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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And they scored!

The sad thing was Manchester United lost. Because they were lost, nobody really remembered Park Ji-Sung equalizer. In the same night, my wish from the previous post came true – Shinji Kagawa scored two goals against Hoffenheim, and Mike Havenaar scored for Vitesse before PSV put an end to their hope of a comeback. Hajime Hosogai also helped Ausburg scoring equalizer against Kaiserslautern. The only dent was Koo and Hasebe’s inability to fight Bayern Munich.

Kagawa and Havenaar’s performance both grabbed modest attention in Japanese media on Sunday, as well as assorted sports site. Unfortunately, they play in Germany instead of England. In the rest of Southeast Asia there are raging debates every day on EPL clubs, while in Indonesia people abuse each other over Madrid v Barcelona, but no one watches Bundesliga, let alone Eredivisie.

On Sunday, however, the fortunes of the Koreans and the Japanese turned over. Nagatomo played full time in Inter’s suprise defeat to Lecce, Okazaki came in at the start of the second half but Stuttgart were badly damaged in the last ten minutes, Uchida played only for the first half and got a yellow card to boot (and Schalke was able to turn the table once he was gone), and Yoshida was helpless as RKC  mistreated VVV. Ji and Chu-Young spent the whole match again on the bench. Still, credit to Kawashima for clean sheet in away victory against Westerlo.

What’s the lesson? First, at least watching Japanese and Korean attackers are much less depressing than five years ago, when you got Takahara and Ahn and Seol and Lee Dong-Gook attempting to make a break in England and Germany. No, please don’t remind me on the last day of the Japanese in Serie A (I’m not talking about Yuto. I’m talking about Ogasawara, Yanagisawa, Oguro. And Morimoto). But as expected, their defensive sides, while have secured their names in starting XI, are still shaky. Even my favorite Lee Jung-Soo lapsed in the second half and almost letting go a three goals advantage as Al Sadd registered narrow 3-2 against Al Ahli in Qatar.

 

I think that’s all about Japan and Korea. Anyway, yesterday I found two names – first is Hiroshi Ibusuki, the current top scorer of Spain’s Segunda B Group 4. He plays for Sevilla B. A former youth player for Kashiwa, he has lived in Spain for three years and scored 35 goals. How about that, scoring 35 goals in Spain before you are 21 year old. In Japan U-23, however, he is still ranked behind Yamazaki, Nagai, Osako and Usami, just to name a few.

The second name is Xavier Chen, playing for Mechelen. I was wondering how could a Taiwanese playing in the Belgian Premier League, seeing that no Taiwanese plays even in Hong Kong First Division or J.League Division 2. Turned out he’s half-Belgian, the Taiwanese football federation claimed to know him when playing FIFA 12 (talking about scouting), and said that they had to race China which was also approaching Chen. I don’t think China is one of federations which are keen to naturalize foreign-born players, but let’s just leave the story like that.

On the other hand, Indonesians are in love with Radja Nainggolan, half-Indonesian Belgian midfielder playing for Cagliari, who was linked with Juventus, which is still a popular club in Indonesia. I’m glad that he has played twice for Belgium so Indonesian football federation cannot approach him for *sigh* naturalization. FYI, in FIFA 12 Chen is rated 67 while Nainggolan’s rating is 76, making him one of the top Asian players in the game, ethnically.