Reporting from Beijing — It is the world's most populous nation, with an awe-inspiring athletics record and voracious sports viewership. Its teams dominate events from badminton to diving, gymnastics, and even track and field. They won more gold medals than any other nation at the 2008 Olympics.
So how is it that China couldn't qualify for the 2010 World Cup?
"We're 1.3 billion people; can't we find at least 11 guys who are good at soccer?" groaned Gao Wei, a 23-year-old sports fan.
Every four years, the top 32 national teams compete in the world's most widely televised sporting event. But China's not there. And rubbing salt in the wound, its biggest Asian rivals, Japan and South Korea, both made the cut. Even penniless North Korea is in the tournament, and held its own in a respectable 2-1 loss to top-ranked Brazil.
The absence of the Chinese at the 2010 World Cup is the source of much soul-searching here. The excuses are many. Some blame corrupt domestic leagues and lack of emphasis on the sport among young children; others blame a soccer tradition less pronounced than that of Europe, or the conflict between commercialized leagues and state sport authorities.
"China has no culture — I mean, no soccer culture," declared Gao Yang, who was working for Adidas at a soccer-themed display at a Beijing shopping mall.
Some Chinese believe that their bodies might just not be well-suited to sports like soccer: Traditionally, sports such as badminton and table-tennis have given Asian athletes their greatest successes.
It cannot be claimed that the Chinese are indifferent to soccer: The World Cup match last Saturday between South Korea and Greece was watched by 24 million Chinese. But for a country as patriotic as China, it's unusual that a national sports team find itself a decades-long running joke.
"Football is my favorite game," Deng Xiaoping said in the 1950s. "But when I watch China play, I feel like I'm suffocating."
In comparison to the teams of the decidedly capitalist West and totalitarian North Korea, the Chinese soccer squad seems stuck between two ideologies. "China's lack of success in soccer is due to its conflicted approach to developing the sport," said He Ju, a former writer for a state-owned sports newspaper.
The Chinese Football Assn. is a commercial entity overseeing China's professional soccer leagues, but it also exists as a department in the government's General Administration of Sport. The two systems work against each other, resulting only in confusion and disorganization, He said.
"In China we have so many people and so many resources," He said. "If only we could stick to one method [of developing soccer], we'd be able to succeed."
Compared to men's soccer, the women's national team has done well. Women's soccer in China, like in much of the rest world, is younger and less commercial. China's team has developed at a similar pace to those in nations traditionally regarded as powerhouses such as Argentina, Brazil, or Italy.
In 1999, the women's team was runner-up to the United States in the World Cup. Sun Wen, a member of that team, was voted Women's Player of the Century in 2002 by FIFA, soccer's international governing body. She shared the honor with American Michelle Akers.
China did not qualify for the 2011 Women's World Cup, however.
On the men's side, China's soccer system is also dogged by allegations of corruption. The official New China News Agency listed soccer scandals as No. 5 on a list of "top ten crackdowns in 2009." Officials, coaches, and players in the top-level Super League were accused of game-fixing and gambling. At least 20 people were arrested, including the vice chairman of the Chinese Football Assn., Nan Yong.
In the 2008 season, a player from the Tianjin city team chased a referee down the field at the end of a match and pushed him to the ground. Since then, the national sports channel has not aired the league's games.
"China's [soccer] is critically ill," the news agency said in another report. "The roots must be pulled up along with the grass."
However, there also is some recent optimism. The anti-corruption bust seems to have helped set the Super League on the right track. In early June, China defeated a full-strength France. (Discouraged realists are quick to note that the match was only an "international friendly," with no bearing on world ranking).
Though he prefers basketball, a sport in which China has earned a solid reputation, Gao, the young sports fan said he is following the World Cup and rooting for his favorite team — Argentina.
But would he cheer for China if they qualified in 2014? Gao paused: "Well … I would watch their games."
Frank is a Times staff writer.