Sat, Mar 17, 2007 - Page 19 News List

Feature: Shaking up soccer's big underachiever


Ratomir Dujkovic has shaped up soccer teams from Myanmar to Rwanda, Venezuela to Ghana. Now he's moved to China's Olympic team, where the former Red Star Belgrade goalkeeper is tackling the game's biggest underachiever.

The country's soccer history is checkered. It failed to score in its only World Cup appearance. In its only Olympics, it also was shut out.

The domestic league is tainted by bribery and brawling, there is little grassroots support and a population of 1.3 billion has failed to generate a single marquee player.

Put simply: The world's most populous country and the world's most popular game just don't click.

"What China football needs is a trophy," Dujkovic said, leaning forward in his chair and planting his beefy hands on his knees. "This is why football in China is not so popular -- like basketball, like table tennis, like badminton or gymnastics. My personal dream is to play the Olympic final and take the gold medal."

Eight months ago, he coached Ghana into the second round of the World Cup. If he can produce that level of success at next year's Olympics, he'll probably be asked to lead China to the 2010 World Cup. Fellow Serbian Bora Milutinovic did it in 2002 -- China's only appearance.

"We have mentioned it sometimes in our discussions," he said. "We have to wait for the Olympics, and after that we can sit and talk about the possibility of taking the national team."

"I have the experience and the stomach for this," he added.

He'll need it.

China languishes far behind regional rivals Australia, Japan and South Korea. The national team is ranked No. 75 by FIFA, trailing Asian teams such as Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia and Oman.

"What is wrong with our team?" asked Zhou Jiming, an editor for the China Sports Daily newspaper. "This is the question everyone has been asking for a long time when they sit down to talk about soccer."

"If the Japanese and South Koreans can do a better job, it leads the Chinese fans to wonder why its team doesn't perform better," said Yan Qiang, a reporter with the Titan sports newspaper. "In addition, expectations were heightened by making the World Cup in 2002."

There's talent, with a handful of players spread across top leagues in Europe. But the country's famed sports machine -- reported to be training 20,000 athletes for the Olympics, and favored to lead the 2008 medal standings on home soil -- has failed to unearth a soccer superstar.

The top domestic league -- the Super League -- is run by the government and plagued by chronic mismanagement, match-fixing scandals and on-field violence. About two years ago, German conglomerate Siemens pulled out as the main sponsor, and average attendance has dwindled to about 10,500 per game.

This season's title sponsor -- a domestic brewer -- was announced just hours before the season opened earlier this month. The deal, reportedly worth US$4.7 million, is far less than Siemens paid, reported at US$10.3 million.

Compared to European leagues, the homegrown product looks awful.

"Fans watch all the European leagues on TV, and they expect big progress in Chinese soccer," Li said. "But the national teams, without a strong league and youth programs, can't be very good. We have to build the house from the base up, not from the roof down."

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