Sport

Loves Italy, hates Australia

Soccer World Cup sees controversial commentator back on the mike

Way offside: Huang Jianxiang

He had thought it an “impossible mission”. But goal scorer Deng Zhuoxiang led China to an unlikely 1-0 victory over France last week, in what must count as the national team’s best ever result.

For some Chinese fans, such an unexpected success (in a friendly on an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean) makes the team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup finals in South Africa all the harder to take. Netizens have been asking how it is possible to beat the French but crumble to the Koreans or the Japanese. China has only made it to the final stages of the World Cup once, in 2002 in Japan. It departed with no points, and no goals.

This less-than-spectacular history is a matter of regret for what will be one of the tournament’s most avid audiences. As many as 900 million viewers are thought to have tuned in for the 2006 finals, and state broadcaster CCTV will show all 64 matches free-to-air this time around. As elsewhere, beer companies are prominent advertisers at game time. The late night broadcasts (many matches kick-off in the early hours of the morning) are not expected to dampen enthusiasm. But expect the morning traffic rush hour to be a little later than usual for the next few weeks.

The Chinese got their first taste of the World Cup with coverage of the 1978 finals in Argentina. It was tremendously popular, probably because viewers were delighted to be able to show their enthusiasm for something other than class struggle.

Who will the Chinese want to win in South Africa? Not their neighbours (Japan, South Korea and North Korea will all be playing) as local solidarity is usually in short supply. There is also little preference for the underdog. Fans opt instead for traditional soccer powers like Argentina, Brazil and Italy.

That means Australia won’t be high on their list. And it turns out that the Socceroos have an awkward history with CCTV, and especially with its best-known football commentator, Huang Jianxiang.

At the last finals in Germany, Huang greeted a last-minute goal from the Italians – playing Australia – with wild celebration. Absolutely no sympathy for those plucky Aussie battlers, either: “Goal! Game over! Italy wins! Beat the Australians! Italy the great! Happy birthday to Paolo Maldini! Long live Italy!”

Some football commentators make a pretence of impartiality. Not Huang, who even urged the Aussies to get themselves off home as quickly as possible. It wouldn’t take long, he added helpfully, as “most of them are living in Europe.”

Many netizens were embarrassed by the outburst. But Huang was no stranger to controversy, having been banned for six months earlier in his career for on-air criticism of China’s then national coach Bora Milutinovic (still the only man to guide the world’s most populous nation to the final stages of the tournament).

The furore contributed further to Huang’s reputation as something of an anti-hero, especially within the staid confines of state TV. Previous commentators had done little more than read out players by shirt number.

Huang quit CCTV soon after the Italy-Australia game. He denied that he had anything against the Australians personally. But he then admitted in an unguarded moment that the Socceroos had reminded him of a “lousy team” that had eliminated China from the World Cup qualifiers in 1981. It turned out to be New Zealand: Huang obviously doesn’t bother himself with the geographical niceties.

Unusually, the Kiwis have qualified for South Africa, so they might need to prepare for Huang settling some old scores. He is certainly back to his rather laissez-faire approach to national sensitivities. In promotional shots for his new role (commentating on matches broadcast online by Sina.com) he’s pictured with heavily darkened skin, and wearing what looks like a Native American headdress (see photo).

It makes for rather a confusing cultural mix, which seems to be the way Huang likes it.


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