Little red card
The telling reasons why, at least in football, China is unlikely to rule the world in the near future
Dec 17th 2011 | from the print edition
- The Buddha tells the people he can fulfil only one of their wishes. Someone asks: “Could you lower the price of property in China so that people can afford it?” Seeing the Buddha frown in silence, the person makes another wish: “Could you make the Chinese football team qualify for a World Cup?” After a long sigh, the Buddha says: “Let’s talk about property prices.”
THE pass back to the goalkeeper seemed routine for Qingdao Hailifeng FC in its match against Sichuan FC in September 2009, even if the ball was struck a little too hard and the keeper only just managed to stop it running past him and into the net. Qingdao was safely ahead 3-0 with two minutes left in a meaningless match in China’s second division. What could be amiss?
Then a Qingdao assistant coach gestured for the keeper to come forward from the penalty area. Another Qingdao player promptly chipped the ball over him and towards the net, missing an own goal by inches. The final whistle blew soon afterwards.
Qingdao’s owner Du Yunqi was irate—at his team’s utter incompetence. As he would later admit to investigators, he had just lost a bet that there would be a total of four goals scored in the game. His humiliated assistant coach said on national television, “Afterward the boss was angry and scolded me, saying I bungled things and couldn’t even fix a match.”
The hapless case of “chip-shot gate”, as the Qingdao game came to be known, is just one low point in aeons of Chinese footballing ineptitude. The only time China qualified for the World Cup finals, in 2002, its side failed to score in any of its three matches; the team has never won a game at the Olympics. And Chinese players are sometimes too incompetent not only to win matches, but also to rig them.
In a country so proud of its global stature, football is a painful national joke. Perhaps because Chinese fans love the sport madly and want desperately for their nation to succeed at it, football is the common reference point by which people understand and measure failure. When, in 2008, milk powder from the Chinese company Sanlu was found to have been tainted with melamine, causing a national scandal, the joke was: “Sanlu milk, the exclusive milk of the Chinese national football team!”
Everyone is free to take aim, and publicly. When China was dispatched 2-0 by Belgium in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing (pictured above), a presenter on national CCTV said: “The Chinese football team decided to get out quickly, so as not to affect the people’s mood while they watch the Olympics.” Chinese fans chanted for the ouster of the head of China’s Football Association, Xie Yalong. The authorities sacked Mr Xie shortly after the games.
All this hints at something rather unique and powerful about the place of football in Chinese society. It is, like all organised sport in China, ultimately the domain of the government; so, according to the Communist Party’s normal methods, senior football officials should be provided at least some protection from scrutiny. In general the secretive state machinery of sport is shielded from public inspection, as it manufactures medal-winning Olympic athletes in dozens of disciplines. Chinese football, though, is so flagrantly and undeniably terrible and corrupt that all potshots are allowed: at officials, referees, owners and players—even, implicitly, at the heart of the communist system itself.
Solving the riddle of why Chinese football is so awful becomes, then, a subversive inquiry. It involves unravelling much of what might be wrong with China and its politics. Every Chinese citizen who cares about football participates in this subversion, each with some theory—blaming the schools, the scarcity of pitches, the state’s emphasis on individual over team sport, its ruthless treatment of athletes, the one-child policy, bribery and the corrosive influence of gambling. Most lead back to the same conclusion: the root cause is the system.
A recent crackdown on football corruption offers little solace; it simply mirrors the pyrrhic campaigns against official corruption elsewhere in China. A mid-level functionary in China’s state security apparatus puts it candidly: “You know all those problems with society that you like to blame on China’s political system? Well it really is like that with football.”
Three little wishes
China cherishes its many inventions, real and purported. It recently laid official claim to creating Mongolian throat singing (much to Mongolia’s consternation). With the blessing of the international football body FIFA, China also claims the world’s earliest recorded mention of a sport similar to football, during the Han dynasty in the 2nd century BC. A version of the game cuju, or “kick ball”, involved a single, elevated net and two sides of 12 men.
In later centuries a version of the sport prevailed that favoured individual over team skill. China’s rulers took an interest; one Ming-era painting depicts the Xuande Emperor watching his subjects kick the ball around at court. However, by the time football was indigenously innovated in England in the 19th century, cuju and its variants had all but disappeared.
Football was then introduced to modern China as a foreign invention—but the young nationalists who would later lead the nation still took to it. In his early 20s Mao Zedong played keeper at a teachers’ college in his native Hunan Province. Deng Xiaoping spent precious francs to watch football at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, where he was studying. After he became one of China’s most powerful leaders, Deng, still a football fanatic, paid a visit to the national team, saying that he hoped they would become an excellent side “as soon as possible”.
