Why Does China Hate its Soccer Team?

by Edmund Downie:

Has there ever been a better time to be a Chinese soccer fan? Fans in China enjoy unprecedented attention from Europe’s best teams, who are tripping over themselves to gain a foothold in the world’s fastest-growing market for the world’s most popular sport. Top clubs like Manchester United and Real Madrid make regular visits, while field-level billboards at English Premier League games run a steady stream of Chinese-language advertisements directed at the league’s millions of Chinese viewers.

But then there is the men’s national team. In August 2011, FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, ranked China 69th among men’s national teams. This puts China fifth in Asia, tied with Guinea, and one place behind Uzbekistan. China has hovered around this position since the first edition of the rankings came out in 1993. The team has qualified for only one FIFA World Cup, in 2002, when it lost all three of its games and failed to score even once.

With as many angry fans as England’s team, but with a lot less talent, the Chinese soccer team might be the unluckiest in the world. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Years of poor performances have turned the team into one of the Chinese public’s favorite punching bags. Three losses in three matches at the 2008 Beijing Olympics led to parodies like the video “Chinese Soccer Team Welcomes You.” In this satire of the official Olympics song, “Beijing Welcomes You,” Chinese netizens skewered the team. Even the players owned up to their feeble showing. When Brazil, the most successful national team in soccer history, steamrolled the Chinese in a 3-0 victory at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, team captain Li Weifeng told the press, “We play soccer like the Brazilians play ping-pong.”

And he is right. Sixty-ninth in the rankings, and with just one World Cup appearance in their history, the team has much room to improve. (On the other hand, Brazilian ping-pong ranks among Latin America’s best.) But why does China care so much? In India, for instance, though soccer is the fastest growing and third most-watched sport, the men’s national team is ranked at 158th, one spot below Palestine. Yet the public tolerates its shortcomings with far greater equanimity. What makes China different?

Corruption, geopolitics, Asian history, and the Beijing Olympics must all play into the politics and psychology of China’s relationship with soccer. Soccer’s longstanding connection to nationalism may be the foremost factor. In Spain, Catalan pride underlies the fervent fan support and unusual community-based ownership model at Barcelona F.C., right now the best team in Europe. But national pride can also turn against a team when it fails to meet expectations. In England, the country that founded modern soccer, a 4-1 defeat to Germany in last year’s World Cup prompted headlines like “Message to England Players: You Let Your Country Down” from British tabloid The Sun.

As in England, nationalism and soccer in China form a toxic mix. When a loss to Hong Kong knocked China out of the race to qualify for the 1986 World Cup, the riots that followed prompted Beijing’s leadership to disband the team. Since then, China’s rapid rise in geopolitical and economic status has put the team’s failings in an even starker light. Of course, were it the ping-pong team that was struggling, it might not attract so much attention—but it is the soccer team, China’s representative
in the world’s most popular game. For this reason, the losses have Chinese questioning much more than just the coach’s decisions, as history professor and Chinese national Xu Guoqi explained in a 2008 Washington Post op-ed, “They have also prompted doubts about Chinese manhood, undermined the country’s vaunted can-do spirit, and sparked agonizing questions about our politics, culture, and society—even about what it means to be Chinese.”

Confucian psychology heightens the intensity of the reaction. Traditional Confucian beliefs espoused by Chinese society describe the concept of “face,” a notion that encompasses dignity, reputation, and one’s own self-respect. One can gain face (lian in Chinese) by rising in the esteem of others and lose face by not living up to their standards. Moreover, because Confucian ethics value group identity more than individual identity, one can also gain and lose lian from the actions of family and friends.

The idea of face puts enormous social pressure upon the national team. As Cameron Wilson, a Shanghai native and blogger on Chinese soccer, said, China’s desire to win global respect “fuels an intense desire to gain face. And there’s no better sport to gain face than [soccer].” One could add that there is no better sport from which to lose face than soccer, and so each loss becomes a blow against the self-regard of China’s soccer-watching public.

