Argentina and Germany arrived at this month’s World Cup in Qatar as two favourites to win the trophy. Yet both were beaten 2-1 – by Saudi Arabia and Japan, respectively – in the opening round of matches.
The shock results sparked a response in China, even though the country’s own national team has not qualified for the finals in Qatar. Many were envious at how Asian teams were locking horns with football’s more established superpowers. Others found consolation that the unexpected wins put some of China’s own footballing failures in the qualifying competition in clearer context. “We shouldn’t have blamed guozu [the ‘national football team’] for failing to qualify. They were in the same Asian group with Saudi and Japan, who are just so strong,” one widely-forwarded weibo comment claimed (although China also suffered a humiliating defeat to Vietnam).
The national team has been the butt of jokes and frustration from local football fans for years. Even Tan Ruisong, the Party boss at aircraft giant AVIC, joined the crowd with a cheap shot at an airshow in Zhuhai last month, when he vowed that China’s aviation industry would bolster national pride like the country’s table tennis team, but not the guozu.
Another constant: Chinese football always seems capable of delivering a new shocker when things seem they cannot get any worse.
This happened once again just before the World Cup finals kicked off in Qatar, when news broke that Li Tie, a former head coach of the guozu, was being investigated for “serious violations of the law” by anti-corruption authorities in Hubei province.
According to local newspaper outlets, the 45 year-old was scheduled to be one of the pundits in the Chinese television coverage of the Qatar tournament, only to be taken away by anti-graft officials from a hotel in Liaoning on November 9, where he had been giving a coaching workshop.
Li epitomises the years of effort that have gone into making China more competitive as a footballing power. In 1992, he was one of a group of under-15s to be sent to Brazil for a gruelling five-year boot camp. The programme didn’t produce the Chinese equivalent of the Selecaos (the nickname of the Brazilian national team) but it did yield a few reasonable results. Several teenagers including Li becameregular players in the national squad. Li was also a key performer when China made its first, and only, appearance at the World Cup finals in 2002.
He had a short spell playing with English club Everton as well, meaning he was one of the few Chinese players to break into top-flight professional football in a major foreign league. That impressive track record meant that, prior to the latest scandal, Li was also one of a small number of widely-respected figures in Chinese football. He was appointed head coach of the guozu (after the departure of the respected Italian Marcello Lippi) in late 2019, although he resigned late last year, after failing to guide the team all the way to the finals in Qatar.
It’s unclear why Li is now being investigated although social media sleuths have been quick to reveal that he has enjoyed a lucrative career thanks to his off-pitch commercial work. Beijing Youth Daily predicts that his case is likely to herald “a new storm in Chinese soccer”, as anti-corruption investigators could uncover more dirt.
State-run financial newswire Cailian reported that Li was making about Rmb30 million ($4.21 million) a year while he was the head coach of the national team. Nevertheless, there were off-field distractions, including ambassadorial roles with sport brands such as Li Ning. He also has controlling stakes or interests in at least nine other companies, Cailian says, including a football academy that he named after himself.
A park in his native Shenyang also bears the name of Li Tie in commemoration of his contribution to the guozu’s achievements in reaching the World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea in 2002. But a bronze statue of the former star no longer features in the park, after it was removed from view this week.
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