Amid the many dark days in China’s football history, May 19 1986 has long held a special place in infamy. That’s when a Chinese side was beaten 2-1 by the then-colony of Hong Kong.
The disastrous result meant China’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup. Fans went on the rampage, even overturning the team bus. The man who coached China to that calamity, Zhen Xuelin recalls: “It was a nightmare. The match is the heaviest blow in my life. I have never trained a team since.”
Well, 24 years later and another match against Hong Kong has proven significant – although for altogether more positive reasons. On Sunday China defeated Hong Kong 2-0 at the National Stadium in Tokyo, and in doing so won the East Asian Football Championship with seven points from three games.
In fact, more significant than its victory over Hong Kong was a 3-0 trouncing four days earlier of South Korea – the only Asian nation that has ever reached a semi-final of the World Cup. The enormity of this victory is embodied in a single statistic: it was China’s first win against South Korea in 32 years.
Regular readers will be well aware that Chinese football has been mired in scandal in recent weeks. The police have detained more than 20 players, coaches and officials in a high profile crackdown on gambling and match-fixing (see WiC39). In the wake of so many negative headlines, the victory in the East Asian Championship has been hailed as a much-needed tonic.
And it is all the more unexpected given the lamentable track record of the national team. As reported in WiC8, the country’s soccer team has disappointed fans with such regularity that it has become the butt of jokes. It got so bad that even the country’s leader, Hu Jintao recently commented on the sorry state of the Beautiful Game in China.
Little wonder that national coach, Gao Hongbo is keen to emphasise the start of a new era. “Being champions marks a change for Chinese football,” says Gao. “I’m extremely happy with the team’s performance over the past seven months as our world ranking has improved by more than 20 places.”
The only own-goal at the tournament seems to have been scored by state broadcaster, CCTV. Its sports channel CCTV-5 had bought the rights to air the East Asian Championship but in the wake of the scandal had chosen not to bother. Rather than broadcast the match against South Korea, it aired a European gameshow called Jeux Sans Frontier instead.
The channel may have expected the national team to get the usual pummelling and decided live coverage of such defeats (at the tournament) would only deflate the country’s upbeat mood during last weekend’s Lunar New Year celebrations. However its failure to broadcast the team’s historic victory proved a major misjudgement: CCTV has now become the target of football fans’ jokes rather than, as is customary, the soccer players.
Some readers will wonder – current success notwithstanding – how a country of 1.3 billion can have failed to produce a consistently world class football team. The Southern Metropolis Weekly offers an explanation. It says that China’s national sports system has been geared to winning Olympic gold medals. It has accordingly (and deliberately) poured resources into training young athletes in sports that are less popular in Europe and America, knowing that golds are more likely to be won in these categories.
Football is, of course, the world’s most popular game and from a purely bureaucratic perspective, not a good allocation of finite resources. The newspaper says the General Administration of Sport cancelled football as a major in many sports schools in 2000, to free up resources for sports where China had a better chance of producing Olympians in 2008. “That decision is the key reason why for the past 10 years the national football team has seen a deteriorating performance,” theorises Southern Metropolis Weekly. “Because football school fees are unaffordable for a lot of poor but gifted children, this change was the equivalent of castrating Chinese football. This was the sacrifice made for China’s Olympic strategy.”
But with the team showing signs of revival, and the nation’s leadership now purging Chinese football of its darker elements, change may be afoot. Having already scaled the heights of the Olympic gold medal table two years ago, the next target may well be to qualify for (and make a mark at) the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
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