| BEIJING, June 23
BEIJING, June 23 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".
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
Simons believes there is a "massive groundswell" of support
"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)