INTERVIEW-Soccer-China game hampered by lack of base - author

BEIJING, June 23 Mon Jun 23, 2008 10:29am BST

BEIJING, June 23 (Reuters) - Soccer in China is dead and the lack of a grassroots base is hampering the chances of a quick revival, according to the author of a new book about the world's favourite sport in its most populous country.

China first victory in their Asian qualifying group for the 2010 World Cup against Australia on Sunday was too little, too late and they now have no chance of appearing at international soccer's top table until 2014.

Rowan Simons, whose book "Bamboo Goalposts" was published last month, believes that only widespread reform of the whole footballing structure in China can save it.

"It's dead, in my view, it's never had a life," the 41-year-old Briton said in an interview.

"It's always been about the elite, you can do that with minor sports but not football... unless something is done soon, it'll be the end of football in China altogether."

Simons arrived in China in 1987 and has remained for much of the last 21 years, enjoying fame as a football commentator for Beijing TV and running a couple of media companies as well as China Club Football.

At the end of the 1990, he witnessed China's football boom and was also around when it petered out after China's sole appearance to date at the World Cup finals in 2002.

"For a couple years it looked like China might become a footballing power but, with hindsight, it's easy to say why that wasn't real, because there's no grassroots, there's no pyramid," he said.

"Corruption became an issue... with referees getting large bundles of cash and then being replenished at halftime to make sure the second half went the same," he added.

Simons thought about how to save the game he loved in the country he now considered his home and decided they needed to go back to an era that was "clean and pure".

ELITIST SYSTEM

Settling on the 19th century when the game was growing as an amateur sport in Britain, he and his partners came up with China Club Football. Like everything else in China, running an amateur football club would require official permission.

"I don't think they understood what we were trying to do because it's an elitist system in China and the Chinese Football Association (CFA) doesn't have amateur football in its remit," he said.

"In their thinking this was stupid, 'Why would you get involved with football for people who will never be any good at it?' They said 'you're mad but go ahead'."

The club now has 60,000 members with more than 100 teams playing weekly five-a-side competitions.

"It's a mission, the goal is to have the largest amateur football network in the world."

Simons points out that in FIFA's "Big Count" in 2006, China had only 708,754 amateur and youth players from a population of 1.3 billion compared to 738,800 from 41 million in England.

"If China could get to the same level of participation as England, that's an extra 40 million players," he said. "It can happen really quickly if there's political change."

Simons was hoping August's Beijing Olympics would be a catalyst for that change and that his book would be part of the conversation that preceded it.

"I wrote it for China, I wrote it for Chinese people and the Chinese government but it doesn't look now like it will be published in China before the Games," he said.

The Chinese system is not only bad for the game, Simons feels, but also contravenes FIFA's rules on government interference in the game.

"Give China a bit of time, five years let's say, and if they don't get the government out of football, they should be banned from international competition," he said.

"How can China still be a member of FIFA when the CFA is a government-controlled body and there are no elections to it at all?"

Simons believes there is a "massive groundswell" of support for reform.

"People feel disenfranchised, they feel angry at the way football is being treated and the way the national team always fails," he said. "When will China be mature enough to allow people to organise their own football matches?" (Editing by John O'Brien)