The passion of the playing field overcomes national boundaries. A young German came to Beijing to study and ended up giving hundreds a chance to play football regularly, while making new friends along the way.
By staff reporter LI FUGEN
IFFC Beijing 2004
THE year 1997 was as important to many Chinese as it was to Robert Gonnella, a young German who lives in Beijing. At the beginning of the year his fellow German, Franz Beckenbauer, the world renowned “Emperor of Football” who led the German national team to victory in the 1990 World Cup, was invited to China to promote his autobiography. In preparation, Robert got to know a lot of the “VIPs” of the Chinese football world, laying a solid foundation on which to build and manage the Beijing International Football Friendship Club (IFFC)
. In June he successfully planned and organized a “seven-player per team” cup for foreigners from all over the world working in China. In October the all-star team Gonnella organized ranked third in the Beijing Class A Semi-Professional League, and Robert was awarded the Best Team Leader Award.A dyed-in-the-wool football fan, Robert came from Dusseldorf, Germany as a foreign student at the Beijing Language and Culture University. Dusseldorf is very “advanced” as far as football is concerned, and it has a first division team
of its own. The nearby Dortmund and Schalke04 teams are even more famous, recently winning the Toyota Cup European Championship and the UEFA Cup respectively. Robert grew up among football legends and later his love of football went with him to China. In Beijing he has two important tasks: learning Chinese and playing football. At first he teamed up with Chinese and foreign classmates to play against other foreigners working in China. But such matches could not satisfy Gonnella because they were not regularly scheduled, and sometimes he couldn’t find an opponent for several weeks at a time. To avoid this dilemma Robert thought of organizing players into teams and scheduling regular matches.The IFFC League kicked off in 1994 with only 10 teams, but it grew very quickly. In its second year the league established the IFFC Cup, disputed by IFFC class A and class B teams, and the IFFC Super Cup between the class A champion and the IFFC Cup winner. Activities expanded in the club’s third year: the number of class A teams was expanded to 16, as was the number of class B teams. In addition, the IFFC League also received support from the Beijing Football Association (BFA). For example, referees for all IFFC League matches are designated by the BFA, guaranteeing impartiality.To avoid the harsh weather of winter and summer, the IFFC League plays from September to June, with a break for the winter months. League rules stipulate three points for a win, yellow and red cards for infractions, and sudden death overtime in case of draw. The IFFC’s goal is “to promote friendship, football skills and cultural exchange among all countries.” In league matches no rude or unsportsmanlike behavior is allowed. To assure discipline on the field, each team has to make a 2,000 yuan cash deposit before matches begin, later returned to the team minus any fines. A team is fined 100 yuan for every red card. Penalties also include player suspensions or expulsion from the IFFC.The Taiyu Team won second place in the IFFC League the year before last, due not only to skill; their rough play also helped a lot. Robert warned the Taiyu Team, hoping they could show real sportsmanship the following year. Unfortunately the Taiyu Team persisted in its ways and finally Robert had to expel them from the IFFC. Robert doesn’t have to worry about the IFFC’s future because every year more than 32 teams apply for a spot in the league.Set up as a private club for amateurs who play in their spare time, the IFFC is a non-profit organization. The money used to organize matches, pay referees and rent fields mainly comes from membership dues and assistance from various companies. Each individual IFFC member pays 100 yuan (50 for students). With the IFFC’s fame on the upswing, it has become easier to get corporate assistance. Last year T-brand Beer (a Scottish company) gave the IFFC a lump-sum contribution of US $20,000. The IFFC has a special committee to manange these contributions and finances.A shortage of funds means that the IFFC cannot hold every match at Worker’s Stadium, which offers the best conditions in Beijing, so Robert has to try hard to search for cheaper facilities. In January of last year, Robert got to know Han Shuping, a restaurant manager, through a mutual friend. Both are crazy about football and they soon became close friends and business partners: Robert and all club members enjoy preferential prices at the restaurant, and Han’s business has boomed with the relationship.
Rob, vocalist with Raging Mob, Beijing 2005
Robert has all kinds of information about IFFC teams at his fingertips. The Hongxing Team is mainly made up of Beijing musicians. The famous Chinese rock and roll star Cui Jian once played center forward for them. Although Cui Jian and his teammates kept his participation very quiet, some resourceful fans uncovered the secret and came to ask for his autograph. The Holland Team is made up mostly of managers. It has hardly won a match since the beginning of the IFFC, and moreover often loses by ten goals or more. But they never get discouraged; after all, they play football just for fun! The Hongmei Team is named after a girl that used to be one of a group of young football fans. Later these women grew up and married, and though many things changed, their love of football persisted. They pooled their money and formed a team of their own, naming it Hongmei in the hope that it would turn out as beautiful and indomitable as Hongmei (plum blossom) herself. The Hongmei Team is in fact far more skilled than many other teams. Many of the team’s former players have now become top players in the Chinese Class B Football League. Of all IFFC members, Robert most admires Kagashani, the never-say-die leader of the African Team. Kagashani seems to have magic powers in uniting French and English-speaking Africans, as well as Christian and Muslim players alike. Though the African team practices very little and is routinely late for almost every match, unlike the Holland Team they seldom lose. And they even became a legend in the IFFC by defeating Hongmei 2 goals to 1. At the end of 1997, China failed in its sixth attempt to qualify for the World Cup. Most Chinese worry that the failure will cause Chinese football to retrogress, but Robert thinks differently. He predicts that Chinese football will develop as steadily as ever. “We can see it simply from the IFFC’s development. At first Chinese had only one team participating in the league; now of our 600 members, half are Chinese.” Robert has graduated from the Beijing Language and Culture University, but he doesn’t want to leave China. He is giving all he has to the IFFC and there are still many other dreams to realize. He has always wanted to organize a women’s football team, establish a football school, construct facilities where the players can get ready for matches, and obtain a grass practice field. An encouraging sign: a number of airlines are now interested in helping Robert make these dreams come true.
Originally published in English Online on 17th April, 1998.