Giving sleep a pass

Its national team ain’t there, but Chinese remain obsessed with World Cup

England's Smalling heads the ball during their 2014 World Cup Group D soccer match against Costa Rica at the Mineirao stadium in Belo Horizonte

Spot the ball: many of the Brazuca balls are made in China

Just like at the last football World Cup in South Africa, China’s impact this time round in Brazil is being felt more in plastic than in playing soccer.

In fact, China has only qualified for the finals of the tournament once – in 2002, when it lost all three games and failed to score a single goal. The national team is absent again in Brazil. Instead, Chinese influence is being felt in different ways: out on the pitch with the Brazuca ball and in the streets with the caxirola, a plastic contraption that hisses when shaken.

Manufactured at Chinese factories by Longway, a Taiwan-based sports gear maker and long-time partner of Adidas, the Brazuca ball seems more popular than last time’s Jabulani, which was cursed by goalkeepers as too unpredictable in flight.

Chinese factories were also responsible for the ear-piercing soundtrack four years ago, when the vuvuzela trumpet surpassed even the chainsaw in decibel levels.

So there was disappointment from noise-seekers on news that the caxirola – the vuvuzela’s Brazilian equivalent – has been banned inside grounds on fears it could be used as a missile by spectators.

That hasn’t stopped millions of caxirola being exported from the trading city of Yiwu in Zhejiang, with plenty of them now being smuggled into Brazilian stadiums or shaken in the surrounding streets.

How about the tournament’s impact in China? World Cup silly season started early when Beijing said it would be renaming 32 of its stations after the teams at the tournament. The scheme was dropped just two days before launch, Beijing Youth Daily said, after concerns that the signage would confuse passengers and create congestion as travellers stopped to be photographed next to their favourite countries.

In another initiative that failed to get off the ground, a panda reserve in Chengdu said that it was planning to ask a team of bears to predict the results at the tournament.

In an attempt to recreate China’s infatuation with the soothsaying skills of “Brother Octopus” four years ago (see WiC70), the bears would make their selections by picking food from bowls in the national colours of rival teams or by climbing trees marked with appropriate flags.

But the plan was discarded because of fears that the pandas might panic at all the attention.

“The safety and health of pandas is most important. We won’t sacrifice it,” announced a spokesman for the panda research centre in Sichuan, apparently forgetting that it had suggested the idea in the first place.

Perhaps the health of the general public should have been more of a concern, however, with millions of Chinese staying up all night to watch the action.

The games have been kicking off between midnight and 6am, with predictable consequences for workplace productivity the following day. In many cases employees simply haven’t bothered turning up, with the Global Times reporting a boom in fake sick notes.

“Diagnosis: upper respiratory tract infection. Suggestion: one day of sick leave,” one of the counterfeits advises, replete with four official-looking stamps.

Other services are legal, at least. Sellers on Taobao are offering wake-up calls shortly before games begin, for instance, while the South China Morning Post has reported on ‘drunk insurance’ from insurer Zhong An for fans who over-imbibe.

The ‘night owl’ package offered by the same firm covers medical expenses related to acute respiratory infections (too much gasping as Ronaldo pouts for the camera, probably) and even extends to death cover of Rmb10,000 ($1,604), the newspaper suggested.

Some of those policies might be paying out this week, after news that at least three Chinese fans have died because of their World Cup obsession.

The first, from Suzhou, was reportedly found dead on his sofa after watching the Netherlands-Spain match (WiC wonders if he’d placed a spread-bet on the Spanish, and was shocked to death by their 5-1 defeat).

Another fan was said to have died last Sunday after staying up for three consecutive nights to watch matches, the Shanghai Daily reported.

Hospitals have experienced a surge in patients with symptoms of exhaustion during previous World Cups, Xinhua admitted, although it pooh-poohed the claims that football fever is leading to increased fatalities among the most fanatical supporters. “About 50 people die in China every minute, so it’s no surprise if a few of them happen to be watching TV at the time,” it said.

Apparently, about 1,500 wealthy Chinese have gone to Brazil on tour packages arranged by FIFA’s official travel supplier. It also looks like Chinese president Xi Jinping – an avid football fan himself – will be attending the final in Rio later this month. Forbes magazine is even reporting rumours that the latest BRICS summit, which was due to be held in Brazil earlier this year, was moved to two days after the final on requests from the Chinese delegation.

If true, few would blame Xi for grabbing his chance, especially as China doesn’t look likely to play at the finals of the World Cup itself until 2034 at the earliest.

That’s based on the assumption that the national team’s woeful form continues, meaning that China’s best chance of qualifying for the finals is as host.

Unfortunately, this free pass is 20 years away, says Mark Dreyer, a journalist at China Sports Insider, because the rules prevent an Asian country getting the tournament in 2026 (as Qatar is due to host in 2022) and the 2030 finals look like going to Argentina and Uruguay (marking the tournament’s centenary).

Perhaps China will qualify in its own right before then, buoyed by the success of Guangzhou Evergrande in the Asian equivalent of the UEFA Champions League.

But in the meantime soccer diehards may have to content themselves with fantasy football, after reports that EA Sports, maker of computer game FIFA Online 3, was persuaded by internet giant Tencent to make the Chinese team more competitive in digital format than it is in real life. Keen to attract more of the world’s most frenetic gamers, EA agreed, giving the Chinese side an unexpected boost in skill ratings, local media says.

“Great! Finally our national team can be champions at the World Cup!” one netizen cheered.

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