China craves sporting recognition and has a huge passion for football, but development of the domestic game has been blighted by corruption and general apathy. Rowan Simons refuses to allow Chinese football to wallow in the gutter. Egan Richardson on an influential figure in Beijing.
Few British people have as deep an understanding of and passion for China as Rowan Simons, who moved to Beijing in the late 1980s and has lived there ever since. He has enough in his media businesses to keep him busy – the group consists of three companies, and does everything from media production to strategic consulting, from event organising to communications – but one thing has given him a sense of mission.
"Football has always been my passion," says Simons in a phone interview conducted with radio86.com just before he ran out of the door for a training session. "I started playing as soon as I came to China, but I realised very quickly that football in China was very different from football in the UK, and elsewhere. In the mid-90s I was lucky enough to be a co-commentator on English Premier League and FA Cup matches on Bejing TV, so I became very well known to football fans as the English guy who talked about football."
Simons has a vision for Chinese football, and has devoted a lot of effort to promoting a grassroots vision of the game that contrasts sharply with the top-down, centrally-planned model he thinks is the major problem in Chinese football.
"Through the 90s, I became very frustrated with the despair and the disaster that is Chinese football, with more and more fans complaining about it, but no-one actually doing anything about it," sighs Simons. "Towards the end of the 90s, I realised that it needed perhaps a foreigner to help China on the route to understanding football, so I set up a company called China Club Football FC, which was the first foreign-invested football club in the country. And we focus very much on grassroots activities. Amateur football for kids and adults, and everything that goes around that. Over the years we've struggled against every challenge that you can imagine, but each year we've got bigger, and we're now the largest football club in Beijing with something like a hundred thousand registered members and over 2,000 kids playing every week in over twenty locations around the city, and over a hundred teams participating in our adult leagues."
Football in China, though, is "different in every way imaginable", and this was apparent from an early stage. When Simons organised a game between a foreign students' XI and their Chinese counterparts soon after he arrived in China in the late 1980s, he was incensed that they kept sneaking on additional players in an effort to avoid a heavy defeat and thereby save face, something he found impossible to understand. The culture clash goes right to the top, in Simons' view.
"Everything is different," Simons emphasises. "I mean if we start at the top, the China Football Association is a department of the Ministry of the Sport, run by the government. In our countries, in most nations, the Football Association is an independent body representing the interests of the game."
This model has numerous problems, and Simons thinks there is a clear link between the numerous scandals Chinese football has suffered in recent months. Chengdu Blades, a subsidiary of second tier English club Sheffield United, were relegated in February as punishment for paying bribes to referees. So were Guangzhou GPC, while second division team Qingdao Halifeng were disqualified from the league completely. Simons, who thinks the Chinese Super League is "riddled with corruption, match-fixing and gambling scandals", and has a "very low" standard of play, and says the CFA is a "toothless and powerless organisation under the Ministry of Sport", welcomed the crackdown.
"I think that the crackdown probably came with the right meanings behind it, and it probably went further and deeper than people had originally expected," explains Simons. "I think once they took people into custody all sorts of things started coming out, and the net had to get wider and wider and wider. It very suddenly stopped. A lot of the rumours here say that it stopped once it started implicating very senior central leaders, so I think we have to take it with a pinch of salt, but certainly it did a lot to root out the endemic corruption that is part of the game. The CFA is part of the problem really, and central government stepped in after twenty years of continuous disaster to try and sort it out."
”I don't think it's got to the root of the problem, I think it will rear its ugly head again, and the corruption and nepotism is much deeper and more ingrained than the campaign was able to make clear or even prosecute”
The entrenched problems are much, much deeper. The "Golden Whistle" of Chinese refereeing, Lu Jun,was arrested earlier this year, along with two other referees: Zhou Weixin, who like Lu was retired, and Huang Junjie. Lu, who officiated at the 2002 World Cup, was implicated along with the former head of the China Football Association (CFA), Nan Yong, his deputy Yang Yimin and referees committee chief Zhang Jianqiang. Such action is only a small step towards a cleaner football league, believes Simons.
"I don't think it's got to the root of the problem, I think it will rear its ugly head again, and the corruption and nepotism is much deeper and more ingrained than the campaign was able to make clear or even prosecute," says Simons. "So we're in a situation here where selection for coaches, referees and players are all subject to payment by those players, coaches and referees. And (subject) to nepotism, here positions are given to people with good relations to those in power. So it is a filthy dirty game from its core, and this campaign brought it to public attention, but I don't believe it's gone deep enough to change the fundamental issues."
Given that the crackdown has apparently not, in Simons' view, resulted in a corruption-free national game, the obvious question is why the government decided to launch the investigations in the first place. Simons has little doubt that football's potential to affect the mood of the nation was not only recognised, but lay at the heart of the government's decision to act against corruption.
"There may well have been specific incidents that led to it, but in general, you have a central government that cares very much about social harmony," explains Simons. "It's sort of a watchword for the government in recent years. And football has this ability to ignite passions in China - it is a continual national debate, the embarrassment of football in China - and the government is very aware of this. And I think that in the end, very very senior officials, even possibly to presidential or Prime Ministerial level, said that it's been twenty years now, we just hosted the Olympics, we won more gold medals than ever, we look around the various sports and the only one that continues to make us a laughing stock internationally is football – what are the reasons for that?"
