Own goals put Chinese soccer on the back foot

Match-fixing scandals and poor performances by the national team take a heavy toll


The heavens opened and drenched the already miserable Chinese national team supporters as they trudged home from the Workers Stadium in central Beijing, having watched the country’s best footballers outclassed by the Netherlands.

The scoreline was only 2-0, but it could have been 10-0. Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and the other orange-clad superstars seemed to go easy on them.

Inside the stadium, there were more orange shirts than red shirts. The Chinese fans sitting in front of us, who were from Beijing, were huge Holland fans. They sang both national anthems with equal fluency and they cheered for the Dutch throughout.

The Chinese love their soccer, but the game in the world’s most populous nation has suffered a series of own goals over the past few years, devastated by rampant bribery and match-fixing, as corrupt referees known as “black whistles” exact a heavy toll on the Beautiful Game.

But most painful of all are the appalling on-field performances of the national team. China slumped to its lowest Fifa world ranking of 109 in March of this year, and is currently ranked 95th.

China started brightly against the Dutch, but the atmosphere soon became muted. The downpour as we went home was emblematic of the crisis of Chinese soccer that has now become acute. People barely mention it; they just roll their eyes.

Even before the Dutch game, sensitivity was high after a 2-1 defeat by the Uzbekistan national team. The Chinese team had been forced to tweet the message “sorry” after that debacle.

A week or so later the crisis escalated with the 5-1 demolition of the national team in a friendly by what was basically the Thailand reserves.

After the match in Hefei, a big group of fans snapped and blocked the team bus from leaving while chanting furiously about the coach, the team, injustice and various parts of a cow’s anatomy. A riot followed, injuring at least 100 people.

The demolition of the Chinese national side prompted one of the better jokes on Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of the banned Twitter.

A Chinese soccer fan meets a Thai fan.

China: We have 5,000 years of history!

Thailand: Your team was hammered 5-1.

China: We have an area of 9.6 million sq km!

Thailand: Your team was hammered 5-1.

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

Thailand: Your team was hammered 5-1.

China: Can’t we talk about something other than football?

Thailand: You are humiliated by local government officials every day.

China: . . .

Thailand: You eat poisoned food every day.

China: . . .

Thailand: You suck in toxic air.

China: . . .

Thailand: Even if you work all your life, you can’t afford a house.

China: Let’s keep talking about football, okay?

Thailand: Your team was hammered 5-1 . . .

In desperation, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) is looking abroad. So far they’ve tried cleaning up corruption, hiring the best foreign coaches, even bringing in Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka from Chelsea, but nothing seems to be able to raise Chinese football’s game.

Foreign coaches
The foreign coaches route isn’t working so well. Last month, China terminated José Antonio Camacho’s contract as national soccer coach after the team lost all three of its home games in June.

Camacho, a 58-year-old Spaniard who formerly coached the Spanish national team and Real Madrid, was hired on a three-year contract in August 2011 but failed to guide the team to next year’s World Cup in Brazil.

To add to the misery, the CFA will have to fork out €6.45 million to Camacho for ending his three-year contract 18 months early. The CFA had originally hoped to get away with paying just €3 million. The CFA also faces a €3 million tax bill.

“Who can be the qualified coach for the Chinese team? Who can eventually motivate the team which lacks skills, team work, and most importantly, fighting spirit?” the Xinhua news agency asked at the end of its match report.

The latest overseas effort was bringing in David Beckham, who is a legend in China, and is among the most recognised of all foreign stars. He has a new role as “image ambassador”, which began after he announced his retirement from professional football, having won the French league title with Paris Saint-Germain.

A few years ago Beckham’s image was even used – without his permission, of course – to sell a Chinese own-brand potency medicine.

At least Beckham is popular. So popular in fact that at least seven people were hurt in a stampede when he arrived at Shanghai Tongji University. About 1,000 fans rushed forward as the former England star arrived and waved to them.

The league is hoping that its efforts to stamp out corruption will eventually help improve the standard of the game. Shanghai Shenhua, which was briefly home to Drogba and Anelka, was earlier this year stripped of its 2003 league title, had six points deducted for next season, and fined €120,000 as part of a three-year drive to stamp out match-fixing in the Chinese Super League.

More children need to play football. Just 200,000 kids play soccer regularly compared with 300 million children and adults who play basketball.

Senior corrupt figures in the CFA have gone to jail. In February, 33 officials and players were banned for life at the conclusion of a three-year investigation. Former soccer chiefs Nan Yong and Xie Yalong are both serving jail sentences of 10½ years for taking bribes.

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