Well, I found it’s hard to advertise other players like Ayumi Kaihori or Aya Miyama to people who would assume that they look like Ayumi Hamasaki and Aya Ueto. Personally my favorite is Karina Maruyama. Since she was sporting cornrow.

I think the most well-developed female league in business is Frauen Bundesliga. Already three Nadeshiko playing there – Saki Kumagai (Frankfurt), Kosue Ando (Duisburg), and Yuki Nagasato (Turbine Postdam). Aya Sameshima and Rumi Utsugi, meanwhile, play for Montpellier in French D1 Feminine. Still, knowing how much sexism still rules Japanese and Korean business and societies, I’m still astonished which how much women football a) raises little objection from males compared to the general attitude in the West and b) how good are Korean and Japanese women at it, something that still evades the Europeans and Spanish-speaking Americans.