Giant on the move
Soccer is in a tight spot in China — literally. Huge crowds roar for Manchester United but the national team is a laughing stock at 108th in FIFA world rankings. Poor coaching, lack of grassroots development, even corruption and violence are variously cited as reasons for the sport’s demise. But the real reason may be more basic: the fact of physical space, or the lack thereof, in China.
If geography is a determinant of economic development, then it is fair to extrapolate that urban geography underpins the development of sports. And here’s the rub for soccer, not to mention American football and baseball. With few parks, small concrete schoolyards and a dearth of quiet streets, urban China offers little of the space needed for the sprawling play that defines those sports. Soccer has deep roots in China, but playing space has been squeezed as cities sprawl and swallow land in big gulps.
The NBA’s huge popularity in China has left other sports leagues salivating. They, too, dream of their own Yao Ming bringing forth TV audiences in the tens of millions and merchandising opportunities galore. But basketball can thank China’s spatial constraints more than its own marketing wizardry for such success. Dozens of nets crammed into schoolyards make the sport accessible to a huge number of young enthusiasts. The ease with which basketball has been woven into China’s urban fabric has a precedent in the explosion of Chinese table tennis in the 1950s. Both are simple enough games that can be played in tight spaces.
Curiously, the physical limitations of the crowded country augur well for one sport that uses more space than almost any other: golf. Unlike baseball, football and soccer, golf does not need a critical mass of ardent supporters to take off. Golf, in fact, can thrive in conditions of scarcity, when a small number of high-priced courses consolidate its position as an elite pastime. The lack of space in China makes it an expensive sport, out of reach for the great unwashed and just the ticket for the country’s nouveau riche.
But perhaps a bit of African improvisation would not be such a bad thing.
Nigeria went on to reach the final of the tournament, beating old rivals the Ivory Coast and then thrashing Belgium 4-1 before coming unstuck against Argentina. Their semi-final performance against Belgium mixed moments of sublime skill with reckless defending and woeful, shoddy finishing. But the scoreline speaks for itself.
The former England captain has millions of fans in China. He will appear in the Bird’s Nest at the Olympics closing ceremony tonight, kicking a ball into the crowd from a red double-decker bus to symbolise the handover to London.
Rickey Rogers writes: Pictures of sports idols don’t get much better than this one. Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona kisses the hand of modern-day Brazilian idol Ronaldinho.
The rivalry between their countries, their differences in personality and the arrogance for which Maradona is known all make this fraction of a second one that in the sports world speaks volumes.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter says he does not see any need to change the format of the Olympic soccer tournament, which is restricted to under-23 teams and allows each to field up to three overage players.
Many people, however, feel that soccer is something of an unwelcome gatecrasher at the Games and that not bringing its top players is rather like turning up at the party with a bottle of cheap plonk.
The cheers before kickoff in the Beijing Workers’ Stadium were for five-times world champions Brazil and Ronaldinho. At the final whistle, the Chinese crowd rose to acclaim Argentina after a 3-0 win against nine-man Brazil sent them through to the Olympic final.
China may be a relatively untapped soccer market, but the 50,000 plus crowd knew that the best team had won on the night.
The Olympic soccer tournament does not cut much ice in Europe but it is taken much more seriously in South America. Brazil have won the World Cup five times, the Copa America eight and the Confederations Cup twice and their failure to add an Olympic gold to their collection rankles.
The podcast team reflect on insane Usain, Phelps fatigue and the most dangerous man at the Beijing Olympics.
I’m joined by Julian Linden, Belinda Goldsmith, Brian Homewood, Erik Kirschbaum and Neil Maidment to look at the dafter side of the Beijing Games.
Now I’m at the Olympics in Beijing, well, I think I still do… but I must admit this life-long credo is coming under severe strain.
Michael Phelps cast a shadow over the Games once again on Wednesday as the man from Baltimore won two more gold medals, and set two more world records, to take his Beijing tally to five and make it 11 gold medals in his career.
What an athlete this man is. He is renowned as a cool customer, but we noted today that he did not entirely reject the idea that he is the world’s greatest Olympian. That’s a big debate, and one we’ve joined in lustily here at View from the Bird’s Nest, but no one would deny that he’s one of the greatest Olympians and I’m sure he’s about to put a lot more fuel on the fire when he goes for the remaining three golds open to him.