The U.S. and China play in the women's World Cup quarterfinals on Friday
China's one-child policy has reduced sports participation
American culture has an integrated strategy of academics and sports
The United States and China, rival economic superpowers, are preparing to square off on the soccer pitch Friday, in the Women’s World Cup quarterfinals.
Ranked number two by FIFA, the U.S. team enters the match as favorite. It has finished at least third in every World Cup, winning two, and beat China in the 1996 Olympic finals.
The last time the two teams met was 16 years ago in the 1999 World Cup, a match the U.S. won on penalties, 5-4.
But Tony DiCicco, former women’s U.S. national soccer team coach, says that while the Chinese team is young, they have seen a run of form during the competition and can’t be dismissed.
“They’re very good defensively and now they’ve started to bring an attack to their game,” he told CNN.
“It’s about having this team make its own history like the 1999 team did and if they can upset the USA… they will make history.”
Both teams have a strong tradition in the women’s game but the two countries have very different sporting philosophies.
In the United States, sport, including soccer, is an integral part of an individual’s education but in China’s pressure-cooker school system it’s low down the list of priorities, and, thanks to the country’s one-child policy, few parents want their only child to take time away from studying.
The Chinese women’s national football team, dubbed the ‘Steel Roses’ by fans, was established in 1984. The team’s heyday was in the 1990s, when they were runners up to the U.S. in the 1996 Summer Olympics and 1999 World Cup.
In recent years, however, there’s been trouble recruiting talented young athletes to the national program.
The one-child policy imposed on many Chinese families, in addition to a tradition of separating sports and academic disciplines, has limited youth participation in sports.
“Educators have done their best to keep sports out of the education system,” says Tom Byer, an American soccer coach who is well known for grassroots soccer training in Asia.
They see it as a fundamental distraction from learning, he says.
With only one child, the risk of injury and academic pressure means families often keep their kids away from contact sports.
Furthermore, the positive aspects of sports are not promoted in China.
“Moms and dads want their kid to get a good education, because they see education, rather than sports, as a pathway for success and mobility up the socio-economic ladder.” Byer says.
The case for women’s athletics has not been helped by recent reports of poor pay and living conditions for China’s women’s national team.
In December, Huang Jianxiang, once one of China’s most popular soccer commentators, sparked debate when he posted a photo on his Weibo social media account of “disgusting” cafeteria food at the team training base under the caption “How can this be?”
And the base salary for Chinese players is about $485 a month, below the national average. The vice president of the Chinese Football Association, however, has promised the national team a one million yuan ($160,000) bonus, according to state media.
The bonus will be matched by Chinese tycoon Zong Qinghou, who decided to donate after reading about their low pay in the news.
“Even when the women were at their peak in the nineties they had difficulty getting corporate sponsorship,” Susan Brownell, an anthropologist and Chinese sports expert, told CNN.
“In China, only government attention produces world-class teams right now.”
Strong body, strong mind?
Athletics are a very important part of growing up for most Americans and soccer is one of the most popular sports for women.
“In the U.S., sports are looked at as part of education, whereas in China it’s been split as a distraction from education; the belief in the U.S. is ‘strong body, strong mind’” says Byer.
Strong institutional ties between the education system and athletics sets the U.S. apart from many other countries.
“Kids in the U.S. have the opportunity to get top notch educations through athletics scholarships,” says Stacey Mickles, contributing writer to The18, a leading soccer news site.
“Plus, sports help build self-esteem, so schools encourage athletic participation.”
According to U.S. Youth Soccer’s 2008 Membership statistics, 48% of registered members were girls. At the college level, nearly 2,000 more women compete than men, according to 2014 NCAA records.
“Winning is a big part of the growth of soccer, the national team is turning out big stars like Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain,” says Mickles.
“A generation of girls grew up with these icons winning World Cups while they were in elementary school, and that encourages them a lot.”
Byer sees hope for the future of women’s football in China as the government takes the sport more seriously.
Earlier this year, he was hired by the Chinese government to run a pilot project in a Beijing elementary school with the China School Football program, a state-funded initiative making football compulsory in schools. The goal is to build China into a soccer powerhouse.
Of those in the program, 50% are girls.
“What we need to overcome is the false dichotomy created between academics and sports,” he says.
“Research shows sporting kids do better academically and have more successful careers with higher earning capacities…what families need to understand sports is crucial to education.”
And, Byer says, if the Chinese team does pull off a victory on Friday, that could inspire a new generation of players.
“When you have a team that’s done well in the past, it creates a culture, and a belief in young girls, because they know that women players in the past have qualified for the top tournaments worldwide.”
CNN Beijing intern Nicholas Hirsch contributed to this report.