My country is about to host the world’s greatest sporting event and, we hope, claim a truckload of Olympic gold. But to hundreds of millions of Chinese, our widely anticipated bonanza of medals will mean very little. The real metric by which China judges itself against the rest of the world isn’t the discus or the decathlon. It’s not even our record-beating economic growth rate or our postmodern skylines. It’s soccer. And when it comes to our beloved sport, China is not just the sick man of Asia. It’s the sick man of the world.
Our soccer tragedy is epic. Since the late 1970s, when China resumed international play after decades of self-imposed isolation, our national men’s team has made it to the World Cup only once, in 2002. On June 14, we lost a qualifying match to Iraq, of all countries, thereby shattering our hopes of entering the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The rising superpower had been beaten by a failed state.
Such failures have not only forced many Chinese into the sort of depression that only a Chicago Cubs fan could understand. They have also prompted doubts about Chinese manhood, undermined the country’s vaunted can-do spirit and sparked agonized questions about our politics, culture and society — even about what it means to be Chinese. For the regime in Beijing, success at the Olympics may demonstrate China’s superiority, but for China’s long-suffering soccer fans, the only real yardstick for China’s greatness is a victory in the World Cup. Some 700 million Chinese watched the 2006 World Cup. They weren’t happy.