The World Cup is here. I’ve just watched the Germans thoroughly trounce a hapless Australian squad with four thunderous goals. The Germans play soccer like they wage war–technically sound, organized, efficient, and strategically decisive. Given equal numbers, nay, superior numbers even–the Aussies had a man sent off on a red card mid-way through the second half, the Germans will embarrass you like France 1940.
No, they won’t play with the flair and “samba” of a Brazil or a Spain; they’re more likely to roll over you like a Tiger tank. But the Germans are an ambitious lot. They often bite off more than they can chew. (You’d think losing one multi-front war against a bevy of allied nations would have been enough.) So no, they won’t win it all this year either; some other country that treats soccer more like a party and less like business will, you watch. Welcome to soccer as an allegory for Life 101.
But back to the point. This is all reminiscent of an article in the Washington Post on July 27, 2008 by Xu Guoqi on the futility of the Chinese national soccer team. As has been commented upon by others, many Chinese detractors see China as the oppressive monster juggernaut in Asia, an economic and totalitarian powerhouse, and a threat to freedom and democracy-loving people everywhere. Without addressing the correctness of these characterizations, it’s curious that many of these people cannot see China the way the Chinese see China–as an adolescent country just now emerging into the world, racked by self-doubt, a history of under-achievement, and being dominated by other more powerful nations. This is where Xu’s article hits home with the allegory. Despite the growth, the economics, and the superb performances during the Olympics, China is a nation in love with soccer, and full of angst over its inability to compete in a sport in which the likes of Slovenia, Serbia, and even North Korea competes. No, the Chinese win wars when they should lose them for the same reasons the Germans lose wars when they should win them–on the pitch, after all, it can only be eleven against eleven, no flood of American material or Chinese bodies to tip the balance.
Likewise, the Chinese approach to academics has often been criticized as unimaginative, rote, capable of producing students good at memorization, but poor at original problem solving. The traditional communist approach to sport, perhaps, is also susceptible to similar criticism. The sports dormitories will churn out technically flawless automatons, but none who are capable of the flair, artistry, and originality found only in those who truly love and pursue their respective sports with heart and passion. Perhaps there is an explanation for why the Chinese have never really excelled at team, ball-centric pursuits? Could it be the same explanation as why the Chinese are unlikely to build a car with the quality of a Mercedes, though they’ll boast that you can buy two lesser Chinese-made vehicles at a lower price?
In the international sphere, the Chinese will always be plagued by these issues of confidence. Questions will always be asked when it’s perceived that China is being slighted by the West. The need to put up an iron front against such slights is driven mostly by the self-perceived notion of actual weakness. Perhaps it will take the coming of the day when the Chinese men’s national soccer team win the World Cup for such crises of confidence to be overcome, so that China can “chill” a little in international politics. In that case, perhaps that day will never come. Nevertheless, rest assured that most Chinese are fully aware of the nation’s possible weaknesses in both sports and political ideology. That’s why they think it’s so absurd when the rest of the world tries to paint China as the fearsome powerhouse who has it all.