Getting shirty

Victorious Evergrande FC’s sponsor is mightily upset

Evergrande victory AFC championship league final

Pity for Dongfeng Nissan the name on the winning shirt wasn’t its own

For Chinese football it was a week of apology, glory and recrimination. In an action-packed seven days the country’s top team even faced a potential lawsuit – from its own sponsor – while one of its owners – Alibaba’s Jack Ma – was compared to Mao Zedong for the frenzied adulation accompanying his appearance at Saturday night’s big game in Guangzhou.

But let’s start with the apology. On Monday the China Daily reported that the nation’s football governing body had finally spoken up about last week’s goalless draw with Hong Kong. That somewhat embarrassing result – its second failure in quick succession to hit the back of the net against a minnow of world football – has almost certainly prevented China from qualifying for the World Cup Finals.

“The Chinese Football Association (CFA) has apologised for the national team’s poor performance in qualifying matches for the 2018 World Cup in Russia,” wrote the China Daily. “The association said it took full responsibility for the team’s lacklustre displays and apologised for letting supporters down.”

The admission came after angry fans took to the web to lambast yet another chapter in the team’s history of underperformance.

Aside from the result in Hong Kong itself, hordes of fans were upset by the CFA’s reaction to it: silence and denial.

Titan Sports pointed out that the association’s own webpage “proves the ugliness of the CFA”. Why so? The weekly newspaper noted that two days after the depressing result, the CFA’s homepage featured just three headlines: one about a victory for the under-16 women’s national team, another about a game with Bhutan and a third relating to the Chinese Olympic football team.

But as Titan pointed out, there was no mention whatsoever of the match everyone was talking about: the goalless draw with Hong Kong.

Titan’s conclusion: “It [the CFA] feels ashamed and tries to save face.” The sports news outlet added dismissively: “Without the courage to face failure and even the spirit of seeking truth from facts, how can the CFA talk about ‘reform and development’?”

The CFA’s boss also came in for a bashing from leading football commentator Dong Lu. In a scathing assessment of Cai Zhenhua, Dong noted that he was also caught by TV cameras looking at his phone when the winning goal was scored at Saturday’s AFC Champions League final. Dong asked of Cai, a former table tennis player, “Does he really love football? Does he really understand the laws of football? Does he have enough courage and determination to change the status quo of Chinese football? I think these may become huge question marks after tonight.”

Indeed, many of the recriminations about the CFA – and its unprecedented apology – came after the success of Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao in the aforementioned game at the weekend.

In this instance, the Chinese team was the victor, winning its second Asian championship in three years by defeating Dubai’s Al Ahli one-nil.

Evergrande’s success retriggered the debate about how the football world reflected the difference between the efficiency of the private sector and the lumbering nature of the state system (as embodied by the CFA). Another sports commentator Huang Jianxiang made the point explicitly: “Evergrande’s ability to succeed confirms that if the government gets out of Chinese soccer and gives it over to the market and society, there will be quick results. Evergrande don’t only rely on money, but also the most professional skill levels and methods to improve their game.”

In spite of its success on Saturday, Evergrande didn’t bask in media glory for long. No sooner had it raised the trophy aloft than business-focused magazines like Caijing and Caixin Weekly were chastising the club for “defaulting” on contractual obligations to its sponsor Dongfeng Nissan.

That’s because on the night of the final the team replaced the logo on its shirt promoting the Venucia car to one publicising its co-owner’s move into a new business line.

The shirts read ‘Evergrande Life’, following Evergrande’s purchase of 50% of Great Eastern Life Assurance-China for Rmb3.94 billion this month (the company was swiftly renamed Evergrande Life).

However, Caixin said this “flagrantly breached its contract” with the Sino-Japanese sponsor and illustrated that the club “obviously does not know how to safeguard the rights of its core sponsor that contributes a quarter of the team’s total revenues”.

According to state media Dongfeng Nissan has responded that its deal with the club – worth Rmb110 million annually – states that it has the sole right to advertise on the team’s shirts and that “changes should be made under mutual consent”.

Dongfeng says it rejected a request to switch logos for the final, but the club went ahead with it anyhow. State media adds that the carmaker says it has started legal action against the club, while Evergrande claims to be “open for negotiations and wishes Dongfeng Nissan to continue its sponsorship”.

This wasn’t the only non-football related matter of the evening. The other talking point centred on the manner in which Chinese fans at the the stadium responded to the club’s co-owner Jack Ma. The Alibaba billionaire isn’t regarded as a football expert. But whenever Ma responded to play or made hand gestures he was greeted with whoops of adulation by the crowd, clearly in thrall to his fame and fortune.

Online this led some to draw comparisons between the attention Ma was receiving at the match and the kind of worship once bestowed on Mao at the height of the Cultural Revolution.

“Ma is the reincarnation of Mao,” wrote one blogger. “Many people listen to Ma’s words like disciples. Or, as they say, when the drums beat the followers flock forward to the battlefield like tigers down the mountain.”

Another worshipper wrote: “Ma is the contemporary version of Mao. Although some netizens criticise him, he doesn’t have to care about that, because this is how great people are.”

Of course, while Ma was inspiring the fans from the stands, and despondent Dongfeng Nissan executives were wondering what had happened to their shirt sponsorship, we shouldn’t forget that the real star of the evening wasn’t Chinese at all.

Yes, the scorer of the winning goal was the Brazilian striker Elkeson, who broke the deadlock in the 54th minute.

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