FAN Wei 樊维 and LU Zhouxiang 吕洲翔

Members of the Chinese women’s national team.

At the 1999 Women’s World Cup, one of the most famous moments of the tournament was American defender Brandi Chastain’s victory celebration after scoring the Cup-winning penalty against China. She took off her jersey and waved it over her head (as men frequently do), showing her muscular torso and sports bra as she celebrated. The 1999 final in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, had an attendance of 90,185, a world record for a women’s sporting event.

Soccer has certainly come a long way since its origins. Ancient cultures as diverse as the Greeks, Persians, and Vikings played ball games that could have evolved into soccer. However, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) acknowledged in 2002 that ancient soccer first appeared in Zi Bo 淄博, China, when the Chinese began to play a game called cuju 蹴鞠. Cu means “kick,” and ju means “ball,” and the game is mentioned in the Shiji, an ancient Chinese text. Even LI Yu 李漁 (50–130 CE), the famed Han-dynasty poet, wrote of football.

Some three thousand years ago, cuju players kicked a leather ball filled with feathers and hair through an opening measuring only 30–40 centimeters wide into a small net fixed onto long bamboo canes— a feat that obviously demanded great skill and technique. In a variation of this maneuver, players were not permitted to aim at their target unimpeded but rather had to use feet, chest, back, and shoulders while trying to withstand the attacks of opponents. Use of the hands was not permitted.

Cuju was used as a military training method as well as a physical education exercise in the Han dynasty 汉 (206 BCE–220 CE). Cuju started to become popular as a sport in the Tang dynasty 唐 (618–907 CE) and Song dynasty 宋 (960–1280 CE). During these periods the rules, techniques, and equipment of the sport developed and the game became popular with both the upper and lower classes. The games declined in thirteenth century during a period of dynastic change and political turmoil.

Chinese Classic Football

In over five thousand years of feudal history, the Chinese people created some traditional forms of physical exercise and activities and embraced others. Among them were archery, cuju (Chinese football), polo, guiyouci (long-distance running), wrestling, and wushu (martial arts), all with a distinct Chinese character.

Cuju was Chinese classic football. It started during the Warrior States Period (475–221 bce). It was originally an aggressive, competitive game and was played by two opposing sides, each with goals. During the Han (206 bce–220 ce) and Tang (618–907 ce) dynasties, due to its competitiveness, the game was often used by military mandarins to train soldiers in order to cultivate their fighting spirit and improve their physical conditioning. However, as time passed, two goals merged into one in the Song (960–1279 ce) and Yuan (1260–1368) dynasties. Vigorous competition was replaced by a much gentler phenomenon: less competitive and primarily exhibitive.

FAN Hong

Nevertheless, it is generally acknowledged that Britain is the birthplace of modern soccer. The sport was first known in Britain as “association football,” a rugged, kicking team sport. This term was shortened to “a-soc” and finally to “soccer.” Even though the sport was loved by ordinary people, the government did not approve of it because it took too much of people’s time. Instead of practicing archery (a sport useful for warfare), they were playing soccer. This is why, some researchers say, King Edward III banned soccer in the 1300s. Other kings also tried to suppress the sport, but too many people loved the game and did not care if they were jailed or punished for playing it.

Soccer began to spread from England to other countries in the late 1800s. The first official Olympic men’s soccer match took place at the 1900 Paris Games, where Britain defeated France to claim the first soccer gold medal. Since then soccer has been an official Olympic sport. Women’s soccer became an Olympic sport in 1996 in Atlanta, where the U.S. team defeated the Chinese team and won the gold medal.

In 1904 the FIFA was founded in Paris, and by 1930 there were professional leagues in many European countries. FIFA established its own world professional soccer -championship — the World -Cup — playing the first one at the Centenary Stadium in Montevideo, Uruguay, on 18 July 1930.

With increased television coverage of the sport, soccer grew in popularity during the 1960s. The champion of the FIFA World Cup is considered the “real” champion in the soccer world. For players the Golden Boot Award, which belongs to the leading goal scorer(s) of each championship, is the highest honor (see table 1).

