The Economist traces the development of football (soccer) in China, a history filled with ulterior motives, corruption, public scandals and, most of all, a lot of losing on the international stage:
In a country so proud of its global stature, football is a painful national joke. Perhaps because Chinese fans love the sport madly and want desperately for their nation to succeed at it, football is the common reference point by which people understand and measure failure. When, in 2008, milk powder from the Chinese company Sanlu was found to have been tainted with melamine, causing a national scandal, the joke was: “Sanlu milk, the exclusive milk of the Chinese national football team!”
Solving the riddle of why Chinese football is so awful becomes, then, a subversive inquiry. It involves unravelling much of what might be wrong with China and its politics. Every Chinese citizen who cares about football participates in this subversion, each with some theory—blaming the schools, the scarcity of pitches, the state’s emphasis on individual over team sport, its ruthless treatment of athletes, the one-child policy, bribery and the corrosive influence of gambling. Most lead back to the same conclusion: the root cause is the system.
A recent crackdown on football corruption offers little solace; it simply mirrors the pyrrhic campaigns against official corruption elsewhere in China. A mid-level functionary in China’s state security apparatus puts it candidly: “You know all those problems with society that you like to blame on China’s political system? Well it really is like that with football.”