A Failed Chinese Football Weekend
In a piece I wrote for In Bed with Maradona back in February, I bemoaned football’s lack of popularity in Taiwan, that embattled nation of the South China Sea, but what of its similar failure to take root across the Formosa Strait? Insignificance in a country of 23 million is one thing, but to be scarcely on nodding terms with 1.4 billion more is another entirely. Sure, the “Premeer” League has its adherents between Kashgar and Guangzhou – quite a few million of them, so we are told – but an emphasis on top down development has perhaps left the domestic game in China to wallow.
On a recent trip I paid to the People’s Republic, I was met with snorts at my intention to take in a Chinese Super League encounter between Hangzhou Greentown and Chengdu Blades – “you will be disappointed” was one of the less scornful remarks. But given the comparative successes of the J League in Japan and Major League Soccer in the US, why the continued lack of interest?
The contention is that the Chinese are good at “small ball” sports such as squash, badminton (before you start, I know what a shuttlecock is) and table tennis and despite the efforts of Zheng Zhi, Fan Zhiyi, Li Tie and Sun Jihai, the impact of the Middle Nation’s impact on global football has been negligible. Just as China emerged from its veil of communism, English football hit its boom — the marketers were quick to pounce and the truism repeated that “quality” was all that matters. If Barcelona are now edging out the Big Four in allure, local variants are still given short shrift. Quite simply, the Chinese are happy to take their football fix from the Idiot Box.
The structure of the Chinese game has undergone endemic revolutions; most recently with the establishment of the J League-copyists of the Chinese Super League in 2004. Strategies were unearthed to provide a head to smaller cities where football already had something of a foothold and Dalian, a port in relatively close proximity to soccer mad Korea, remains one of the primary hotbeds. Elsewhere, newer communities like Hong Kong’s mainland alter ego Shenzhen were viewed as natural homes for pioneers of a faltering but fledgling sport.
Overseas stars have quickly achieved prominence with Australians in particular well represented as well as the ubiquitous South Americans and former Yugoslavs. Colombian Duvier Riascos of Shanghai Shenhua was top scorer in 2010 — the fifth foreigner to scoop this accolade in seven years. There have been odd success stories — my destination Hangzhou has thrown up a fast growing, attractive team from one of China’s smaller large cities.
Their opponents on this blisteringly sweltering day were now finding themselves acting as a feeder team to a club newly relegated to the third tier of English football. The Sichuan based Blades are general under achievers – suffering a forcible liquidation for match fixing four years before Sheffield United took over the ownership of the concern. Since the association was finalized late in 2005, things have been yet more chequered — promotion in 2008 was followed by another corruption scandal in February of last year. Relegated by decree, the westerners returned to the top table in time for this current season, only for their Bramall Lane overlords to look to offload.
In a society where guanxi – loosely, “connections” – hold sway, crowds are low, and results matter little due to interminable structural reorganizations, the League’s development has been severely hampered. The national side has also underachieved — every time they come up against significant opposition, they take a tumble, most recently a 4-0 pasting by Uruguay, although a recent ability to bully on the flat track will augur well for the coming World Cup campaign. In the Asian Champions League, no Chinese side has reached the final since Dalian Wanda fell to Pohang Steelers in 1997.
Hangzhou exceeded expectations by reaching this year’s competition following an excellent fourth place in 2010. Unfortunately, after a wonderful 2-0 win over Nagoya Grampus Eight in their opening game, the Zhejiang side failed to win another game, finishing bottom of their group but remaining unbeaten at home. Certainly, their 51,000 capacity yellow Dragon Stadium soars magnificently, situated as it is just to the north of the city’s picture postcard West Lake, named a UNESCO World Heritage site this past month.
A brisk walk of 45 minutes or so took me from the city centre, stopping off en route at the local branch of chain restaurant/cafe C Strait Cafe. “Treated” to muzak versions of Cyndi Lauper and Bonnie Tyler, I chowed down on spare ribs with Chinese greens and chilli, one of the best meals I enjoyed on a trip that was decidedly hit and miss in culinary terms.
But then, I was left to evoke the spirit of an article that appeared courtesy of Nick Dunkeyson on our blogger John McGee’s site, Bring Me the Head of Keith Mincher. For even taking into account the purported paucity of Chinese gates, activity around the stadium was limited. A quick back and forth of two hundred metres or so made it fairly plain that no match was taking place at all, despite my attempts at self-delusion — my misinformation the result of the time given on the FIFA website — I had presumed the time was local, but I should have assumed that it would be that given for the TV region likely to garner the biggest audience. So, a “failed Asian football weekend” this was. For the record, the Blades earned a creditable away point with a 1-1 draw. China remains elusive.