That was in 1952. Four years later, after the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) football team lost to a Yugoslav youth team, Mao met the Yugoslav side and (according to the PLA Daily) said, “We lost to you now and perhaps will keep losing for 12 years. But it would be very good to win in the 13th year.” By 1969 Chinese football was instead in a shambles, amid the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.
This July, undeterred by the lack of progress in the intervening decades, Vice-President Xi Jinping, China’s presumed next leader and also a football fan, added his own “three wishes”: first, qualify for another World Cup; second, host a World Cup; finally, win a World Cup. Wisely, Mr Xi did not set any deadlines.
So whatever ails Chinese football, it is not a lack of passion from the country’s leaders. If anything, the opposite may be the problem. China’s Party-controlled, top-down approach to sport has yielded some magnificent results in individual sports, helping China win more Olympic gold medals in Beijing in 2008 than any other country. But this “Soviet model” has proven catastrophically unsuitable for assembling a team of 11 football players, much less a nation of them.
The first problem is the method of identifying young talent. The sport system selects children with particular attributes, such as long limbs, which could pay off in athletics, rowing, swimming, diving or gymnastics. These youngsters are the genetic wheat. But football’s legends can emerge from the seeming chaff of human physiques: think of stocky Diego Maradona, perhaps the greatest ever player, or his Argentine successor, the tiny genius Lionel Messi.
Then there is the matter of gold medals and opportunity costs. China pursues gold by funnelling athletes into obscure individual sports that can reap multiple medals in competitions. Football can only yield one medal or World Cup (two, counting the women: Chinese women have fared much better against a less-developed international field).
But the contradictions and weaknesses of Chinese capitalism have also played a part in the country’s footballing ignominy. In the early 1990s, with economic reforms taking hold, China slowly allowed some of its state-run teams to act more like commercial ventures, eventually establishing a professional league of clubs with corporate sponsorships, investments and higher salaries. The pay for players was still quite low in comparison with Europe, but big domestic stars began earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, a fortune at the time. The “professional” football era began in 1994, but as with any other organised activity in China, the state retained control.
In the event, adding heaps of money to an unaccountable bureaucracy made matters worse. State-owned enterprises, seeking glory on the pitch, lavished government money on the teams they sponsored. Private corporate investors followed suit, and cut-throat competition dramatically raised star-player salaries. A similar pay spiral has afflicted other countries’ leagues, too; but, in China, some clubs with less wealthy backers found distinctive and creative ways to survive.
Investors would contrive to fix games as favours to the local officials who nominally controlled the clubs (these types of matches are called “favour”, “relationship” or “tacit” matches, and are not viewed negatively by many within the game). Gambling syndicates, including the triads, began exerting influence over investors, referees, coaches and players. A spoils system evolved, and everyone took their cuts.
Blowing the golden whistle
By the end of the 1990s, it was clear to some insiders that few people in football cared about the quality or integrity of the game. One of the pioneer investors, Wang Jianlin of the Dalian Wanda Group, a property conglomerate, gave up his company’s sponsorship of the team in the north-eastern city of Dalian in 1999-2000—explaining years later that he did so in part because of the sport’s infiltration by gambling interests. Geely, a carmaker, withdrew its support of a club in the southern city of Guangzhou in 2001, just eight months after agreeing to invest. “I was shocked,” Geely’s chief, Li Shufu, told the media. “For a match, bribes of one million, two million yuan [$120,000-240,000] were offered, and not a single football official or referee ever got caught.”
Almost no one got caught because, in proper Communist fashion, an organisation that was deeply involved in fixing matches, the Chinese Football Association, was the same authority charged, in 2001, with investigating and punishing misconduct. A whitewash was the outcome, not coincidentally just months before China’s first World Cup finals in 2002.
After China’s ignominious exit from the competition, things got worse. Corporate sponsorships and investments declined, hitting salaries and making players yet more susceptible to gambling syndicates. At the same time, with the Chinese economy flourishing, the volume of betting rose dramatically.
Finally, in 2007, an investigation of match-fixing in Singapore followed a trail back to Chinese ringleaders. Singapore’s authorities tipped off police in north-eastern China, who uncovered match-fixing irregularities there, ultimately forcing, in 2009-10, a second, more severe reckoning for Chinese football. (Likewise, probes into financial crimes in Hong Kong have occasionally ensnared mainland officials who might otherwise have escaped punishment.) This time some 20 people, including a referee previously considered the game’s most honest—and known as the “golden whistle” for his incorruptibility—were caught in the crackdown.
As officials were detained, a parade of tearful confessions and recriminations played out on national television. Huang Junjie, a referee and one of those in tears, explained that he had once refused a bribe from a club to fix a match only because a leading football association official had already asked him to rig it. Mr Huang gave the public an idea of match-rigging lingo as well: when an official texted him to provide “even-handed justice”, it meant he should favour a visiting team over the home side.
