World's popular game struggles to gain ground in China

Updated: 2007-03-16 10:51
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Ratomir Dujkovic has shaped up soccer teams from Myanmar to Rwanda, Venezuela to Ghana. Now he's moved to China's Olympic team, where the former Red Star Belgrade goalkeeper is tackling the game's biggest underachiever.

The country's soccer history is checkered. It failed to score in its only World Cup appearance. In its only Olympics, it also was shut out. The domestic league is tainted by bribery and brawling, there is little grass-roots support and a population of 1.3 billion has failed to generate a single marquee player.

"What China football needs is a trophy," Dujkovic said, leaning forward in his chair and planting his large hands on his knees. "This is why football in China is not so popular _ like basketball, like table tennis, like badminton or gymnastics."

"My personal dream is to play the Olympic final and take the gold medal."

Eight months ago, he coached Ghana into the second round of the World Cup. If he can produce that level of success at the 2008 Olympics, he'll probably be asked to lead China to the 2010 World Cup. Fellow Serbian Bora Milutinovic did it in 2002 _ China's only appearance.

"We have mentioned it sometimes in our discussions," he said. "We have to wait for the Olympics, and after that we can sit and talk about the possibility of taking the national team."

"I have the experience and the stomach for this," he added.

China languishes far behind regional rivals Australia, Japan and South Korea. The national team is ranked No. 75 by FIFA, trailing Asian teams such as Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia and Oman.

"What is wrong with our team?" asked Zhou Jiming, an editor for the China Sports Daily newspaper. "This is the question everyone has been asking for a long time when they sit down to talk about soccer."

Like many, he recalls the humiliation when Kuwait eliminated China in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup.

"If the Japanese and South Koreans can do a better job, it leads the Chinese fans to wonder why its team doesn't perform better," said Yan Qiang, a reporter with the Titan sports newspaper. "In addition, expectations were heightened by making the World Cup in 2002."

In a country where few openly criticize the government, soccer in particular _ and sports in general _ is a place to vent discontent.

"The criticism is probably deserved, because the professional game is corrupt and bankrupt in China and needs a revolution at the grass roots," said Rowan Simons, an Englishman and 20-year resident who announces TV soccer games in Chinese. "Football is open to a level of criticism you won't see elsewhere."

There's talent, with a handful of players spread across top leagues in Europe. But the country's famed sports machine _ reported to be training 20,000 athletes for the Olympics, and favored to lead the 2008 medal standings on home soil _ has failed to unearth a soccer superstar.

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