China’s national team did not blaze through the group stage of the World Cup in France as much as stumble.
It scored a single goal in three matches. Its players appeared outmatched on the field and dogged by disputes off it. The team’s star player, Wang Shuang, who plays for Paris St.-Germain in the French professional league, was pointedly reproached by the coach and benched for significant chunks of the team’s first three matches.
The team did manage to advance to the knockout round of 16 nonetheless after a scoreless draw against Spain on Monday, but the greatest cause for celebration here in China was the fact that the team’s third-place finish in Group B meant it would not have to face the United States next.
No one is accusing the team, known as the Steel Roses, of overconfidence.
“In the last three games, we realized the gap between us and these strong teams,” the team’s coach, Jia Xiuquan, said Monday after tearing up at the end of the match against Spain.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In 2015, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, pledged to make the country a soccer power, one befitting its global ambitions as an economic, political and military leader. The plan called for building thousands of new fields and vastly expanding the number of school programs.
“My biggest hope for Chinese soccer is that its teams become the world’s best,” Xi, who has had a lifelong passion for the sport, declared then.
The women were, in fact, the first to qualify for this year’s World Cup, and that heightened expectations that the team, though ranked only 16th in the world, might regain some of the glory its predecessors achieved in the 1980s and 1990s.
Those national teams won the Asian Cup seven times in a row and reached the final of the 1999 World Cup, losing to the United States on penalty kicks after a tense, scoreless draw.
The Americans have had arguably the world’s best team ever since. China, by contrast, has faltered, never getting beyond the quarterfinals again. In 2011, it failed to qualify at all. By that standard, the team has already achieved a modicum of success in France, though not nearly enough.
“If it were 20 years ago, we would not have been satisfied with a result like this at the group stage,” said Dong Lu, a prominent television host, sports commentator and a founder of China Football Boys, a national youth club.
He, like other fans and experts, lamented that China has yet to develop the modern sports culture necessary to cultivate the development of world-class athletes.
The Chinese Super League, the men’s professional league founded in 2004, now has 16 teams and is hugely popular. Its owners have been willing to lavish money on foreign players as well, while the authorities have, for the first time, encouraged some foreign-born athletes to apply for citizenship. One already has been called up by the men’s national team.
The women’s professional league is smaller and has struggled in comparative obscurity.
“Of course, in China, women’s soccer lacks sufficient resources and recognition,” Dong said. “Ninety-nine percent of soccer fans only follow the Chinese women during a tournament like the World Cup. That includes the Chinese media.”
In the meantime, the Chinese team has not simply become worse. The rest of the world has become better, fueled by the growing attention and money, even if the latter still pales in comparison to the men.
“We cannot just dwell on the past,” Jia, the coach, said. “Everything is improving and moving forward. So I hope we can grasp every opportunity by competing against these strong teams.”
He added a note of urgency.
“Once you lag behind,” he said, “it will be very difficult to catch up.”
China drew a tough group and, as expected, lost its opening match, 1-0, to Germany, a two-time World Cup champion that ultimately won the group. China won its second match against South Africa, 1-0. In Monday’s draw, Spain dominated. The Chinese failed to take a shot in the first half and had only one in the second; Spain took 24. Only a heroic effort by the goalkeeper, Peng Shimeng, saved China. She was named player of the match.
Mark Dreyer, a British writer in Beijing who has covered Chinese sports for more than a decade, said the national teams are hampered by what he described as a “military style system” of coaching and training that stifles individual skills, creativity and even personality.
Wang, the star player, seems to have riled the coach. She started the opening match against Germany on the bench even though she is the reigning Asian player of the year.
“I don’t need a star in my team,” Jia replied acidly, when asked why afterward. “I need a team.”
Another player, Li Ying, had to play with her arm covered in a sleeve, obscuring her colorful tattoos — lest the televised broadcasts fall afoul of the censors back home, who regularly scramble images of tattoos as signs of decadence.
“It’s ridiculous that Chinese players are forced to wear accessories that can only hinder performance,” Dreyer wrote.
Li, a striker who scored the team’s only goal so far, did not address the matter and seemed focused on the results. “It doesn’t really matter if I scored or not,” she said after that match. “The most important thing is that our team won.”
It is not going to get easier. China will face the winner of Group C (Italy) or Group D (currently led by England). The team will almost certainly have to win that match before anyone declares that Chinese soccer is making progress toward Xi’s dream.
In the meantime, more than a few fans have taken solace in the fact that the women still outperform the men’s national team — by far. The men have qualified for the World Cup only once, in 2002, and were cashiered out after three losses in the group stage. They did not score a goal.
Liu Yuxi, a television host, said the women’s team “showed a spirit of tenacity, which is pleasantly surprising.”
“At a time that women’s soccer is rapidly developing, we are not lagging behind, we are catching up,” she said.
She said her fans and other friends were staying up to watch the matches, which take place late at night here, while social media is abuzz with comments.
“There’s always hope for China’s soccer,” one fan posted on Weibo, a Chinese equivalent of Twitter, “because we still have the women’s team!”