The absence of the Chinese at the 2010 World Cup is the source of much soul-searching here. The excuses are many. Some blame corrupt domestic leagues and lack of emphasis on the sport among young children; others blame a soccer tradition less pronounced than that of Europe, or the conflict between commercialized leagues and state sport authorities.

“China has no culture — I mean, no soccer culture,” declared Gao Yang, who was working for Adidas at a soccer-themed display at a Beijing shopping mall.

Some Chinese believe that their bodies might just not be well-suited to sports like soccer: Traditionally, it is tennis, badminton, and table-tennis (known as “three little ball” sports) that have given Asian athletes their greatest successes.

It cannot be claimed that the Chinese are indifferent to soccer: The World Cup match last Saturday between South Korea and Greece was watched by 24 million Chinese. But for a country as patriotic as China, it’s unusual that a national sports team find itself a decades-long running joke.