When it comes to football most Chinese can agree on two things: the first is that they invented the sport; and the second that they are very bad at it. The former claim rests with Cuji, a primitive version of the game played in ancient China; the latter is based on the woeful performance of the national men’s team.
In fact, some of China’s blackest humour is reserved for its football team. One popular joke has a Chinese fan meet a deity and be granted a wish. He asks that Japan disappear beneath the sea [editor’s note: there’s something of a nationalist tinge to this joke]. To this the deity responds that the task is too difficult, and requests the man ask another. The fan then requests that China’s soccer team qualify for the next World Cup, which leads the deity to say “Remind me again what that first wish was?”
A fresh batch of jokes – many in questionable taste – flooded the internet last October when the Chinese team lost a home match 1-0 to Syria, a country raging with civil war and without anything like China’s sports budgets or training facilities. (China also lost to Uzbekistan the same month.)
So it was with genuine surprise that the nation’s football fans absorbed the result of last week’s World Cup qualifier against South Korea. The match – played in Changsha – saw the Chinese team win 1-0, an outcome that beat all the odds, and confounded the pundits’ predictions. China had only beaten the South Koreans once in 31 previous encounters.
In fact, the Chinese authorities clearly expected – as and when the South Koreans strolled to victory – that the game might erupt into violence. How else to explain the presence of 10,000 police at the stadium? Indeed, with tensions running high over Seoul’s installation of America’s THAAD missile defence system – leading to Chinese boycotts of South Korean consumer goods and of Lotte supermarkets – the match had taken on a political significance far beyond the 22 players on the pitch. A rout by the South Koreans – and a requisite loss of face for China – could well have seen Chinese fans go on the rampage, taking out their anger on South Korean spectators and nearby property (overturning cars, for instance – something they’d done after a loss to Hong Kong). Hence that colossal police presence.
Some credit for the victory will go to Marcello Lippi, the coach who was brought in after the Syria defeat, when things looked to be at a nadir. The former Italy manager had already enjoyed Chinese success with club side Guangzhou Evergrande, which he led to multiple Super League titles and to be crowned as Asian champions (a first for a Chinese team).
The Italian seems to have succeeded where others failed: motivating the famously low-morale national team to believe victory possible. In this respect he was probably helped by the fact that the squad was stacked with players he’d formerly coached and knew well from Guangzhou Evergrande, and who believed in his methods. (Lippi’s package is reportedly worth €20 million per year.) ESPN reckons 70 million watched the match on television or via live web streaming, with Chinese households going berserk in the 44th minute, when Yu Dabao scored the winning goal.
There was plenty of reaction online from netizens, much of it retaining the trademark black humour, though this time tempered with disbelief. One netizen referred to the city where the game was held and noted: “Why is Changsha a lucky place for the Chinese football team? It’s because the city is famous for foot-washing [meaning foot massage] services and in this city, even the most stinking foot [meaning bad footballers] can be washed clean.”
Another made reference to the decision to hire the Italian: “When Lippi took office, we all said that the tuhao [a word meaning new rich] parents hired a Harvard tutor for their hopeless son. Now the results prove that: no matter how hard our life is, no matter how poor we are, we must invest in education!”
If that joke pointed to a strategy vindicated, there were also those who pointed to the political dimension: “We told you not to deploy THAAD, you did not listen. We have 10,000 ways to defeat you, of which the one we’re poorest at is football!”
Another compared the match to Homer’s epic The Illiad – the match being akin to the duel between Ajax and Achilles fought for national honour – and added this piece of martial rhetoric: “Dear Chinese national men’s football team, despite the previous tens of millions of names we’ve called you, as long as you struggle, you will always have the support of 1.4 billion people who are beating the drums for you.”
However, the winning form did not last. On Tuesday evening China lost 1-0 to Iran in Tehran. ESPN notes that the loss has China on the brink of World Cup elimination, with just three matches remaining and the team now sitting fifth in the qualifying group.
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