Rowan Simons was 20 years old when he first came to Beijing in 1987, to learn Mandarin as an exchange student from the UK. “Those were the days when foreigners and the Chinese danced at separate discos, nobody owned cars, and foreigners used a separate currency called Foreign Exchange Certificates,’’ Simons told Lounge.
But he made Beijing his home, and witnessed the rapid changes in China, starting with the government’s fierce crackdown on protesting students at Tiananmen Square in 1989. “Sports is a community activity,” says Simons, talking about his new book Bamboo Goalposts, which was released in the UK in July. “But China looks at sports politically. It’s a government game.”
The kicker: Simons in action in China.
In his book, Simons describes his 20-year experience of teaching the Chinese to play football and the game’s evolution in the country— from mud-and- grass pitches to the setting up of the China ClubFootball in Beijing that now has 60,000 email members, 100 adult teams and 2,000 children under training. The club’s hero is Deng Xiaoping, the late premier and reformer, whose love for football is legendary in China.
Even today, football is not a sport that is supported by local clubs. Only a handful of volunteers play and teach the game for the sake of the game itself. Without these, there is little space for talent to be nurtured to professional levels. Simons’ book discusses how the football system in China is regulated, against Fifa (International Federation of Football Associations) stipulations. He also brings out his own journey through his interactions with the football-loving people of China.
“I was extremely happy on 13 July 2001, when China won the bid to host the Olympics,” says Simons, who is also director of Odyssey Media Investments, a media investment consultancy. “But I’ve become disillusioned. It started as a wonderful opportunity for China to open up.”
Simons says that China focuses only on elite athletes who are sure to bring home the medals and neglects community sports. “The Olympics has put sports reform in China back by a decade,” he says. “The danger is that China thinks the Olympics is the end of its sports journey. But it should be the beginning of a new sports revolution in China.”
Simons’ goal is to base ClubFootball in all 160 Chinese cities with more than one million people. But the numbers don’t add up. In the UK, 1.5 million play football every week (2006 estimate), compared to less than 800,000 in China.
Bamboo Goalpost will arrive in bookstores by the end of August.
Reshma Patil is the China correspondent for Hindustan Times. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org