awakening of the sleeping giants

Between them, India and China house a staggering 36% of the world’s population. They’re the only two countries in the world with over a billion people living within their borders, with the next closest country boasting only a “paltry” 312 million (Hooray, 3rd place U.S.A.).

there has to be a world class chinese footballer somewhere in that crowd.

The general consensus amongst the “experts” is that the two Asian countries are both budding superpowers on the world stage, and will play major roles in global politics and business alike in the coming decades. Considering the might in manpower and brainpower that their massive populations provide, I’m frankly a little amazed they haven’t taken over the world yet… though if you visit any American outlet mall, you could be forgiven if you think they already have.

Anyway, one would expect that this same power in numbers would also be of huge benefit for them when it comes to footballing dominance too. If nothing else, India and China would have significantly larger pools of players from which to choose. With governments that have been supportive of athletic excellence in other sports, one would also expect them to have vast resources being poured into a game that is so important globally.

Fortunately for the rest of the world, none of that’s been the case.

As is well known, both the Chinese and Indians are minnows when it comes to the beautiful game. India’s current FIFA World Ranking of 138 is the more horrific of the two, while China languish in a slightly less anemic 74th.

But to truly appreciate just how bad India and China’s ranking plight is, it’s best to compare their populations and rankings with those of other countries around the world.

Country FIFA Ranking Points Population Pop. Rank Points per Capita Rankings Ratio
Spain 1 1564 46,196,278 28 0.00003386 0.036
Netherlands 2 1365 16,727,255 61 0.00008160 0.033
Germany 3 1345 81,768,000 15 0.00001645 0.200
Uruguay 4 1309 3,203,792 135 0.00040858 0.030
England 5 1173 51,446,000 23 0.00002280 0.217
Brazil 6 1143 192,376,496 5 0.00000594 1.200
Portugal 7 1100 10,561,614 80 0.00010415 0.088
Croatia 8 1091 4,290,612 124 0.00025428 0.065
Italy 9 1082 60,757,278 22 0.00001781 0.409
Argentina 10 1067 40,117,096 31 0.00002660 0.323
China PR 74 455 1,339,724,852 1 0.00000034 74.000
India 158 138 1,210,193,422 2 0.00000011 79.000

Take a closer look at those last two columns, Points per Capita (PPC) and Rankings Ratio (RR). Re-ranking each of FIFA’s 208 member associations on RR — a comparison of football and population rankings — they finish 207 and 208 respectively, also known as dead last. The only reason they’re spared the embarrassment of finishing on the bottom of the PPC rankings too — which compares the average number of points earned for each person in the country — is because none of Montserrat, San Marino nor Andorra have been able to earn any points yet.

India's Baichung Bhutia
unless you're a fan of bury, i doubt you've ever heard of india's most famous footballing son: baichung bhutia.

Suffice to say, the two Asian superpowers are punching well below their weight class.

Both countries have demonstrated an insatiable appetite for top class football, as is evident by their growing demand for European leagues on their televisions and pirated streams originating from their internets. So you know that their poor international showings aren’t to be blamed on a lack of interest in the sport. Unsurprisingly, at the heart of their troubles are the horrible domestic set-ups within each country.

The Chinese Super League has only been around since 2004, and in its short lifespan it has earned a worldwide reputation for corruption and violence. India’s poor footballing output is the result of it being looked over by investors and the public due to the popularity of cricket in the country. Both countries lack proper infrastructure when it comes to developing players. There’s also a severe shortage of proper pitches in both China and India: hardly surprising when space is at such a premium due to population constraints

However, recent news has suggested that football may finally be on the up and up in both China and India.

The Chinese Super League, fresh off a lengthy “clean-up” process to rid the game of match-fixing, recently announced its most prominent signing ever. Intended to be the CSL’s “Beckham signing”, capital club Shanghai Shenhua were able to lasso in former Chelsea, Bolton, Liverpool, PSG, Real Madrid, Fenerbahçe and Arsenal striker Nicolas Anelka. Though probably past his peak, the Frenchman would still be a valuable commodity for a number of high profile team’s around the world. Word is, former Blues teammate Didier Drogba could also be following him to China in the summer.