Table 1: FIFA World Cup and Golden Boot Award Winners since 1986

Year World Cup Golden Boot Award
1986 Argentina Gary Liniker (England) 6 goals
1990 West Germany Toto Schillaci (Italy) 6 goals
1994 Brazil Hristo Stoichkov (Bulgaria) 6 goals; Oleg Salenko (Russia) 6 goals
1998 France Davor Suker (Croatia) 6 goals
2002 Brazil Ronaldo Luis Nazário de Lima (Brazil) 8 goals
2006 Italy Miroslav Klose (Germany) 5 goals

Source: Fédération Internationale de Football Association website.

Besides the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup, another leading world soccer tournament is the European Cup, also known as the “Champions League.” In 1955 the European Cup was established as a competition for league champions of European countries. The competition have has been a driving force in the development of soccer in Europeand a festival for soccer fans all over the world.

Modern Soccer in China

It has been recorded that the British brought modern soccer to China, first to Shanghai, then to big cities such as Beijing, Tianjin, and Guangzhou, in 1856. In 1879 the first documented match took place in Shanghai. In 1887 the Shanghai Football Club was formed. Twenty years later, in 1907, the first soccer league was established in Shanghai, with Thomas Dewar — a whiskey distiller — providing a trophy to the winners. Although the sport was initially dominated by British expatriates, other nationalities soon joined in, notably the Portuguese.

In 1923 the South China Club in Hong Kong represented China on a tour of Australia. In 1936 China participated in the Olympic soccer events in Berlin. Between the 1920s and 1940s, under the supervision of the Chinese Athletic Association, soccer matches took place in Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou between a variety of clubs, including Union, Korean SC, Tung Hwa, Tsong Peh, plus European teams Sokol, Italiano, and Jewish Recreation.

In 1951, just two years after the People’s Republic of China was founded, the National Football Federation was formed and the initial League Championship was held. In many cases teams represented regions rather than cities. Within a few years, sports institutes were developed, attended by the most promising players from factory and school teams. These institutes, along with the formation of a National Class A Tournament, enhanced the level of play. During the 1950s, Chinese teams built their skill levels through matches with foreign teams — primarily from other Communist countries.

In the mid-1960s, the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) brought a halt to the game’s progress, since all competitive sports were banned until 1972. Two years later, through the efforts of Henry Fok, FIFA executive and long-time supporter of soccer in China, FIFA member teams were permitted to play the Chinese. Then, in 1976, China was allowed to join the Asian Football Conference. That ushered in a wave of international activities. Pele and the New York Cosmos visited China to play, followed by teams from twenty-nine countries. In turn, some forty-seven national teams welcomed the Chinese team. By 1980, China was accepted as a full member of FIFA, which allowed its national team to play in qualifying matches for the World Cup, the Asian Cut, and the Olympics.

In 1984 China won the silver medal at the Asian Cup. In 1987 China qualified to play at the -Twenty–fourth Olympic Games, in Seoul, South Korea, by defeating its strong opponent, Japan, in the qualifying round. This event became a landmark in China’s soccer history.

In 1994 the Chinese Professional Soccer League (CPSL) was established. Under the supervision of the Chinese Football Association’s (CFA) Professional League Committee, this nationwide league was divided into Divisions 1 and 2: Division 1 was subdivided into Divisions Jia 甲 A and Jia B (jia is a Chinese word for “top” or “first”). Division 2 was subdivided into regional divisions. As the twenty-first century began, the CPSL attracted countless soccer fans in China and made soccer the country’s most popular sport. This period was the golden age in China’s soccer history. However, during the last ten years, soccer fans have lost their patience and passion and finally abandoned the CPSL. According to an online survey, which was carried out with cooperation between the television network of the People’s Republic of China (CCTV) and, soccer fans questioned the credibility of the results of more than half of the first division matches in the 2003 season. In many cities soccer enthusiasts boycotted live games in a wave of silent protest.

