Anyone who doesn’t reform must step down. That was Deng Xiaoping’s rallying cry during his famous ‘Southern Tour’ in 1992 – a symbolic journey aimed at rescuing his economic reform programme from a conservative backlash.
The Chinese Football Association (CFA) seemed to get the message too. It instituted change of its own, hiring the first ever foreigner to coach the national football team. Driven by West Germany’s success in lifting the 1990 World Cup, China decided to go German. Understandably, back then not all top coaches saw the idea of managing in China as an appealing challenge. So the best candidate available was Klaus Schlappner, whose main achievement was managing Waldhof Mannheim for several seasons in the Bundesliga in the 1980s.
Despite being a relative unknown in European football, Schlappner arrived in China as a superstar saviour. A silver hair of his even went under the hammer for Rmb50,000 ($8,156) during the 1993 Spring Festival Gala television show. He was paid $180,000 a year. (By comparison, Total-Sports estimated that Alex Ferguson earned £60,000 annually on joining Manchester United in 1986.)
In the following two decades, the Chinese football team has gone on to hire another six foreign head coaches. And like Schlappner, all of their tenures started with a bang but failed to last more than three years. The national team remains a grave underachiever within China’s otherwise successful sports system (think of all those Olympic golds).
To say this has led to frustration would be something of an understatement. “We’ve learned from the West and we’ve learned from the East. Now we look like the Pere David’s deer,” wrote Xi Bu Business, a newspaper, referring to an animal now extinct in China that looks like a horse, a deer, a camel and a donkey all in one.
Wang Jianlin, one of China’s richest men and the boss of Dalian Wanda, thought he could fix things. In 2011, the property conglomerate signed a three-year, Rmb500 million sponsorship with the CFA. (Some newspapers suggested, Wanda made the move knowing China’s number one football fan, Xi Jinping, would soon lead the country). In an arrangement unimaginable elsewhere in the football world, Wang helped pick (and pay for) the head coach. He chose former Real Madrid coach Jose Antonio Camacho. Back in WiC118, we reported that Camacho was lured with €3 million (Rmb23.5 million) a year but we also wondered whether he fully appreciated he’d taken on the “toughest job in football”.
And sure enough, the Spaniard suffered the same fate as the German 21 years ago. Camacho was fired last week after China was beaten by five goals to one at home last month. There were two reasons that this result seems to have proved the last straw. First, the opponent was Thailand, hardly a footballing titan (see WiC199). And second (so the politically-attuned pundits claim) the disaster happened on the 60th birthday of Xi Jinping (see WiC198).
More controversy soon followed the firing. With more than a year left on Camacho’s contract, local media reported that he and his coaching staff are owed Rmb51.5 million in compensation. In addition, according to the Beijing Evening News, the CFA needs to part with another Rmb25 million to pay for Camacho’s tax bill. While it’s not entirely clear why, local media claim it’s because the coach was paid offshore in euros and the CFA misunderstood the Spanish tax system when it signed the contract.
Already angered by the Chinese football team’s dismal results, fans have been infuriated at the compensation fee. But their anger has been more directed at the CFA’s incompetence. “Can we trust the CFA to reform Chinese football if officials can’t even negotiate a proper contract?” the Xinmin Weekly questioned.
Xinhua reported this week that the CFA wants to take Camacho into arbitration to resolve the dispute. Dalian Wanda’s Wang, meanwhile, told CCTV that the contract figures that are being reported by the media are “completely misleading”. He also insisted that hiring Camacho was the right decision and there is still one year left on Wanda’s sponsorship deal with the CFA. He remains adamant that he wants to hire a foreign coach, although the world’s top managers will probably think twice before taking a job offer from China national’s team.
Of course, one rather successful manager has just become available, having retired from Manchester United. Fancy a final challenge, Sir Alex?
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