China’s football team has been the butt of many jokes over the years – but last week was probably the first time that the women’s coach offered to loan out her strikers to the men’s team. Chinese football fans will be fervently hoping that their darkest hour comes before the dawn, after the men failed to qualify for next summer’s London Olympics – losing 4-1 on aggregate to minnows Oman (population 3.6 million).
“Although I speak very highly of Oman,” men’s team manager Miroslav Blazevic confidently declared before the match, “I believe they cannot defeat us. We would like to give them a lesson.”
It turned out that it was the Chinese Olympic team that had the learning to do, after losing 1-0 in the first leg.
“Oman humiliates China in Shanghai,” boasted one Omani news outlet.
Revenge in the second leg in Muscat was within grasp when China went 1-0 up in the second half. But a late tackle minutes later left them with just 10 men – and they were soon facing a barrage of criticism from Chinese fans for conceding three goals in injury time. (The women’s team, by comparison, managed to qualify for the Olympics after beating Argentina).
The defeat was partly put down to the weather (officially it was 37 degrees): “[It] was hot and the players are not used to this type of weather,” assistant coach Li Bing explained. Fans also complained about a Chinese goal controversially ruled offside.
But other Chinese observers agreed the side just wasn’t good enough. That led the Dalian-based Peninsula Morning newspaper to offer the Olympic team Rmb100,000 if it could beat the publication’s own team. “We feel their technique, heart, tactical ability and teamwork is not better than ours,” ran the editorial, “therefore our football team challenges the Chinese Olympic team.”
So what’s behind the alleged lack of quality? “China lost again, that’s a failure of management,” one upset fan wrote on his weibo. “Management has become rotten with corruption. China has a lot of great sport stars, like Li Na and Yao Ming, but its football has erased the pride of Chinese sport.”
WiC has discussed the problems with corrupt soccer officials and match-fixing in previous issues. A crackdown on graft saw three senior Football Association officials sacked last year (and hundreds more questioned by police), but the game’s reputation in the country has yet to recover.
That’s something a billionaire real-estate tycoon is promising to fix. Wang Jianlin, boss of Dalian Wanda Group, has $4.6 billion in assets according to the latest Forbes rich list (about a third of Chelsea FC’s owner, Roman Abramovich). Rumour has it that he’s on the cusp of being made a deputy head of the ‘Chinese Football Reform and Development Leading Group’, according to the Xinmin Evening News. He’s also said to have offered Rmb50 million to the Chinese FA to pay the salary of a top foreign coach.
We’ve written before about the close relationship between football clubs and the developers with the financial wherewithal to support the sport. Wang is no different – until 12 years ago he was a key shareholder in Dalian Wanda FC. He was credited with avoiding the subsequent scandals in the league when he sold his stake in the club to a rival developer, Shide Group (who promptly renamed it Dalian Shide). “Wang Jianlin has now made the decision to return to football because he’s aware that the best time to enter is when Chinese football has hit rock bottom,” speculates the Yangtze Evening Post.
What’s in it for him? “Football can bring [Wang] closer to the public and city officials,” argues the newspaper, “and close contacts with the political elite are necessary for the Wanda Group to continue to grow.” Wang’s clout and resources just might give the reform effort the impetus it needs, but fans will need a lot of persuading before they get their hopes up again.
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