Beyond a doubt a decade’s worth of professional soccer has lined the pockets of Chinese players, club managers, and even referees. However, this activity has taken place in the absence of commensurate improvements in skills either on the pitch or in club administration. Systematic difficulties have worked against the promotion of the professional sport. The Chinese first division soccer league is jointly operated by the Chinese Football Association and the Football Sport Management Center of the State General Administration of Sports. This dual system has for ten years headed up the richest sport in China. However, the system has been beset with crises and seems destined to issue regulations that are full of loopholes. The ups and downs of Chinese soccer over the past decade can perhaps be explained by a management system that has not yet been fully reformed.

In 1996 China’s women’s national soccer team stunned the world by winning a silver medal at the twenty-sixth Olympic Games in Atlanta. This victory was China’s unique achievement in soccer and brought China a new hope in the sport.

Olympic Soccer/Football

Soccer matches in the Olympic Games in Beijing take place in five cities: Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Qinhuangdao, and Shenyang. The men’s title game will be held in Beijing at the National Stadium. Twenty-eight teams (twelve women’s teams and sixteen men’s teams) will compete against each other.

According to the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking established by FIFA, in the men’s events the finals may be between traditionally strong teams such as Argentina, Brazil, Italy, Spain, Germany, France, and Portugal. In the women’s events the United States, Germany, Sweden, Norway, and Brazil stood out as leaders. (See table 2.)

Table 2: FIFA/Coca-Cola Men’s and
Women’s Teams World Ranking

Ranking Team
Men’s Teams
1 Argentina
2 Brazil
3 Italy
4 Spain
5 Germany
6 Czech Republic
7 France
8 Portugal
9 Netherlands
10 Croatia
Women’s Teams
1 Germany
3 Sweden
4 Brazil
5 Norway
6 Korea DPR
7 France
8 Denmark
9 Canada
10 England

Leading Athletes and Coaches in China

LEE Huitang 李惠堂 (b. 1905) is considered one of the greatest Asian footballers in the pre–World War II period. During the 1930s, there was an old saying in Shanghai about Lee Huitang: “If you want to see the Beijing Opera, you should go to see the performance of Meilanfang [the famous actor at the time]; if you want to watch soccer, you must go to see Lee Huitang.” He was called the “King of Asian Football.”

Lee Huitang was born in Hong Kong. He joined the China National Soccer Team in 1923 and played for the national team that won the 1925, 1927, 1930, and 1934 Far Eastern Games. He became the captain of the Chinese national team that competed at the Eleventh Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936. During his professional career, Lee Huitang made 1,260 goals. He was awarded the title “The World Soccer King” by a soccer journal in Germany in 1936. He became the head coach of the Chinese national team in 1948. He coached the Chinese Taipei soccer team and led it to win the 1954 and 1958 Asian Games. In 1965 he became vice-president of FIFA. He is the first Chinese to reach that position

SUN Jihai 孙继海 (b. 1977) is well-regarded for his speed and strength and also valued for his versatility — having played several key positions in the past, including left wing, central defense, and holding midfielder. He was one of the first Chinese players in the English leagues, signing with the Crystal Palace team in 1998 then moving to the Manchester City FC. Though plagued by injuries, he is remarkably resilient and continues to be a key defender for Manchester City.

SUN Wen 孙雯 (b. 1973) is one of the most outstanding international female soccer players in China — the first woman ever nominated as the Asian Soccer Confederation’s Player of the Year. She joined the China national team at the age of seventeen. In the 1999 Women’s World Cup, Sun was awarded both the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot. Named in 2001 at the FIFA Woman Player of the Century (along with U.S. player Michelle Akers), Sun retired in 2003, then returned to play in 2005, before retiring again. Often sought for her opinion of China’s chances at Beijing 2008, she remains an icon for female athletes around the world.

FIFA Women’s World Cup 2007 was held in China from 10–30 September 2007. Originally, China was to host the 2003 Women’s World Cup, but the outbreak of SARS in that country forced that event to be moved to the United States.

Source: Fan Wei, & Lu Zhouxiang. (2008). Football/Soccer. In Fan Hong, Duncan Mackay & Karen Christensen (Eds.), China Gold, China’s Quest for Global Power and Olympic Glory, pp. 47–51. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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