Football shows to score big in China

Football shows to score big in China
The 35-episode Chinese TV series Go! Goal! Fighting! hopes to score with young viewers when it airs later this year.

A football coach with a mysterious past takes over a hopeless Chinese secondary school team.

Using unorthodox tactics, he turns the team's fortunes around.

The students unite and are motivated. Their studies improve dramatically. Suddenly, the coach's past - of alleged involvement in match-fixing and football betting - catches up with him, just as the team is on the brink of a major victory. Can they succeed?

If that sounds as theatrical as Cristiano Ronaldo's dives, it is supposed to be.

Chinese TV series Go! Goal! Fighting! hopes to score with viewers when it airs later this year, just as China is bracing itself for a (Mexican) wave of football-themed dramas.

Starring heart-throb Hu Ge, the 35-episode drama is the first of at least half a dozen TV series and movies either in production or planning, according to media reports.

Complete with outlandish themes like time travel and talk of a cameo by Argentine legend Diego Maradona, the shows are filling fans with a mix of anticipation and anxiety.

They come as China seeks to revive football fever and restore the lustre of a fallen sport.

After more than a decade in the dumps - its national team has not qualified for the World Cup and its domestic league was hit by match-fixing scandals - China's football-loving president Xi Jinping has pledged to kick-start its fortunes.

Dr Zhang Zhihua, of Beijing Normal University's School of Art and Communication, told The Sunday Times: "Football is a popular sport in China and there haven't been many shows on football, so it's a theme that show producers are looking to tap.

"There is potential in the number of supporters, particularly young males. But it's also likely that these shows are mushrooming because of the government's initiatives."

China set up a high-level committee last Thursday to reform football, led by Vice-Premier Liu Yandong.

The authorities had earlier unveiled a wide-ranging football blueprint to restructure the national football association, promote youth participation and have more football schools, among other measures.

Go! Goal! Fighting!'s director Li Guoli said his series, produced by Chinese entertainment company Tangren Media, targets youth.

"From the cast to the presentation of football skills, the show will satisfy young football fans," he was quoted as saying during promotional interviews.

He denied that the production was following anyone's lead, although it is a departure from Tangren's staple of period dramas.

The government's push, however, is likely to be motivation for TV producers and film-makers when deciding on script ideas, noted researcher Ming Anxiang from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' media research centre.

"They'll know that such themes will be approved more easily for screening by the authorities, so to save effort, they'll write up a script quickly and hop on the bandwagon," he told The Sunday Times.

"This is also why Chinese TV stations have screened so many anti-Japanese war dramas, which have the implicit support of the government."

But some entertainment critics worry that a deluge of football dramas might wear out viewers, just like the anti-Japanese dramas which depict Chinese resistance to the Japanese Occupation during World War II.

Viewers coined the term "shenju" - loosely translated as "incredulous serials" - for such shows because of their implausible storylines and sometimes bizarre scenes.

Given that the upcoming football dramas include one where a Chinese player is teleported to Britain and tangles with - and outplays - top players like FC Barcelona's Lionel Messi and Real Madrid's Ronaldo, there is cause for concern, commentators say.

Chinese football today lacks a legend, which is why fantasy may have a role in storylines, said an April 23 commentary in the Shanghai Morning Post.

"But audiences wouldn't want to escape anti-Japanese shenju, only to enter the clutches of football shenju," it said.

Football viewership figures suggest there is enormous potential to be tapped. The English Premier League, for example, is said to draw more than 30 million viewers a week.

But observers say the football dramas will have to cultivate audiences, or risk turning them off.

Football fan Liang Guoxing, 23, is among those taking a wait-and-see approach.

"I'm curious about these shows, but there's no guarantee I'll like them," he told The Sunday Times.

"In the end, as football fans, our first love is for the game itself."

This article was first published on May 3, 2015.
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