China failed to reach the quarter-finals of the FIFA Women’s World Cup this year losing to Italy with a 0-2 score and showing the worst performance in its seven appearances in the competition. The disappointing result reflects how far China has fallen behind the usual champions of such tournaments and even newly developed women’s teams from Italy and Spain. Fans are increasingly worried because Chinese women’s football has not established a healthy professional system for its long-term development and also lacks attention from football fans. In most occasions, it’s only mentioned in an attempt to mock Chinese male footballers.
Chinese women’s football once brought a lot of pride and honor to its supporters. In 1999, China historically made it to the World Cup final. Although China lost to the USA in the final by a single penalty kick, fans still nicknamed those women “Steel Roses” for their iconic performances. Sun Wen, the most reputed Chinese women’s footballer at that time, received the most internet votes on the FIFA-website in the FIFA Female Player of the Century Voting. The national team’s success also promoted the development of the professional league, which strengthened people’s confidence that Chinese women’s football would have a better future.
However, women’s football in China couldn’t keep up with its golden age dynamics. In 2000, the Chinese team was in the same group with USA and Norway, two clear favorites that year. Unfortunately, it was knocked out in the group stage. Things were getting worse when Sun Wen and other members of the golden generation announced their retirement. In Athens 2004, China lost to Germany by a shocking 0-8, and in 2011 and 2012, China failed to even qualify for the finals of the World Cup and the Olympic Games respectively. In recent years, Chinese women’s football has been undergoing a slow revival and China entered the final of the Asian Games in 2018 after 16 years. Yet, no one can deny that China is no longer a dominant powerhouse on the global, or even Asian, scale.
Continuous poor performance in international games drastically cooled people’s passion about the women’s football league. From 2011 to 2014, the women’s league even discontinued the practice of promotion and relegation since there were not enough teams and quality platers. Even today, the Chinese Women’s Super League is still struggling with financial and talent shortages. Currently, there are only 8 teams that participate in games, half the participants in the men’s league. In 2018, Tianjin Huisen withdrew from the league due to financial difficulties. It seems like no one cares about women’s football. However, whenever anyone talks of the girls, it’s done with a high degree of tolerance and encouragement.
People’s tolerance of women’s football stems from their resentment of the high salaries that male players are earning. Based on Sporting Intelligence, China stood at the 6th place of the average basic annual salary among all football leagues. The average annual player salary of Guangzhou Evergrande is over $2 million. Compared to the six figure salaries earned by their male counterparts, girls are still struggling against the “poverty line”. “It is impossible to afford a house if football is your only income source”, the former goalkeeper of Chinese national team, Zhao Lina said. Every time Chinese men’s football disappoints its fans, they take online to express their distress in comments like “Let’s dismantle the male team and spare money to our girls. Those men do not deserve even one cent.”
However, when asked to pay for Chinese women’s football, those people become silent. Sadly saying, there are only fewer than 1000 tickets sold on average for each game in Chinese Women’s Super League, and there is no specific channel for women’s football in almost all Chinese football-related apps. Chinese women’s football, seemingly professional, exists as an affiliation to men’s football and acts as a way to vent fans’ anger against male teams’ poor performance.
Isn’t women’s football attractive at all? The answer is no. Globally, many countries have created their own women’s football idols to encourage girls to participate. A most famous case is Alex Morgan, who has risen from an unknown college athlete to one of the most famous female footballers for her amazing performance in 2011 World Cup. She has over 6 million followers on Instagram and has an estimated net worth of $3M. Her influence has broken down the limitation of the sports field. American metro is full of her posters and she even appeared on American Idol sponsored by Fox. In Spain, a country that has a crazy football atmosphere, a record was made as a crowd of 60,739 turned out to watch Atletico Madrid take on Barcelona.
China is trying to create its own stars. In August 2015, five Chinese women footballers appeared in the magazine FHM, which attracted a lot of eyes. People were surprised to see the other side of those girls outside the football court. Among all girls, Lina Zhao was the most popular one and named as one of “top 10 beautiful Chinese female athletes” online. Currently, Wang Shuang is apparently the most promising star who lights up Chinese women’s football because of her inspiring performances in Paris. Paris Saint-Germain has attracted a lot of Chinese supporters because of Neymar and Mbappe. The news that she signed with PSG amazed Chinese social media because many people did not know that there was a talented Chinese girl who was qualified to play for one of the best female football clubs in Europe. Her debut in France, her first appearance in the starting line-up, her first goal in Europe, and even each of her small achievements raised a lot of discussion on Chinese social media. Her personal documentary series got big hit on social media and has accumulated over 8M views across various platforms for the first three episodes. However, the appearance of those sporadic stars has not been converted to a wide-scale popularity of women’s football in China.
There have been rumors saying that Wang Shuang has ended her contract with PSG and will come back to China. Without the brand of PSG, whether fans will continue following her performances as they used to do is uncertain. However, those girls deserve being treated as an independent entity. They need objective advice and true attention instead of sympathies from people for their lower income. In February, Wang Shuang posted on Weibo, in which she expressed her willingness for people to pay more attention to women’s football itself instead of using it to mock Chinese men’s football.
There are four more games left in Women’s World Cup this year, and as a post on Hupu commented, “I thought women’s games were boring, but they are much more exciting than I imagined. Women’s football has made great progress in recent years.”
Featured photo credit to cn.rfi.fr