Soccer Culture as a Reflection of Social Change

Soccer, or 足球, is the most popular sport in the world.  After hearing that it is also extremely popular in China, I could not help but wonder why there is a dearth of success on the national scale.  For a population of over 1.3 billion people it stands to reason that at least one person would be the next soccer star, or at least good enough to be mentioned with some notoriety.  Still, for all the apparent passion and population size, there has been no outstanding player; while basketball has Yao Ming, there is no Chinese superstar for soccer.  Before arriving in China I had hypothesized that this could be partially explained by the societal emphasis on individual sports versus team sports. While this originally prompted my studying of Chinese soccer culture, when I actually started my research I became much more interested in the accentuated importance of individualism in soccer.  From my research I have be drawn to the conclusion that there a is a growing trend towards individualism among college-age soccer players, which reflects changes in youth culture as a whole following the 改革开放.


After I decided to perform ethnographic research on Chinese collegiate soccer culture, the most straightforward method to pursue this was through participating directly in pickup games.  My logic was that after participating in the activity other participants would be much more willing to speak with me.  The most important element to my research was interviews with players about soccer culture, meaning if college students were unwilling to be interviewed I would not be able to continue my research.  To conduct my interviews, I usually tried to join into  a pickup game, usually with the phrase: “我可以跟你们一起踢足球吗?” This simply asks others if they are willing to let me play soccer with them.  During the game I tried to only speak Chinese in an effort to integrate myself into the small society of players and have them recognize me as one of their own.  After playing I tried to talk to my teammates about general topics, eventually progressing into more complex questions about cultural views toward the sport.    Afterwards I would quickly return to my dorm and immediately write about my interviews in my research journal, from which I drew several passages as well as the majority of my information for this paper.


Map of Tsinghua Daxue

Map of Tsinghua Daxue

My field research was conducted at the 清华大学足球场, or Tsinghua University soccer fields, though this was only decided several weeks into my fieldwork. I actually started my research at the Chinese University of Geosciences, more colloquially referred to as 地大.  My time at the field was characterized by a distinct lack of Chinese soccer players; the vast majority of the players were actually from Africa.  Thankfully everyone at the field was very open to conversations; they quickly informed me that different universities’ soccer fields appeal to different audiences.  地大 happened to be populated by people from Africa, particularly Francophiles from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cote D’Ivoire.  They also told me that, somewhat ironically, Chinese students generally travelled to Tsinghua University to play soccer.  So after three weeks of field research at the Chinese University of Geosciences, I changed my research site to the Tsinghua University fields almost directly outside the building that I took Chinese classes in an effort to directly observe and interact with Chinese soccer culture.  The fields are noticeably smaller than regulation fields; the pitches showed heavy wear, with visible stud imprints and patches of missing grass.

The first time I went to the fields at Tsinghua with intent to participate was a late Monday afternoon. Upon setting foot at the Tsinghua fields, the difference was immediately apparent.  Almost every player was Chinese, with only the occasional foreigner.  Footage from the fields emphasizes the relative demographics of the two fields. There was an overwhelming impression of passion for the sport, with broad smiles intermixed with panting and running. The pace at which the pickup games were played was quick, with noticeable effort reminiscent of official soccer matches. All of the players came dressed to play; some simply wore Nike workout apparel, but the vast majority of the players donned uniforms from the most famous European soccer teams.  From my own experience playing in both America and Germany, the wearing of official uniforms when playing pickup soccer was by far the most surprising facet of the games I observed.  The one element to the games that was immediately familiar was the traditional schoolyard pick of teams to begin the game.  My own fieldnotes (Bales, 2013) described this practice in detail:

“It (picking teams) serves in part as a rite of deference in that it shows a difference in skill and social status.  The player picked first appears to be both skilled and friends with one of the captains, thereby creating an artificial ranking over the other players.  In my mind this ritual serves as a way to stratify the group, in essence showing who is valued more or less. This can be seen partially by the actions and body language of the players picked at different times.  The players picked first had smiles and reacted quickly, while the players picked later had increasingly negative body language.”

