China Kicks Off 'Great Leap Forward' On The Soccer Field
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In recent years, China has become a sports powerhouse. It's won piles of Olympic gold medals and dominated sports such as diving, badminton and table tennis. But it's soccer that many Chinese care about most. And there, the country's performance has been dismal. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing on the government's master plan to fix that situation and one prominent fan who apparently had a crucial say in the matter.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Fake right, go left. That's the drill soccer coach Tom Byer is teaching first graders at a school in suburban Beijing, with the help of an interpreter.
TOM BYER: Alls you have to do is address the ball in front of you, pull the ball back. You notice I'm doing everything with the right foot. The left foot's not even touching the ball.
KUHN: China's plan calls for a national soccer curriculum to be introduced in 20,000 schools nationwide in the next five years. Byer's a native of New York and an adviser to the program, and he helps train Chinese coaches and kids. Back at his hotel, he tells me that his strategy is to start at the grassroots, to build a nationwide pool of soccer talent.
BYER: There's only eight countries that have ever won a World Cup and they're the same repeaters every single time. And it comes down to one really, really, really important word - culture.
KUHN: Byer advocates teaching kids from as early as age 2, drill them in the basics like controlling the ball, cultivate soccer moms and dads to help the kids, and, he adds, before you start worrying about professional soccer, focus on competing in youth leagues.
BYER: If you're not investing in the youth of today or tomorrow, you're not going to play in the World Cup. That's the reality of it.
KUHN: He adds that there are no shortcuts to soccer glory.
BYER: You know, a lot of these countries - not just China - think that they're one coach away from playing in a World Cup.
KUHN: China had an earlier government plan in the 1990s to rev-up soccer. And they did make it into the 2002 World Cup, but they failed to score a single goal. The drafters of China's latest soccer master plan also asked sports promoter Wang Qi for his advice. He says their questions revealed a lot.
WANG QI: (Through interpreter) Their first question was, what method can we use to raise China's soccer level in the shortest amount of time? Their question shows that they're in a big hurry to get quick results.
KUHN: Much of the impetus for the program comes from China's number-one soccer fan, President Xi Jinping. It's been widely reported that he wants his country to host and win a World Cup. That's why Wang Qi finds officials' extreme and enthusiasm for the plan a bit fishy.
QI: (Through interpreter) Many Chinese officials' biggest problem is that they only know how to fawn on their superiors. Xi Jinping likes soccer, the leadership wants to develop it, so they all rush to build soccer fields. They have no concept of governing for the people.
KUHN: Back on the soccer field, Coach Tom Byer prepares to head off to other schools. In the meantime, he tells the kids to practice hard until he returns in a few weeks.
BYER: So I'll see you next time. OK. Bye-bye.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Bye.
KUHN: The earliest China is likely to have a shot at hosting the World Cup is 2026 or 2030. How long it could take China to win one is unclear. Xi Jinping has eight more years in office. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.