We all know that China has been a footballing basket-case since it first started to take the game seriously, back in 1994. It was then that the first professional league (CSL) was formed and various large, state industries were instructed to support and develop them.
For the Chinese Govt – the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party – it was all about ending the embarrassment of regularly failing to qualify for the World Cup. China was beginning its inexorable rise to economic greatness and its politicians were hungry to strut the world stage. The World Cup was a big party for which they never received an invitation, (though the Chinese Women’s team were runner’s up in the 1999 World Cup).
Once the destination of WC 2002 was decided (in 1996) for South Korea and Japan, the pressure became even greater. Team China failed yet again to qualify, for France 1998, but they just had to get to WC 2002.
The loss of ‘face’ for the greatest nation in the world if they failed to qualify would be even worse this time, as the party would be taking place – for very first time – in Asia; in fact, regarding Korea, in the house next door. It would be excruciating for China to be barred out and forced to listen to sounds of revelry, peering through the windows at the fun, like ragged children outside a posh house.
Many people were suspicious about the draw which gave China an almost free passage to WC 2002. But getting there didn’t do them any good at all. They played three; lost three; didn’t even score one goal. And the Chinese people blamed the Chinese Govt because they know the Central Committee controls everything, including football.
Since then, there’s been a series of disasters; re-launches of the CSL; bribery & corruption exposed and dozens of senior officials and referees sent to jail. Team China was rubbish; failing to qualify for WCs 2006/2010/2014. It seems (as one Shanghai taxi driver said to me) that they couldn’t find one decent player for every one hundred million of their population.
The latest humiliation, last June, was the national team’s defeat by a Thailand U21s team. They weren’t just beaten; they were battered 5 -1 at home. There were calls for the Govt to simply disband Team China and forget about the international game. When it came to men’s football, the greatest nation on earth was useless.
And then along came the wonderfully named, Guangzhou Evergrande FC; a comparatively new football club in the Mandarin-speaking south-east of the country. Guangzhou FC (Evergrande is the sponsor/owner) won the title last year and stormed through to the Asian Champions League Final which you won’t be surprised to hear has never been won by a Chinese club.
The excitement generated by the prospect of getting something to eat after such a long famine in the football desert sent the Chinese wild with enthusiasm. Guangzhou Evergrande FC became ‘Team China’ for the duration (despite the presence of three, highly influential foreign players in the Guangzhou FC squad) , and the TV audiences – though still difficult to measure accurately in the People’s Republic – were probably up around the half billion mark.
The two legged match v Seoul FC a few weeks back was also reportedly the most valuable ACL Final of all time (and with audiences like that in China alone, the commercial inventory must have been worth a fortune).
In the event, Guangzhou FC won 4 – 2 and, at very long last, brought some footballing honour to the most populous nation on earth.
Dr Rogan Taylor is the Director of the Football Industry Group at the University of Liverpool. He is also a writer and broadcaster, with five football books and numerous radio and TV contributions. He has acted as a special adviser to The FA, The Premier League and Premier League Clubs.
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