US v. China: Soccer edition

The World Cup has begun, and my mind has been consumed by soccer. So, in that respect, I direct you to an excellent story in the Economist about the sport and how it is followed/played less religiously in the four biggest countries in the world (by population) than elsewhere. On this front, the United States and China are pretty even.

Though its presence in Brazil shows that America fields a decent national team, there are a number of other sports its citizens pay greater heed to; in India there is another sport so deep in the national psyche that football seems hardly to get a look in. In China and Indonesia football teams from other countries have devoted followings, but the national teams are pretty poor. Neither Indonesia nor India has travelled to the World Cup’s finals in the competition’s 84-year history; China did once, in 2002, but failed to win any games, or indeed score any goals. How can football be the world’s game if nearly half the world hardly plays it?

Exceptions on this scale stand as something of a rebuke to football fans’ declarations of their sport’s planet-encompassing importance. They also show that football has the potential to get even bigger. These countries are “just starting to switch on” to the game, says Simon Kuper, the co-author of “Soccernomics”, a statistical analysis of football. European clubs—the richest and most popular in the world—see lots of potential for growth in the big markets of Asia and have increased their missionary work there. American, Chinese and Indian domestic leagues have seen an influx of cash and have improved as a result.

Both the U.S. and Chinese national teams are something of a joke, almost an embarrassment on the international stage. The U.S. squad is actually a pretty respectable 14th going into the World Cup, though, and has had some proud moments. China sits at 96th in the world and can’t even get into the tournament, overshadowed by its smaller Asian neighbors Japan and Korea. It has more embarrassing moments than proud moments.

But nationally, the top leagues in both countries have been bringing in big names to drum up interest: LA Galaxy brought in David Beckham to a ton of fanfare and New York got Thierry Henry, while Shanghai Shenhua had the biggest two signings in China with Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba. That momentary excitement did not end too well for the latter two players or the club.

While these international stars are usually past their prime, they do bring a lot of attention and often help to boost the level of play. Both the MLS and Super League are now gaining traction. In terms of interest, especially historical interest, the Chinese may still have the edge, but I’ve read that soccer is becoming a bigger deal in the States. After many false starts that sputtered out, the MLS appears to be finally catching on back home, a fresh awakening to a sport that seems to have new-found appeal to people looking for something different. In China, the Super League is trying to rebuild itself after decades of corruption and match-fixing scandals. People still deride the organization, both for the poor play and for the mind-boggling mismanagement, but thousands of fans also regularly turn out for each match. According to the Economist article, Super League matches have a slightly higher average attendance than MLS games. As a percentage of population, then, Americans seem much more interested in soccer than the Chinese; but given that a large majority of Chinese still live in rural villages without the transportation or monetary means to go to a match, game attendance may not be an accurate reflection of interest. Soccer games are shown much more on Chinese television: It’s so easy to catch both Super League and European league matches on live broadcast here; even Scottish soccer will begin showing soon.

Anyway, for the next month, I will be waking up in the middle of the night and dragging my ass to the bar to catch the World Cup games live. Some sellers on Taobao are offering official doctor’s notes so people can be excused from work the next day. You, Americans, will be watching during work. I’m honestly not sure which is better.

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