China's communist party celebrated its 90th birthday in the summer. It has come a long way from the innocuous-looking house on a tree-lined Shanghai street where officials now warn tourists to take hands out of pockets as they gaze at the table where the first meeting took place. There was a time when the thought of a soccer team like Guangzhou Evergrande spending $10 million on Argentine star Dario Conca and making him one of the highest-paid stars in the world would not have sat well within the party. Those days have long gone. Also just starting to disappear are the days when money was thrown at the top levels of soccer while the grass-roots went ignored. There has been a cultural revolution of sorts at the Chinese Football Association (CFA).
A population of over 1.3 billion has led many a commentator to assume that it is only a matter of time before China finds 11 worldbeaters. A far more important statistic however is that there are less than 10,000 registered players under the age of 18. Japan has over 500,000. "Nowadays, I think there are at most 10 out of a 1000 schools in China that support students to play soccer," said the much-missed Hao Haidong, the country's record international goal scorer, in July.
What everyone wants is sustained success for the national team which, when it comes to representing Chinese soccer to the world hasn't done a very good job or, on the contrary, perhaps it has shown the country's soccer failings perfectly. The 2002 World Cup appearance resulted in three defeats and no goals scored. That wasn't much worse than the debuts of South Korea and Japan on the global stage but the difference is, the neighbors to the East made sure they returned, learned and improved. And it is players from those two, not China, that are in demand in England, Germany and Italy and it is clubs from these countries, not China, that dominate the Asian Champions League. It hurts that the Middle Kingdom is still middle-ranking in its own continent.
Since that first World Cup, the team hasn't come close since, not even reaching the final stages of qualification. After two games in the first group stage of qualification for 2014, a similar scenario would not be a surprise. A scrappy home win over Singapore was followed by a 2-1 defeat in Jordan. Games with Iraq in October and November will likely seal the fate of the team and new coach Jose Antonio Camacho. If the World Cup record is poor, its continental cousin doesn't offer a much warmer embrace. Since making the final of the Asian Cup on home soil in 2004, two first-round exits have followed. The 2008 Beijing Olympics were a complete disaster in a soccer sense while the road to London was ended at the preliminary stage of qualification by Oman. That revived a sport that the Chinese play well: blaming the CFA. It is still the standard response to national setbacks and will be so until there is actually something tangible to cheer about.
But this is a different federation. Like so often, the beginnings of a new era have roots in the ruins of the old. Years of corruption in Chinese football was barely tackled but in 2010, CFA chief Nan Yong was found guilty of the crime, imprisoned and everything had changed. His successor Wei Di, a person with no soccer background, has really made a difference.
With Wei's new broom starting to sweep clean, sponsors, eager to access the Chinese market, are returning to the game with Toshiba backing the revived FA Cup. It is a far cry from the recent past when the start of the league would be delayed while the federation frantically looked for backers.
The CFA realized that if cleaning up the game was the first step, planning the country's soccer future around the young is the second: "The training system of Chinese teenage soccer has slipped into a state of paralysis over the past few years," admitted Wei. "We are beginning to pay for the mistakes now. The popularization of soccer should start with children and the progress of Chinese soccer depends on the emergence of high-level young players."
In the highly competitive world of urban China, parents need some persuading that playing a team sport is the best way to spend time that could be used for study. Those that do take up sports have tended to receive more encouragement from both family and state in those events, usually individual, in which practice and time invested have a reasonable chance of bringing returns in the shape of medals and money. But the societies of Korea and Japan are just as competitive, probably more so, and still manage to produce lots of players with lots of talent. What they do have however, is facilities and coaches that are improving all the time. Lessons can be learned from the East, not always an easy thing for the Chinese to admit. "Everybody knows children need a good atmosphere and environment to discover their talents in music and painting. In fact, it is the same in soccer," said Hai. "There's no need for us to argue which soccer style we should learn as our neighbor, Japan, is the best teacher for us. We have no time and the CFA must do it right away and step by step." As South Korea's former Tottenham Hotspur and PSV Eindhoven defender Lee Young-pyo told me recently. "China needs Japan's system. With that, they will eventually become the best in Asia."
The news that Wang Jianlin, chairman of a real estate company, had agreed to invest $77 million to help hire better coaches, send young players overseas and develop youth programs, is welcome though comparisons to Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich are not. "It's a shame to be compared to the Russian billionaire," said Wang to reporters. "I feel ashamed to be mentioned with him. He treats soccer as a kind of amusement in his luxury life while I am really concerned about the sport's poor situation in the country. I am keen to lift it from the valley."
The investment coming into those valleys means that the increasing amount of money swishing around at the peaks doesn't seem quite so perverse. Not that Guangzhou fans would care either way. The cash splashed by owner Xu Jiayin, one of China's richest men, has bought a host of domestic stars such as Zheng Zhi, ex-Charlton Athletic and Celtic, and Sun Xiang, formerly of PSV Eindhoven, young international Zhang Linpeng and sharpshooter Gao Lin as well as expensive South Americans in the shape of Brazilian striker Cleo and now Dario Conca. Under the distinctly unglamorous leadership of taciturn Korean coach Lee Jang-soo, Guangzhou, known inevitably as the Chinese Manchester City, are looking very comfortable at the top of the table.
The national team has yet to reach such heights. At clubs like Guangzhou, serious investment can bring quick rewards but as far as Chinese soccer in general is concerned, it takes intelligent and sustained investment at all, especially the grass-roots, levels. There will be no great leap forward -- it will be a long march to success.