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Bamboo Goalposts: One Man's Quest to Teach the People's Republic of China to Love Football Paperback – March 4, 2009
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Simons is an Englishman who came to China as a university student in the late '80s, fell in love with the country, and hustled his way into a position to return and make a life there. He combined a few contacts in sports promotion and media with his Chinese language skills and an entrepreneurial spirit to build a multifaceted career in the just-developing Chinese television market. Be warned, it takes a good 100 pages of his backstory before the soccer content really gets going. But that's OK, because his stories about being a Westerner in Beijing when Westerners were relatively scarce are well-told. They're also en excellent reminder of the rapidity of China's growth and opening to the outside that's happened in the last 20 years. Indeed, probably the best part of the book are Simons' eyewitness accounts the Tienanmen Square protests and the bloody response.
The latter 2/3 of the book cover the choppy (and often corrupt) history of modern Chinese soccer, both at the national and and club level, along with the story of his own efforts to start an English-style amateur football club,and all the logistical, financial, and bureaucratic obstacles that faced. Simons lays the lion's share of the blame for the pathetic state of Chinese pro and national soccer at the door of the central government. The Chinese sports model has always been a top-down approach, with central control seeking to identify the elite athletic talent and directing all resources toward that elite. However, by never developing any kind of "grassroots" youth and amateur club system, or allowing the civic space for one to develop on its own, the authorities have severely limited both the spread and appeal of the game.
Simons also identifies a problem with how the outside soccer world has interacted with China. Plenty of foreign clubs have come to China on tours, and many have tried to establish some kind of semi-permanent presence, but all have failed. Instead, he suggests that entire leagues need to come to China in a coordinated effort -- an approach that has worked wonders in other sports, such as the NBA's effort to popularize basketball, and the NFL's initial efforts to raise interest in American football. Unfortunately, with all the attention he gives to structural and bureaucratic elements, he never provides any interactions with players or coaches from the Chinese system. It's a large missed opportunity, since presumably some of the foreign ex-coaches would have plenty to say about what's wrong, and some players might be willing to speak off the record.
As the time frame of the book moves closer to the 2008 Olympics, Simons realizes this is his best chance to influence the development of the beautiful game in China. And in fact, near the end, it is revealed that this book served as one of his main outlets for critiquing the Chinese system and is clearly meant to spark internal debate and changes. The problem is that there is thus no epilogue about whether or not his critiques have had any impact on the Chinese football authorities. So the book ends up being this fairly interesting journey building up to a big moment, and then it just ends abruptly. Still, it engaged me enough as a soccer fan to want to seek out further information about Chinese soccer and how it develops over the coming years.