Death, destruction and corruption -- the raw materials of a Chinese online frenzy. In just the last few months, netizens have vented on Chinese microblogs about shoddy infrastructure, government loan sharks and the decline in public morality. And in the early morning of Nov. 12, they let out a long, collective howl shortly after China fell to Iraq 1-0 in a qualifying soccer match for the 2014 World Cup.
The loss all but eliminated China's long beleaguered national team from the next edition of the world’s premier soccer tournament, and left the ascendant global power's soccer-loving netizens wondering why, if their country can field the world’s second largest economy in three decades time, they can’t also field a World Cup qualifier.
Yin Bo, one of China’s most prominent soccer journalists, summed up the frustration in a pointed column for the sports section of the Sina.com portal:
If we lost to Japan or Korea, both of which play better than us, or Saudi Arabia or Qatar, which have very deep pockets, maybe it wouldn’t be so hard for us to accept the result … but it’s Iraq who defeated and double-killed us, Iraqis who haven't completely extricated themselves from a war and can't even play on their home field.
The Chinese public's passion for their national team’s history of mediocre soccer is a curious thing. In its history, China has qualified for only one World Cup, in 2002. China’s home-grown professional league enjoys pockets of popularity, but is often overshadowed by the misbehavior of its bratty stars -- most of whom also play for the national team. This is despite the Chinese state -- and companies seeking to curry favor with it -- spending vast sums on the the Chinese Football Association, or CFA.
So how, then, did China's loss to Iraq turn into one of the most angry and sustained popular discussions on China’s internet in recent months? Because, like so many other recent scandals in China, the national team’s World Cup failure is, in large part, a story about corruption.
For years, the Chinese public has been irritated by the self-serving bureaucrats who run the CFA, and a series of match-fixing scandals tied to them. In 2009, President Hu Jintao gave his support for police to conduct a thorough cleanup of the Chinese soccer system. Since then, more than a dozen soccer players, officials and referees -- including one World Cup referee -- have been arrested in an ongoing match-fixing investigation that has received intense media coverage. In March, a principal investigator on the case confirmed that “it was a common practice for football clubs to give bribes to referees.”
Despite government efforts to publicly come down on the Chinese soccer system, online commenters have adopted soccer corruption as a proxy for the wide-scale corruption that suffuses, and weakens, Chinese contemporary society.
Take, for example, Lei Yi, a prominent historian with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences -- a think tank closely aligned with the upper levels of the Communist Party. After China’s loss to Iraq he took to Sina Weibo, China's most popular microblog, to criticize the bureaucratic mindset of Chinese officials:
The national football team’s loss reflects their leaders’ desire for quick returns … the leaders of the Chinese Football Association prefer achievements while they are in the position of power instead of leaving them to successors … CFA seeks quick success and instant benefits, and worships the power of administration.
In China, such a critique of incompetent bureaucrats typically leads to a critique of the incompetent bureaucrats' policies. Thus, Zheng Daojin, the chief soccer correspondent for Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, shifted his anger from bureaucrats to the effect that China’s poor social safety net has on player development. He tweeted on Sina Weibo:
Parents are unwilling to allow children to play football at present when education and social security have all been privatized and corporatized, for they’re worried that their children might get hurt or have no way out.
However, the most potent political critique of Chinese soccer came when it was compared to the success of the soccer system in Iraq, a seemingly inferior country. Yin Bo’s outraged commentary for Sina.com suggested that the Iraqis won because, unlike Chinese players, Iraqis actually enjoy the sport:
If there is one thing Iraqi football has which is stronger than ours, I'm afraid it’s authenticity. For example, people play football because they like it … children like to play football no matter how their condition is, if there is no formal playground, they will play on plain ground or street, and their parents and school will never stop them; their national team is so poor that they have to depend on loans and … and they receive no fee for showing up to play, but they spare no effort; there are seldom scandals like corruption -- they are so poor that there is nothing to be corrupted.
Yin’s ultimate conclusion was damning: Chinese soccer fails because it relies on politics and gambling as a measure of success, not the results of the game.
Some, including Wang Zhe, chairman of Beijing-based Star Media Group, questioned the soccer players' masculinity and greed. Wang wrote that the team was "a group of unmanly men playing on the field without courage and uprightness!" He continued, " They are afraid of getting hurt. Once they’re hurt, they can't earn money when they go back to their club teams."
Of course, China’s online soccer fans aren’t all social critics. Plenty enjoy the game in its own right and have little patience for sweeping explanations for what the loss to Iraq says about Chinese society. “I apologize on behalf of the Milky Way Galaxy Management Committee,” tweeted a frustrated magazine editor, shortly after social explanations for the loss began to appear on Weibo. “It is in fact the responsibility of the Milky Way Galaxy, which now owes a thousand apologies to Chinese football!”
But by the afternoon of Nov. 16, netizen frustration had reached the point where many openly questioned whether China should, in fact, just disband its national soccer team altogether. In one online poll, 87 percent of respondents agreed that it should be canned, with its budget redirected to a charity that pays for free lunches for underprivileged school children.
However, most Chinese soccer fans will likely be back in front of their television sets soon enough. “Warm congratulations to China for being the world’s first team to begin preparations for the 2018 World Cup in Russia,” read a photographed banner that was widely forwarded on Sina Weibo not long after China’s elimination from the 2014 tournament became official.
(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
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