Pity the Chinese men’s soccer team

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Pity the Chinese men’s soccer team

How much does soccer-loving China hate its men’s national team?

The mostly empty hotel lobby that greeted the team on June 12 when it checked in before a game against Thailand was one measure - especially in a country where national athletes, even in minor sports, receive adoring attention from fans. The many bare seats at the stadium in Hefei where the game was played on June 15 were another sign. But perhaps the biggest display of disdain followed the Chinese squad’s 5-1 loss to a team that had replaced seven members of its roster with youth players. A sizable number of fans found their way down to the team bus and blocked it from leaving while chanting furiously, sometimes obscenely, about the coach, the team and the human anatomy they all resemble. A riot ensued, injuring at least 100 people, according to the Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy.

Online, Chinese fans found virtual analogues to the parking area. Before the first half of the game was over (25 minutes in, China was down 2-0), angry comments began trending on Sina Weibo, the leading social-media platform. By the final whistle, fans started posting furious comments to the apology - “Sorry!” - that the team issued on its official Weibo account on June 6 after losing to the lowly Uzbekistani national team. When the team neglected to apologize for the loss to Thailand, the pace of angry posts to the earlier apology quickened: By Tuesday evening, it had been re-tweeted more than 130,000 times and generated more than 38,000 almost universally angry comments. Among the most popular was “dissolve it” - referring to the team - and variations thereof.

Arguably, however, nothing said on Weibo approached the level of outrage of what was published in China’s mainstream, Communist Party-owned news media. The Sunday sports pages of the Beijing News announced, “1 to 5! Humiliating defeat to a Thai youth team writes a new chapter in the national team’s ‘history of shame’ and defeat.” Xinhua, the state-owned news agency, broke down the game for its English-language edition: “Poor possession, poor team work and most of all no fighting spirit resulted in the most humiliating defeat for years for China’s national soccer team.” Notably, prominent Communist Party-owned news media sources didn’t mention the behavior outside the stadium.

What is it about a lousy soccer team that inspired such anger across Chinese society? On June 17, Southern Metropolis Daily, a highly independent, Communist Party-owned newspaper in Guangzhou, wrote in an editorial: “June 15, 2013, is destined to be known as a dark day in the history of Chinese soccer.” It went on to explain that soccer - as the world’s top sport - has always been viewed as “a platform for displaying national strength.” The piece pointed to “Europe, Japan and Korea, whose standard of soccer rose with national power.” In China, where Japan and Korea are viewed as rivals (if not outright enemies) there’s a clear implication: In soccer, at least, China has failed where Japan has succeeded.

Rather, Chinese soccer seems to be a corruption-laden circus packed with overpaid, underachieving hedonists who have managed to make it to the World Cup only once, in 2002. Nothing China has tried - expensive foreign coaches, expensive imported players, corporate and government subsidies, high-level investigations and prosecutions of soccer corruption - seems to help.

If anything, things may have gotten worse. In 2011, when the Chinese were eliminated from the qualifying rounds for the 2014 World Cup by war-ravaged Iraq, it was regarded as the latest worst loss in the nation’s soccer history. But a loss to Thailand, a country that most Chinese view as a geopolitical inferior subject to Chinese influence, kindles popular frustration at the gap between China’s rise to the top of the geopolitical heap over the last decades and the lack of what some Chinese view as tangible benefits for themselves.

Southern Metropolitan Daily, in its Monday editorial, explained this distance: “In this century China and its economy have experienced a leap in strength, and ‘the rise of China,’ has inadvertently become a consensus at home and abroad. In contrast, looking back at Chinese football, except for the 2002 World Cup it’s spent 11 years heading step by step into the abyss. The rising national strength set against a decreasing level of football will lead to growing dissatisfaction among large numbers of fans. It could be said that the ‘Hefei fiasco’ was just the fuse connected to a public opinion environment ready to explode at any time.”

What does that bomb look like when it explodes? Over the weekend, a faux dialogue between a Chinese soccer fan and a Thai one appeared on Sina Weibo, in various versions and edits. Its origin is uncertain, but not its popularity: It has been forwarded and tweeted thousands of times. In it, the Thai fan refers to many of the most intractable issues in contemporary China:

“China: We have 5,000 years of history!

Thailand: Your team was abused 5:1.

China: We have an area of 9.6 million square kilometers [3.7 million square miles].

Thailand: Your team was abused 5:1.

China: One in every five people in the world is Chinese!

Thailand: Your team was abused 5:1.

China: Can’t we talk of something other than men’s soccer?

Thailand: You’re beaten down by local government officials every day.

China: ...

Thailand: You eat toxic food every day.

China: ...

Thailand: You suck in toxic air.

China: ...

Thailand: Even if you struggle for a lifetime you can’t afford a house.

China: Let’s continue talking about the soccer team, OK?

Thailand: Your team was abused 5:1.”

The flare-up in Hefei wasn’t the first riot in soccer history, nor the first inspired by politics. But the anger it inspired - both from the people and from the voices of the establishment - is a reminder that in Chinese soccer, as in Chinese life, expectations and reality are rapidly diverging with uncertain, occasionally explosive, consequences.

*The author is the Shanghai correspondent for Bloomberg’s World View blog.

By Adam Minter
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