The reason, as Simons sees it, is very simple – not enough Chinese people play football. His own solution to this problem, ClubFootball, has expanded rapidly in recent years, and has helped tens of thousands of ordinary Beijingers to participate in the sport. The current CFA policy of elite selection and training, as announced by new CFA head Wei Di in August, involves players being sent to Europe for three years as part of an agreement between the CFA and European football Associations. The CFA hopes to add more destination countries to the programme in the future, which echoes many previous attempts by the Chinese government to improve the game there.
"The CFA itself admits that if European clubs came to scout talent at those age groups, they would pick maybe one or two on merit," says Simons. "Now that is to say that 98 out of 100 kids should not be playing in Europe because they do not meet the standards required by those clubs. Now because they do not meet those standards, China will pay for those children to go. And because they are not residents of the countries they are going to, they can't join state schools, they have to go to private schools. And because they are not good enough to take part in elite programmes, they will go to second or third level programmes, for which they will also have to pay. So we're talking about an investment of 20,000 euros per child, per year. So 100 children over four years, you're talking about something like 12 million euros investment into 100 children, 98 percent of which will never make it as professional footballers."
Previous generations of Chinese footballers have been sent to Hungary and Brazil, and the results have been patchy at best. Simons believes that excessive timidity on the part of the CFA lies behind the reluctance to try new methods.
"We're in a new situation, a new leader of the CFA post-crackdown and clear-up, and he's gone for exactly the same Soviet type of model that has never worked before. I think the funding is coming from private sources, so for me it's a massive misappropriation of goodwill funding for the game."
The chances of such funding being re-directed might seem quite low, but Simons has high hopes for ClubFootball, one of the driving forces in opening up participation for young Chinese football that is gaining respect from the Chinese authorities for its work with young people.
"It's not a monolith, the Chinese government, there are many people in there with different views of how things should go, and we have very very wide support from the media. And I think there's a recognition that we are true football lovers, that we have the interests of the game at heart, and slowly we're being asked to take a bigger role in terms of the projects that they're doing."
There is another problem, as Simons sees it. FIFA's opposition to political interference in national football associations has led to sanctions against football associations in many countries, but never in China. This is in spite of the country's 1993 Sports Law, which states very clearly that the Chinese government is responsible for all sports and that "subsidiary organs" will be responsible for implementing sports policy, which Simons believes is in clear violation of FIFA's constitution.
"There's a direct contradiction between the rules of football and the rules of China," argues Simons. "And as someone who's dedicated to the game of football in China, I ask the question "what am I supposed to do?". Am I meant to disassociate myself from the CFA, as an illegal organisation, or am I should I be supporting that and therefore giving up the key principles of FIFA. Nobody in the last ten years has given me an answer."
Simons' concern about this issue is particularly acute, as chairman of Beijing's biggest football club. China Club Football FC focuses on amateur football, and grassroots activities for children and adults that might one day lead to a pyramid structure that could produce a more successful Chinese national team.
"It's an impossible choice. It's an impossible choice for China, because if you open football, you have to do every other sport, and if you do every other sport then surely lots of social and cultural organisations will require the same independence, and then you'll have a very different country. I think the situation for FIFA should be much simpler. They have a constitution, they are frequently taking various countries to task for governmental interference and banning them from international competition. If they want proof that China is guilty of just that sort of governmental interference, all they have to do is read the sports law of China."
That law was written nearly 20 years ago, and Simons believes it is already beginning to look outdated in the face of societal changes taking place in China.
"I do think football is a very good reflection of Chinese society, and a very easy way for us in the west to see the differences in China and Chinese society, and some of the challenges that it faces. I think there is a change within society, it's coming at a generational speed rather than quicker than that, but a new generation of people have a much more globalised world view, and a much better understanding about choices they can make in their lives. In our work with ClubFootball for example, when we started our junior coaching programmes in 2004, it was an entirely expat experience. Now more than 30% of our kids are Chinese. Similar things are happening at the adult level: when we started our five-a-side league programmes they were all foreign teams, now nearly we're approaching a situation where half of our teams are Chinese. More and more Chinese people are taking the responsibility themselves, to decide how they want to live their lives and the choices they want to make."
The most striking way this outward-looking mindset manifests itself is in the motivations of parents and children at Club Football. When they first started offering coaching for Chinese children, Simons' team found it difficult to persuade Chinese parents to subject their kids to an activity that was marketed as fun, rather than self-improvement. English language skills are highly prized among Beijingers, and so what could have been a problem – foreign coaches delivering courses through native interpreters – is now a unique selling point for the club.
"We just very simply added to the phrase "play football", "speak English". And "play football, speak English" immediately attracted Chinese parents, every single one of whom agrees that English is a very imoportant skill to have. In China, playing football alone is not enough to encourage people to turn up - the English component of that was actually the key factor. It seems bizarre, but we're almost tricking them into playing football by offering them an English language environment. And of course once they come and they play, they will start to make friends as well."
This article originally appeared here at radio86.com, a portal offering news and culture articles about China. Rowan Simons also helped with a guide to Beijing for football fans.