Can kung fu revive China’s flagging football fortunes?By Michele Penna Aug 16, 2013 1:46PM UTC
If “everybody is kung fu fighting,” was the refrain of Kung Fu Panda, will “everybody is kung fu dribbling” be the anthem of the Shaolin Jianye International Football School? The People’s Daily recently reported that the school – to be built in Dengfeng City, Henan Province – is the product of cooperation between the Ruling Circle of Song Shan Temple Monks Training Base, a local institution bent on martial arts, and the Henan Jianye Football Club. According to the newspaper, the two sides will invest 2 billion Yuan – about $324 million – in the project, which will be completed in three years and will display a stadium and two gyms.
Shaolin Temple made it clear it is not involved in the program and told the media that monks would not be trained there. Nevertheless, the school was founded by Shi Yanlu, a former disciple of Shaolin Temple whose dream is to exploit kung fu techniques to improve football skills. Mr Shi reportedly stated that “the grasp of attack and defense in Chinese Kung Fu will benefit football training.” Their goal is “to do something tangible for Chinese martial arts and football.”
It is not clear whether kung fu can be put to use in order to score penalties, and even less whether the ancient martial art can benefit from football. Traditions have already lost part of their allure, as kung fu turns out to be not just a way to achieve inner peace, but also a lucrative business involving movie stars, franchising, guided tours and advertising. Scandals, too, have emerged and even knocked on the door of Shi Yongxin, Shaolin’s Abbot. In 2011, unconfirmed rumors had him being caught soliciting a prostitute and piling up billions of dollars, along with a villa in Germany.
For its part, Chinese football badly needs some kung fu style change. The national team has never done well, failing to qualify in all but the 2002 edition of the World Cup. A poor performance, all the more disappointing as the team represents a country which topped the list of gold medals at the 2008 Olympics.
Not that Chinese people lack an interest in this activity: football is possibly the most popular sport after basketball. To see firsthand how people feel about the green pitch, one only has to look at the area around Gongti, in Beijing, on Sunday afternoons. Streets are filled with green shirts and caps, the standard uniform of Beijing Guo’an’s supporters. The atmosphere can even get tense if an important match is underway, as it happened in 2012, when Guo’an fans smashed a Jaguar belonging to a supporter of their historical rival, Tianjin. The love for football, however, is a double-edged sword: great if you win, it becomes a burden if you lose. Given the national team’s average performance, it comes as no surprise that criticism and mocking are the norm among fans.
Clubs have their troubles, too. Despite having heavily invested in foreign talents – Drogba, Anelka and Guangzhou’s coach Lippi being well-known examples – local teams are still lagging far behind internationally renowned ones. Scandals do not help, either. Last year, Nan Yong and Xie Yalong, both former heads of the Chinese Football Association, were sentenced to over 10 years of imprisonment for taking bribes in a match fixing affair. Actions that no kung fu master would tolerate.