After a breathless few weeks during which the entire sporting world has been talking about Chinese football (with yours truly quoted by AFP three times, FT twice, El Pais, Hicimos, Vice Sports and interviewed by CCTV, BBC and Al Jazeera among others), let’s take a look at a few stories that could be cropping up over the next 12 months…
Lots happened last year – Li Na retired, Sun Yang tested positive, and Chinese soccer continued to suck – but what awaits in 2015? 10 questions for you below…
1. How will China fare at the Asian Cup?
We’ll start with the most pressing questions because China kicks off its Asian Cup campaign on Saturday. Group B – China, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia and North Korea – is a Group of Death only in terms of capital punishment. Alain Perrin has lost just once in 11 games since taking charge last February, but if China fails to progress into the knockout stages, the knives will be sharpened. The days of China finishing 2nd (twice), 3rd (twice) and 4th (twice) in the Asian Cup seem a distant memory, but this tournament will show how much progress has been made under Perrin.
2. Will Zhang Xizhe ever play substantial minutes?
One player who is not in Perrin’s squad is Wolfsburg’s new recruit Zhang Xizhe. The Volkswagen-owned club has already scored a victory following their low-risk, 1.5 million euro signing, with the VW logo on Zhang’s jersey beamed all over China just from a few training sessions. Cynics say that this was precisely the point of the transfer, and the only way to prove them wrong will be if Zhang sees substantial minutes on the pitch – but it won’t be easy to break into a side that currently sits second in the Bundesliga.
3. Who will replace Li Na?
Remarkably, it was less than a year ago when Li Na won her second major title at the Australian Open, but her retirement offers a huge opportunity to whoever is ready to take over at the top of Chinese tennis. Peng Shuai (22), Zhang Shuai (61) and Zheng Jie (95) are the three Chinese players currently in the Top 100, but with another seven in the Top 200, plus youngsters like Youth Olympics singles champ Xu Shilin waiting in the wings, it’s a question of when – not if – we see the next Top 10 player. The men not so much…
4. Which city will be awarded the 2022 Winter Olympics?
Just Beijing and Almaty are left in the running, with the result due to be announced on July 31. Almaty is a stronger bid than it’s given credit for, but Beijing remains a firm favorite in this two-horse race. Sub-question: will the Games clash with the 2022 World Cup?
5. When will Stephon Marbury make the jump into coaching full-time?
He’s made no secret of the fact he wants to coach in China and has already taken up some coaching roles, while continuing to lead on the court. But Marbury turns 38 in a few weeks and can’t play on forever, even though his contract will keep him in the capital until 2017. He’s been named both an honorary and a model citizen of Beijing, so he would seem the perfect role model to lead the Ducks in a more official capacity.
6. Who will be the next major winner from China?
While the tennis scene is looking healthy, it’s more likely China’s next major winner will be a golfer. 25-year-old Feng Shanshan has already won the 2012 LPGA Championship, but watch for teenagers Cindy Feng Yueer, Janet Lin Xiyu and Feng Simin to soar up the world rankings now that they will all be on the LPGA Tour this year.
7. Which male golfer will emerge from the pack?
Guan Tianlang made global headlines by making the cut at the Masters as a 14-year-old in 2013. He may well go onto to have a stellar career, along with a whole crop of other promising Chinese teenagers, but 19-year-old Li Haotong is leading the way at the moment. He won three of the final four PGA Tour China tournaments to top the order of merit and earn a card for the Web.com Tour. Keep an eye on him this year.
8. Can Ding Junhui win the World Champs?
While golfers and tennis players have four majors to contest each year, for snooker players it’s all about the World Championships. Ding Junhui set records on his way to becoming world number 1 last year, but until he can win the big prize, he won’t truly have fulfilled his potential. Chinese sports fans will be glued to their TVs in April to see if he can do it.
9. Will Sun Yang remain China’s dominant swimming star?
2014 was not a good year for Sun Yang after testing positive for a banned substance and then appearing to be involved in the mother of all cover-ups. Note I said appearing, because whatever CHINADA and WADA said, it did not look at all good for China’s top sporting star. He has talent to burn, but was overshadowed in the pool by both Ning Zetao and Chen Duo who each won more golds (4) at the Asian Games than Sun (3). Rio in 18 months will still be the main yardstick, though.
10. Will China ever take to boxing?
Listen to boxing promoters (and, unfortunately, western journalists all too happy to print without fact-checking) and you would think that literally hundreds of millions of Chinese sports fans avidly tune in to watch two-time Olympic champ Zou Shiming knock down a series of tomato cans. The truth is more like two million (at a push). This year, though, he will finally fight for a world title, so the stakes will be real for the first time. If he wins, will the sport take off? I’m less and less convinced…
What would you like to see happen in 2015? Feel free to leave your questions or predictions in the comments section below.
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Sam Pearson has spent the last eight years working in the Chinese sports industry, most recently in the role of Senior Manager, Marketing Solutions Asia Pacific for the WTA, after previous stints with Ruder Finn and OCEANS Sports Marketing . He returns home to Wellington, New Zealand, to take up a position as Regional Sales & Marketing Manager for the FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015. Shortly before leaving China, Pearson spoke to China Sports Insider about the current state of the sports industry, as well as the changes he’s witnessed, the future of men’s and women’s tennis in China – and being linked to a tennis star in China’s gossip pages.