To be sure, plenty of other national teams labor under the threat of bringing shame upon their people with a loss. England’s 40-year-long failure to win a World Cup title has made headlines tearing into the team for its performances almost de rigueur. But Europe’s ties to modern soccer run much deeper than China’s, whose first fully-fledged league didn’t appear until 1978. In addition, it’s hard to imagine European players mocking their own teams as Li Weifeng did after the loss to Brazil. Speaking to the press after the loss to Germany, England captain Steven Gerrard said, “It’s bitterly disappointing to go out of the World Cup and especially so to Germany. At stages in the game we were on top of them—at 2-1 down, I thought we’d go and win it 3-2, but at 3-1 it’s game over.”

Some also see a more subversive undertone in criticisms of China’s national soccer team. Rowan Simons, who has written about his 20-year fight to build a network of amateur soccer leagues in China, explained in an email that “discussing the failure of football in China has become one of the favorite ways for urbanites to criticize the system without undermining it.” (Urbanites form the bulk of Chinese soccer’s fanbase.) Anthropology professor and Chinese sports expert Susan Brownell has a similar take. “[The fans] believe [the team’s] problems reflect the political challenges facing the political system as a whole, so their frustration with the team reflects their frustration with the entire system,” she said in an email.

China’s government often censors public dissent about its policies, but, in soccer, it takes a more populist approach. The day after the loss to Brazil, state-run wire service Xinhua ran an article titled “Chinese Soccer Team’s Disgraceful Exit Causes Public Outrage,” which cited officials, sports icons, and popular writers decrying the team’s showing. Authorities did eventually ask newspapers to cut back on their negative coverage, but not until later that week. Such (relatively) loose oversight gives citizens a level of freedom in criticizing the team.

In Brownell’s eyes, the government’s tactics here are part of a calculated approach to political reform. Since China began re-engaging with the West in the 1970s, the government has designated a handful of sites as shidian, or “experimental sites,” to test out experimental policies. For instance, in the 1980s, the southern city of Shenzhen prospered under a set of market-oriented reforms that became a model for later liberalization efforts nationwide.

Brownell sees sports as an unofficial shidian. In the 1970s, “ping-pong diplomacy,” a pair of exchange visits between the American and Chinese table tennis teams, served as the first step in the gradual thawing of relations between China and the United States. Likewise, she said, sports reforms were an early aspect of the market reforms of the 1980s. In an effort to help smooth the country’s transition to a competitive economy, the government began to pay successful sports teams performance bonuses to provide the people with, as Brownell put it, “an understandable model of fair competition.”

Now sports like soccer are leading a gradual evolution in Chinese politics. Brownell says the lax restrictions around public comment on sports means the atmosphere around sports resembles “what Chinese political culture as a whole would look like if it had free expression.” Likewise, the recent soccer scandal gives a template for true accountability in Chinese government. After journalist Li Chengpeng exposed widespread corruption in 2009 in the game, the government responded by arresting a slew of prominent figures, including both the director and deputy director of the Chinese Football Association (CFA). “The thing that was amazing to Chinese people was that it went all the way up to [director],” noted Brownell. “Everybody agrees the whole system is corrupt from top-to-bottom, but the investigations usually stop before they get to[director].”

Sports fit the shidian format quite well. For one, their popularity makes them an excellent tool for teaching the public, as they did during the market reforms of the 1980s. In addition, sports compose only a tiny fraction of the Chinese economy. As a result, attempts to rein in corruption in sports need not threaten the endemic corruption that defines the relationship between officials and big business throughout China. If anti-corruption measures win favor, the government can expand their reach. If not, the government can let them slide.

Is soccer the gateway to political reform? It does seem possible, but with the start of World Cup 2014 qualifying matches this past September, the national team players have more immediate concerns on their minds. The CFA picked former Spanish national team coach Jose Antonio Camacho to lead the effort, but results from the first two matches—a hard-fought 2-1 victory over Singapore and a 2-1 loss to Jordan—suggest it will not be easy.

Win or lose, though, there is one constant: The public will have plenty to say. Let the games begin.

Edmund Downie ’14 is in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at edmund.downie@yale.edu.