The first player picked acted seemingly superior, with his shoulders pulled back and his head held high.  One important element to the pick was that players appeared to be chosen by relative level of skill and not by position or for a balanced team composition.  My team did not even have a goalkeeper or enough natural defenders, instead consisting of mostly attackers.  An interesting note is that the captains who choose the teams were almost immediately chosen without debate, and not coincidentally were also the best players.  Assigning captains appears to be a method for giving the best players a sense of pride and respect within the community.  It acts as an important way to demonstrate whom the leaders are among the group, each chosen for their own skill and social standing.  The actions of the captains also reveals an important emphasis on individual ability; instead of focusing on the success of the group, the captains the team preferred individual talent.

The emphasis of personal ability continued to pervade all my further research into youth soccer culture.  A week later I returned to the fields, but this time in an effort to interview players.  Surprisingly many people were willing to speak with me, but unfortunately my Chinese was frequently not good enough to speak about complex ideas.  Thankfully I was able to converse with a player named Xiaoyang.  I met him while he was stretching on the side of the field; he came to the field with his friends but judged that it was too hot to play, so he was willing to talk to me.   While I was able to interview several other players about the same topics and attain similar results, this conversation was the most influential because his English was quite fluent.  While I started in Chinese, our discussion gradually shifted into English once the limits of my Mandarin had been exhausted.  When I asked him about his favorite players, he quickly responded 齐达内.  At first I did not recognize this player and thought it must be a Chinese star, but after a quick elaboration I realized he was referring to Zinedine Zidane, a famous French player who played for some of the most famous teams in Europe.  His view of soccer was heavily influenced by European stars and teams, not once did he mention a Chinese player or even the national team.  This part of the interview suggests a significant Western influence into Chinese soccer culture.  Possibly even more importantly, his interview stressed individual ability as opposed to team success.  Xiaoyang played 右后卫, or defense, because, in his own opinion, he was not the best player.  The most skilled players are supposedly the strikers, or 前锋, and get the attention.  The offense gets to “比分”, or score goals, which attracts the glory associated with winning. Xiaoyong stated that the strikers were the players who were most popular with both coaches and other players.  He stressed a lack of “tuandui” or teamwork, instead emphasizing a focus on individual ability.  This interview followed from my observations in my previous visit and supported the development of several themes, most notably Westernization and Individuality.  The theme of individuality was particularly evident in his interview; the concept that the best players wanted to be strikers was echoed in practically every interview I conducted.  The offense garners the most attention and respect, and therefore individual skill is tied up in position.

The themes from the previous interview were also echoed in my interviews with Fang Jun, who played soccer while attending 地大.  Similarly to Xiaoyang, he emphasized the importance of position and individual skill.  His view was important because he came from a different subgroup, which means that the views on individuality are not limited to Tsinghua students.  The interview so closely mirrored the others I conducted at the Tsinghua fields that I feel that the similarity in itself is a testament to the large-scale nature of these trends.  He started out as a goalkeeper, but after proving his skill he was able to move up to defense and later to midfield. It seemed like a natural progression from the less skilled and obscure defense to the glamorous offense.  He reiterated the role of individual skill on both position and social standing.


My research has reveals a definitive trend towards individualism among college soccer players, but the reasons for this phenomena are a little more unclear.  I have found three non-mutually exclusive explanations: the emphasis on individual sports, the influence of Westernization, and the role of education.

The first possibility for the increased role of individualism is the changes to athletic culture caused by the predominance of individualistic sports.  While from the Western perspective basketball is the most popular “sport” in China, to Chinese people Ping Pong is wildly more popular.  Ping Pong is actually frequently referred to as “国求”, meaning it is the national sport.  Even basketball, probably the most popular team sport in China, can be controlled by the skill of an individual.  The Chinese athletic system notoriously promotes individual skill from an early age, which has yielded tremendous results for individual sports.  At the same time, this top-down approach has been implicated in putting too much focus on the individual instead of the team (Economist, 2011).  The influence of the government has been essential to the creation of tremendous individual athletes, though it remains unclear whether this success spawned an emphasis on individual ability among all sports or if the popularity of individual sports caused this system to be enacted.

