Why kung fu never won a World Cup
By Jesse Fink

During the week I sat down for minestrone and a few too many coffees with the good-humored Australian men's national football (soccer) team manager Pim Verbeek, formerly of South Korea, Feyenoord Rotterdam in the Netherlands and some club gigs in Japan.

The Dutchman has settled in well in Sydney since arriving in a blaze of publicity in December last year and is about to take a well-earned break from football and decamp back to Holland for some reset and recreation before the final round of World Cup qualifiers in Asia. The draw for those games takes place Friday in Kuala Lumpur.

Verbeek can afford to smile a bit. The Socceroos finished top of their group - ahead of Iraq, China and fellow surprise qualifier Qatar - with the luxury of being able to lose their final match against the Chinese. No one expected China to pull it off.

In fact, Verbeek himself was confident his C-team of Olympic hopefuls, European discards and A-League players would fully have the measure of the People's Republic at home and in front of a parochial crowd. But on Sunday night in Sydney, the Socceroos crashed to arguably their worst performance in six World Cup qualifiers to date, losing 1-0 to China, a result which flattered the hosts (it should have been 2-0 save for a successful penalty that was called back for encroachment and inexplicably missed on the second attempt.)

Verbeek was not too worried about the loss and was quick to point out the Chinese were fielding their strongest lineup. "They beat our Olympic team but the way they carried on afterwards you'd think they'd qualified for the World Cup," he said.

Perhaps sour grapes, perhaps partly true, but not even Verbeek could deny the Chinese their rare moment in the sun. They do have the knack of turning on some decent football when the pressure is off. It's when the pressure is on that they fall to pieces. (Exhibit A: Shao Jiayi's awful penalty effort in Kunming in March that could have won the game for the home side against Australia. The man hasn't been seen in the red national strip since.)

Verbeek believes it's not technical standards, nor training methods that are to blame for China's continued underperformance in international football but the "unbelievable pressure" the players are under from the Chinese media and homegrown fans both in China and abroad.

Outgoing China coach Vladimir Petrovic agrees. After the side's 2-1 loss to Iraq in Tianjin, which eliminated the world's most populous nation from the world's biggest sporting event, he didn't hedge his words: "We have young players who needed to calm down a bit ... nerves cost us the two games. The players had too much pressure on them."

They'd better learn to handle the pressure soon, because with an Olympic football tournament on home soil in August, the expectations for a medal of some color will be immense. Immense, but ultimately misplaced.

Can they do it? It's not beyond the realm of possibility for China to win a few games of football to go along with the truckload of metal it'll take home in the panoply of other Olympic sports, but it would be an extraordinary occurrence. The fact is that since the golden years of 2002 to 2004, when it made the World Cup finals and the final of the AFC Asian Cup against Japan, Chinese football has been in free-fall.

For such a populous country, which leads the world in manufacturing, construction, and just about any field of human endeavor you care to name, just how hard can it be to field a competitive team of 11 football players?

On the evidence, friggin' bloody hard.

Over at Goal.com, my friend John Duerden postulates that a "lack of leadership and vision" from the Chinese Football Association is to blame. "Incompetence, corruption, a neglect of grassroots football and over-reliance on foreign talent have all played their parts. Standards across Asia are rising and China is falling behind."

I would also add that the Chinese are making the same mistake Australia used to make in its football before another Dutchman, Guus Hiddink, turned up in his white chariot in 2006: thinking good football is commensurate with effort. You couldn't find a fitter football player on this earth than a professional Chinese player, but they don't know how to take their time on the ball; to sum up, evaluate and make the right decisions.

It's still a problem that bedevils Australian football, but the Socceroos are getting better at taking their time. It will take a generation to get it right but one day there's no reason why Australia and, eventually, China can't play the sort of desultory, selfish, smart brand of football that won Italy the last World Cup.

But for now, in Asia the Chinese have taken over the Australians' mantle as the most thuggish in the 46-member Asian Football Confederation. Anyone who doubts that can take in Exhibit B: Sun Jihai's flying Shaolin Soccer job on Luke Wilkshire in Kunming. (It can be found on Internet video site YouTube.)

And China's under-23s are no shrinking violets, either, as anyone who was at Queen's Park Rangers' (QPR) training ground in March 2007 for their "friendly" will attest. Exhibit C (also available on YouTube.) has been called the "Battle of Harlington" - a 30-man brawl that resulted in a Chinese player being knocked unconscious and taken to hospital with a broken jaw. The Times of London described the melee as "... a serious mass confrontation with comic undertones as several of the China team attempted sub-Bruce Lee maneuvers in front of fewer than 150 people at a chilly training ground near Heathrow."

It's an unwelcome reputation, but the Chinese fully deserve it. They are their own worst enemy. It's a blight on their football that a country that reputedly invented the beautiful game is a byword for football butchery.

Certainly they suffer in comparison to the Japanese (and to a lesser extent the South Koreans), who are limited by the same physical attributes as the Chinese but are renowned for a patient, highly technical style of combination football that places a premium on working the ball out from the back and getting it to the strikers without chancing it in the air. Too often the Chinese, like Australians in the past, resort to the old British habit of the long ball.

China may just snatch a medal in football at Beijing, but, in my opinion, a dais finish would arguably be one of the worst things that could happen for the sport's future in the Middle Kingdom. It's time to start anew, to clear out the procession line of Serb journeymen coaches, clean up the Chinese Football Association, change some unhelpful attitudes and get things right at the grassroots.

No medal, even gold, can hide the rotten state of the Chinese game.

Jesse Fink is a leading football writer in Australia. He is the author of the critically acclaimed book 15 Days in June: How Australia Became a Football Nation and has won various awards in Australia for his sports writing. This is his first article for Asia Times Online.

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