India, meanwhile, have announced the formation of a new professional league that will feature at least seven formerly high-profile players from around the world’s game. Robert Pirès, Fabio Cannavaro, Fernando Morientes, Robbie Fowler, Hernán Crespo, Maniche and Jay-Jay Okocha have all been recruited with a pile of cash at least $600,000 tall to play in a seven week long season. The model for the new league looks to build on the success of the MLS and cricket’s Indian Premier League models to kick start Indian football’s progress.

Yet despite these massive signs of progress, I can’t help but shake the feeling that both of countries’ moves to advance their footballing statures are deeply flawed… but for very different reasons.

shanghai shenhua's nicolas anelka
i'm skeptical that anelka will stick around chinese football long enough to make an impact.

While signing a player of Anelka’s quality definitely shows ambition, the CSL and Shenhua sure picked an odd basket to throw the all of their eggs into. For the low cost of just £175,000 a week, Shenhua have bought themselves a player whose personality is so warm and marketable that he’s earned the nickname Le Sulk.

Remember though that the Chinese Super League isn’t like MLS, where the gulf in quality between that and the Premier League isn’t too massive. The Chinese league’s talent level is an order of magnitude lower. And due to Anelka’s moody disposition and tendency to look disenchanted on the pitch, I worry that he’ll either implode the squad or simply quit when he inevitably becomes frustrated with the lack of quality in his teammates.

More concerning though — regardless of whether or not Anelka’s stay is long/short/successful/unsuccessful — is the lack of public announcement about equal investment in the league’s young domestic Chinese players. If that’s not happening, no matter how much attention the Frenchman draws to the league, it will all be a waste.

India’s new league announcement, however, did contain some hope for youth development. When announced by the Indian FA, the new league was identified as a sort joint-venture between them and Celebrity Management Group (CMG). The partnership promised to not only bring in famous “world class” players to help fill seats, but also brought a requirement of each team containing at least six under-21 Indian players in each squad. So if nothing else, you at least know that this league is planning beyond the 30-something “stars” that have agreed to buoy the league in its infancy.
But a few potential problems immediately spring to mind with the Indian model.
howrah's robert pires
here's hoping that an aging pires doesn't have any problems with his old man legs in india... too much is riding on them.
First, with a fourth of each team’s $2.5 million salary cap likely going to be eaten up one of their “marquee” players, what happens if that star player picks up an injury that keeps them out for a while? That seems highly likely when the average age of these players is 36. Will they be able to fill the stands — something the current league struggles with outside of Bengal — without a big name in the starting XI? 
Secondly, how will the creation of these brand new franchises affect the current I-League clubs? One would imagine that all of the u21 Indian players required of each new team are currently playing in that league. Do the new clubs have to pay the existing ones for those players? And will the I-League continue to run during the new league’s off season, providing the players with the amount of training needed to develop outside of a paltry 7-week season for the new set up? And what of the rivalries and history between the existing clubs… is that all just being trashed to push the new league to the forefront? If so, it would be a blow to big matches, such as the Kolkata derby between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, which drew 90,000+ last season.
And lastly, I’m highly skeptical of the entire set up being a joint venture with a celebrity booking agency. Not only does that stink of exploitation, but the partnership is also a thirty year deal. Think about that for a second: thirty years ago there wasn’t an English Premier League, there were only 24 teams in the World Cup, and goalkeepers could pick up back passes. A lot can happen in 30 years, and I’m hoping that the Indian FA had enough foresight to not give away the farm without extra precautions.

Unfortunately for all of my skepticism, nobody really knows how these India and China’s latest moves in the world of football will work out. It could all come crashing down, or it could all work out and we’ll be talking in 20 years about how we wish these moves hadn’t happened… we’ll look back and classify these events as the “awakenings of the sleeping dragons” or some other overused Asian idioms.

But if that time comes and neither China nor India’s massive populations have produced one world class player, we can use this posting as a massive “I told you so.”

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