In the sprawling residential suburb of Huilongguan, northwest of downtown Beijing, the neighborhood soccer league is in the middle of its championship game. The audience, most of them the wives and children of the players, shout encouragement as two teams of men of all ages and sizes dressed in bright yellow and red run across the grass pitch on a college campus. Wang Yuyu, a 32-year-old former amateur athlete, cheers as the Tornadoes beat Meteor Garden 3-1. Wang has only missed a few matches in the past six years, and more than anything, he wants to see the league reach its 100th season.
Chairman Wang, as some of the league members jokingly call him, runs the Huilongguan Super League, China's most influential grassroots soccer league. Huilongguan's members first met each other in 2002 through a classified ad posted on the suburb's community website. "We thought we'd have a kick around, but over 70 people showed up," Wang chuckles. The weekend kick around soon turned into eleven-a-side, and by 2004, nine teams and about 180 players competed in Huilongguan Super League's first championship. (See pictures of street basketball in China.)
Soccer referred to here as football has been slow to catch on in China. When the Republic of China was founded in 1949, authorities took control of the development of all sports and turned them into yet another political project to achieve international recognition. Almost all resources for sports development went to élite sports schools that serve as talent pools to represent China in international sports events. Amateur sports, with little political significance, have been largely ignored. China established its first professional football league in 1994, following the example of European leagues. The system, however, never fully embraced the market values that made its European counterparts such a success. Although teams are sponsored by major companies like Samsung and Hyundai, they are still "owned" by their local football associations, which are government departments. (See pictures of China's sports schools.)
The pro teams that do exist have problems of their own. The Chinese Super League, now the top-tier professional league in China, has been plagued by scandal in recent years. Despite government intervention to assign the best players to represent China at international tournaments, match-fixing, pitch violence, controversial referees and the outrageous behavior of star players have not helped professional football's fan base in China. "If you keep a record of the champion teams every year, you'll see that the players remain the same every year, only in different jerseys and representing different cities," Wang says. "That's a different game played by a very small group of people. We don't play for money, fame or political glory. We play because we want to be a part of the sport."
Huilongguan Super League takes its inspiration from the Community Shield, an English trophy that matches England's best professional team against its best amateur team for charity. "We came up with a slogan for the championship last year 'Return sportsmanship to football, and let the people's sport remain a people's sport.' " Wang is not alone in his conviction. In recent years, amateur football leagues have started to catch on in larger neighborhoods in Beijing. On May 17, as 12 teams in the Huilongguan Super League played their 9th round, at least four other community championships were being played across Beijing. The Chinese Super League was also concluding its 9th round on the same day, with a 0-0 game between Chongqing city and Changsha city, played in a half-empty stadium.
Unlike many nations, where pickup games are played in town squares and neighborhood streets, football has never had a wide popular following in China. "Huilongguan Super League is still building the first stage of grassroots football, while in England, grassroots football is the base of the whole football pyramid," says Rowan Simons, a U.K. citizen who runs China's only legally registered amateur football club in China with about 3,500 members. According to FIFA's 2006 "big count," a survey of all its member associations, there were only 382,762 junior players in China. In England, there are 820,000. "Football talent is not manufactured in sports schools. The English Football Association spends over 50% of its resources on grassroots football development," says Rowan. "If participation among kids [in China] could be raised to the level in England, I guarantee you that among the extra 25 million young players, there are 11 who could develop into World Cup stars."
As people have an increasing amount of time and money to spend on leisure, more and more fans like Wang Yuyu are getting involved in building the game, though it is not an easy business. It took Wang almost six months to find sponsorship for this year's Huilongguan Super League. "I do worry about how far we can go," admits Wang. "We grew up watching football and we love this game. But if Chinese football does not reform, will our children still share the same passion?"
That kind of reform can happen quickly if the central leadership changes their approach to football and returns it "to the people," says Rowan. "There are senior leaders now asking why Chinese football is in perpetual crisis, and they are looking for solutions. But even if the authorities don't take active steps to encourage private and community-owned networks, it will still happen. It's the people's game." And it seems that Huilongguan's future teams are already coming together. No longer an active player, Wang has started coaching about 60 young children every week. "It can be an unruly bunch," Wang chuckles before running over to help keep excited children from running out onto the pitch to help their dads.