The Scarcity of Chinese Soccer

Screen Shot 2013-07-03 at 2.38.14 PMI am conducting my field research at Beijing University of Geosciences, which is more commonly referred to as  地大.  地大is located relatively close to Tsinghua; biking from Tsinghua to 地大 usually takes between twenty to thirty minutes depending on traffic.  I chose this university because of Fang Laoshi’s advice.  I was told that the fields on the campus were usually very busy, and on my first visit the fields actually appeared overcrowded with Chinese players.  My following two visits have given drastically different experiences, with the second visit presenting completely empty fields.  The reason for the absence of players was apparently that even on the weekend Chinese students don’t play soccer during the early afternoon.  From my visits and chatting with students in the surrounding area I’ve discovered that the fields are only used in the early morning and around 5 pm.  For my third visit I arrived around four in the afternoon, but to my surprise the vast majority of the players were actually from Africa.  Apparently I had stumbled upon a scrimmage between the soccer teams from Beijing Forestry School and Beijing University of Geosciences, thankfully they asked me to join them after I arrived and I got to play for the Beijing Forestry School team.   One interesting note was that even though there were very few players actually from China, the referee only spoke Chinese.  I was able to speak to most of the other players, and although I have not had many direct interactions with my group of study I have been able to study the culture of Chinese pickup soccer as a whole.

My most valuable moment of my fieldwork so far came on my third trip to the site.  After a grueling ninety minute game, I was able to converse with the other players.  I spoke to a student at Beijing University of Geosciences named Ibrahim for quite some time following the match.  Although he came from the Democratic Republic of Congo, I was actually able to learn more about the culture of Chinese college soccer from him than I had through my limited interactions with actual Chinese players.  We were able to communicate through a broken mix of Chinese, French, and English.  Ironically, he was much more willing to speak Chinese with me than most of the Beijingers I have met so far. He spoke about the relative lack of Chinese players at the field compared to the abundance on the basketball courts directly next to the fields; he firmly believes that basketball is wildly more popular than soccer, although he had no thoughts to the underlying reason.  He also told me that the Chinese players “know better” than to play in the afternoon during the peak of pollution and heat, instead they only come in the morning.  Following this rudimentary conversation we discussed what he was doing, the locations of other universities, and other miscellanea.

This conversation revealed a lot about the culture of pickup soccer in China, as well as certain demographic stratifications.  One reason Ibrahim gave for the lack of Chinese people was the heat, and although it was definitely a sweltering day I think there were also other factors.  After the match was over and I was sitting on the sidelines next to a few Chinese students, I heard them remark about the “黑人比赛”.  From what I could gather, Chinese and African students play at different times, though there are several possible reasons for that.  One very likely reason lies in the difference in physicality.  The game I played in was very rough, with the players having no qualms about using their strength to gain an advantage.  From watching the games during my first visit, the Chinese students appear far less physical and competitive.

The idea that basketball is more popular than soccer has been echoed by almost every interaction I have experienced during my fieldwork.  Every person, whether Chinese or foreign, has talked about the relative lack of Chinese soccer players.  Apparently the fields at BCLU, Beijing Forestry University, and even 地大 are dominated by foreigners- the distinction is the ethnicity and language of the foreigners.  At the same time, the basketball courts are typically always in use by Chinese students.  This definitely follows from my readings before I came to China, but this is much more extreme than I had expected.  An article by the Washington Post cites the quick jump in popularity of basketball in China, and how watching basketball has abruptly hampered the previous love of soccer.  Similarly, an article on Sports Business Daily attributes the “meteoric rise of basketball in China” to actually making basketball a very real challenger for the most popular worldwide sport.  Now that the relative disinterest in soccer is clearer, it will be interesting to explore why and when this occurred. This conversation has left me very eager to talk to actual Chinese players about attitudes toward soccer, which means I am going to have to start going to do fieldwork around 7am on the weekends.