Chinese players typically wear uniforms of European teams

Chinese players typically wear uniforms of European teams

The second explanation is the influence of Western culture. Drawing all the way back to my interview with Xiaoyang, he said that his favorite player was French.  Similarly, not a single person I interviewed said that their favorite player or idol was Chinese.  In a continuation of this idea, the fact that the vast majority of Tsinghua players wear uniforms from European clubs reveals an underlying idolization of Western teams.  The picture on the left in an example of a typical player; the outfit that this player is wearing composes the complete uniform of the Spanish national team.  The Western influence of soccer might be responsible for the increased emphasis on individualism.  In psychology, Western culture is commonly presented as more individualistic, while Eastern culture contrasts with a collectivist worldview.  Countries like the United States and many in Western Europe are vertical individualist cultures, which means that these cultures value characteristics such as competitiveness and individual ability (Triandis, 2002).  The authors also insinuate that the influence of the United States’ vertical individualistic identity in particular has influenced the cultural worldviews of many collectivist countries.  Therefore, the increased Western influences on both general society as well as soccer itself might be responsible for the emphasis on individual ability in Chinese soccer.  This can be further supporter by evidence linking the 改革开放 with the rising trend in individuality among Chines youth. Chinese individuals born in between 1978 and 2000 exhibit a higher value on individual identity and ability, which has been called the growing “Me Culture” or自我文化 (Sima, 2010).  The authors cite the 改革开放 as opening the door for Western culture and the resulting prevalence in consumerism, which together with the later influence of the internet caused a tremendous change in the role of identity in Chinese youth.  A study on business managers found that, starting in 1978, the age of the manager had a strong inversely correlation with individualism (Ralston, 1999).

The third and final explanation arises from the type of people who are interviewed.  In my own research, I only interviewed people who attended either Tsinghua University or 地大.  These universities are both quite renowned and difficult to enter.  This common attribute could easily act as a to the findings that Chinese youth are dramatically more individualistic; to get into one of the best universities in China, never mind succeed there, takes incredible dedication and will to succeed.  This type of personality fits in with a more individual-centric worldview. I collectivist societies, there appears to be a trend between self-interest and certain measures of personal success (Brewer, 2007).

My view of Chinese college soccer as a whole reminds me of a dominance hierarchy in biology.  In a dominance hierarchy, individual fitness or ability is the measure of where that individual stands in respect to others in its respective group.  In spotted hyenas, each hyena has its own place in its group- with an individual both above it and below it on the pecking order unless it is at one of the two extremes.  Similarly, each player is put on a, albeit looser, pecking order with someone above and below them in terms of skill.  The person picked before you is more skilled, but you’re still better than the person picked after you.  This is one of the most generalizable concepts; with at its very core being that your importance matches your worth.  What’s interesting is how the Chinese soccer culture mirrors the large-scale cultural changes as a whole, which means certain elements of Chinese youth culture might reflect this model. I do not at all think that this model represents the culture as a whole because it is a very extreme view based on the especially competitive arena of athletics; still, I think certain elements like individuality and competition are seeping through into the youth culture.


Works Cited

“Little Red Card” (2011). Economist, Christmas Specials.  Retrieved from:

Sima, Y. & Pugsley, P (2010). The Rise of A “Me Culture” in Postsocialist China. The International Communication Gazette, 72(3), 287-306. Doi: 10.1177/1748048509356952

Triandis, H.C., & Suh, E.M. (2002) Cultural influences on personality. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 133-160. DOI: 10.1146/annurev.psych.53.100901.135200

Brewer, M, & Chen, Ya-Ru (2007).  Where (Who) Are Collectives in Collectivism? Toward Conceptual Clarification of Inidvidualism and Collectivism. Psychological Review, 114(1), 133-151. Doi:10.1037/0033-295X.114.1.133

Ralston, D.A., Egri, C.P., Stewart, S., Terpstra, R.H., & Yu, K.C. (1999). Doing business in the 21st century with the new generation of Chinese managers: A study of generational shifts in work values in China. Journal of International Business Studies, 30(2), 415-427. Doi:10.1057/lagrave.jibs.8490077