Those caught gave damning justifications, candid in a way that officials in other corruption scandals are typically not allowed to be. “In the general environment of Chinese football at that time, it felt like if one doesn’t do it, one loses out,” said Yang Xu in televised comments: “one just seems like a fool.” An executive of Guangzhou Pharmaceutical FC, Mr Yang and his club had agreed to pay 200,000 yuan to another club to throw a game in 2006, so Guangzhou could get promoted to the Chinese Super League.
The rot of corruption went to the top: Nan Yong, then boss of the Chinese Football Association. Mr Nan reportedly confessed that players could buy spots on the national team for 100,000 yuan—though that was hardly a shock. Officials have long pressured national coaches to select or field certain players. In one recent stretch of about two years, more than 100 players were named to the national squad, a suspiciously high number and roughly double the usual figure. If even the most prized honours have become sellable commodities or patronage gifts, can Chinese football hope to have any heroes?
Mao’s long wait
Some rather unlikely candidates have stepped forward to be the saviours of Chinese football: property developers. In the hierarchy of cartoon villains in Chinese society, developers are among the most reviled, alongside the corrupt officials some allegedly cut deals with to take people’s land.
But developers do have cash. The Evergrande Real Estate Group, which is controlled by billionaire and Communist Party member Xu Jiayin, and which acquired the disgraced Guangzhou Pharmaceutical club in 2010, is spending money like Real Madrid. Evergrande pays generous salaries and victory bonuses, reducing players’ incentives to fix matches, and is building a huge football school. After 11 years away from the sport, Mr Wang of Wanda (also a party member) has taken on a three-year, 195-million yuan sponsorship of the Chinese Super League—reportedly with the encouragement of a member of China’s Politburo, Liu Yandong.
These days the owners of 13 of the 16 clubs in the Chinese Super League are either developers or have big property interests. Some have reportedly received cheaper land from local administrations in exchange for their support. Several intend to build more football pitches on it.
Will children come out to play, though? Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Chinese children are not queuing up to be football stars. Perhaps above all other factors, this is why hopes for the future of football are dim. From 1990 to 2000 there were more than 600,000 teenagers in China playing organised football, according to official counts of registered players; from 2000 to 2005 that number dropped to an average of 180,000; today (with statistics kept differently) Chinese football officials estimate the number of teenagers playing some form of organised football to be little more than 100,000.
Another grim indicator was the 11-0 embarrassment of a team from Beijing’s Ditan Primary School at the nimble feet of some diminutive Russian children from Irkutsk in Siberia. The Siberian youngsters won five of six friendly matches in a late October visit to Beijing (drawing the sixth), prompting a round of self-flagellation in the Chinese media and online postings explaining how youth football had arrived at this sorry state.
However keen they are to watch the game, years of scandal and failure have made parents sceptical about encouraging their children to play it. They worry that the football world is dirty and will corrupt their offspring. In any case, most don’t want their children—especially only children—to waste their time on sport. The education system is geared toward standardised tests, requiring hours of after-school work, which are considered by many to be the lone path to upward mobility.
When children do seek a diversion in sport, many find it on the basketball court. America’s NBA, with the help of Yao Ming, one of its stars until his recent retirement, has been marketed much more aggressively in China than have the European football leagues. Basketball also requires a much smaller patch of dirt to play on, and land is a scarce commodity (and so hugely profitable). The few pitches that are being set aside by developers will help, but thousands more are needed.
Still, if the resilient fans are any indication, hope is not entirely lost. Millions watch the Chinese Super League’s matches on television, which often draw better ratings than basketball in the regions where they are broadcast (reportedly embarrassed by the fecklessness in football, national CCTV stopped airing league games in 2008). Tens of thousands fill big-city stadiums to see their countrymen play badly.
Today’s game is described by insiders as cleaner than it has been since the professional era began—the logical but perhaps fleeting dividend of any high-profile corruption crackdown. There are still fans in the stands chanting “hei shao” or “black whistle”, and sometimes, as in the case of the chip shot in the botched Qingdao fix, “da jiaqiu” (“playing fake ball”). Connections and relationships continue to rule.
Evergrande’s South Korean manager Lee Jang-soo, the longest-serving foreign coach in Chinese football, says that Chinese players don’t put in the same effort as footballers in the world’s leading leagues: “Perhaps all they think of is to establish good relationships with their superiors,” he said. “Most clubs are like this. It’s mainly about connections, not hard work.” The best players at Evergrande, the nation’s top club, are mostly foreigners earning millions of dollars a year.
After, arguably, more than 2,000 years, China still awaits its first home-grown football star. Spectacularly able though it is to overcome its problems in other kinds of competition, in football, at least, China’s wait for glory looks set to be a long one.