Chinese Men’s National Soccer Team Loses to Vietnam: Are Paradoxical Policies to Blame?

On Tuesday, the Chinese men’s national soccer team suffered a heavy 3-1 loss to rivals Vietnam in the third and final round of the Asian qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which effectively knocked China out of the competition. An outpouring of fan frustration on Chinese social media has renewed attention to some of the paradoxes plaguing Chinese soccer: a nation with a population of 1.4 billion people that is soon to host the world’s biggest sporting event fails to even qualify in the world’s most popular sport. 

Tuesday’s defeat in Hanoi was particularly bad news for the Chinese team, which only scraped back a consolation goal in the final minutes of the game and now sits near the bottom of the table in group B. This marks China’s seventh consecutive defeat of the campaign, and Vietnam’s first ever win over China. “Winning over China is a billion times bigger than winning other teams,” one Vietnamese fan told AFP. Nicolas Atkin from the South China Morning Post described Chinese social media criticism of the “embarrassing” and “humiliating” result:

The national team’s defeat to Vietnam quickly [became] the top trending hashtag on China’s Twitter-like social media platform Weibo, racking up more than 1.28 million mentions within two hours of the game ending.

[…] “Such a score, and such a defeat to miss the World Cup is absolutely unacceptable to every Chinese fan,” wrote one Weibo user. “What have we experienced in the past 20 years? How will we live in the next 20 years?”

Others were seemingly resigned to defeat before the match even kicked off. “To tell the truth,” one comment read, “this result is normal”.

[…] Several users called for the team to be disbanded altogether, given their abject display against Vietnam.

“The men of the national football team have already lost their blood and backbone, or they should be dissolved. Losing to Vietnam, they are really shameless,” wrote one.

“Don’t go back to China, stay there,” another comment read, suggesting the team not “waste domestic resources” by returning to isolate. [Source]

AFP compiled other critical online comments:

Social media hashtags including “Why does the national football team keep losing” and “National team, give us a refund” received hundreds of millions of views on Weibo as people piled in.

“If you tied a piece of braised pork to the goal, a dog would kick the ball with more enthusiasm than them,” one user complained.

“We should withdraw from FIFA and stop bringing shame on our country,” another Weibo user suggested sarcastically.

[…] An old interview with former international Fan Zhiyi, given after China were crushed 5-1 in a friendly in 2013 by Thailand, made the rounds online — showing what appeared to be a prophetic warning.

“After losing to Thailand, we’ll lose to Vietnam and then to Myanmar. And then there’ll be no one to lose to,” Fan said in the now-viral interview. [Source]

The source of China’s poor performance may lie partly in its national soccer league. In Europe, the big five leagues in the UK, Spain, Italy, Germany, and France are the world’s most watched, most heavily financed, and most attractive to foreign players, factors which significantly contribute to the strength of their national teams. In China, however, the Chinese Super League (CSL) has been plagued by dwindling ticket sales, massive debt, and an exodus of foreign players

As funding has dried up, 12 of the CSL’s 16 teams have fallen behind on paying wages to their players and staff, and several of their corporate owners have defaulted. Last year, reigning champion Jiangsu FC was dissolved just months after winning the league title when its owners pulled out for financial reasons, and Shandong Luneng was expelled from the AFC Champions League for overdue payments. Given that the majority of CSL teams are owned by real estate companies, China’s real estate crisis over the past two years has put a damper on clubs’ funding. In late 2020, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) issued policies to cap players’ salaries and “neutralize” club names by removing any corporate elements or non-Chinese characters.

More recently, the pandemic has also damaged the CSL. The start of the 2020 season in February was delayed and resumed only in July, using a new format that confined players, staff, and officials to a bubble. The 2021 season, which kicked off in April, followed a similarly restricted format, with most matches played behind closed doors in centralized venues. In August, the league announced a four-month hiatus designed to prevent China’s national team players from missing overseas World Cup qualifiers due to China’s strict quarantine rules for international travel. Unpaid and unable to play, several international players and managers left the league during the hiatus. 

Government policies have also hindered the development of the CSL and China’s national team. In late December, the General Administration of Sport announced a new directive banning tattoos, calling on those with existing tattoos to have them removed, and forbidding tattooed players from joining the national team. The directive also stated that the national team should organize “ideological and political education activities” to “strengthen the patriotic education” of players. Some of the most iconic and highest-performing stars in the big five football leagues have tattoos, including Lionel Messi, Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappé, Neymar, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Sergio Ramos. Patrick Blennerhassett at the South China Morning Post described the broader societal changes motivating the Chinese government’s tattoo ban for its players

“The tattoo ban is mostly about national image,” Christopher Rea, who works in the department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia, said. “The Chinese government wants a clean, wholesome, uniform look for the team that will be representing the nation.”

[…] “Expressions of individuality and personality are not welcome,” he said, “unless they have to do with bending a ball into a goal. Emulation is the government’s other worry, that every impressionable young man in China will want to get cool tattoos like Zhang Linpeng [a defender on Guangzhou FC with two full sleeves and a neck tattoo].”

[…] “The directive is also consistent with other recent Chinese government impositions on free expression by celebrities, such as its ban of ‘sissy’ men in broadcast media, which specifically target bodies,” Rea said. “‘Sissy’ men and tattooed footballers represent two ends of a spectrum of masculinity, and the PRC government wants everyone to follow a conformist middle path. When you are a public figure in China, your body is not your own.” [Source]

At the root of China’s soccer paradox is a shortsighted focus on immediate returns over long-term investments. Policies in the mid-2010s encouraged massive spending by Chinese clubs to acquire major international players⁠—so much so that Chelsea coach Antonio Conte famously said that “the Chinese market is a danger for all”⁠—and to naturalize several foreign-born players to allow them to compete on the Chinese national team. But flashy foreign stars are not enough to save Chinese soccer, as Fan Zhiyi, one of China’s greatest players, has argued. Matt Eaton reported for the South China Morning Post on how, following China’s defeat by Vietnam, Fan argued that China’s future soccer success must start at the grassroots

In a lengthy statement on Weibo, viewed more than 1.3 million times just hours after it was posted, Fan said Chinese football must rebuild from the ground up if it was to have any chance at success.

“If through our youth training work, a group of children can know how to deal with people, know how to observe the ever-changing situation on the field, know how to make more rational decisions under pressure, or even just know how to be more rational about winning and losing, let them know winning is the goal, losing must be accepted, and the process must be enjoyed. The meaning of football is enough,” he wrote.

[…] “Only if we take the lead in starting from a small environment and start to make changes, Chinese football can get back on track.” [Source]

The government has imposed certain policies to foster homegrown soccer talent. New soccer fields and soccer schools have been built. Targeting youth athleticism, Xi has called for more physical fitness classes in schools, tried to reduce the pressures of homework and tutoring, and limited time spent with video games. But the strongest attraction to playing sports often comes from organic interest and bottom-up opportunities that may diverge from government policy priorities. Without more opportunities for average citizens to form local soccer-playing communities, the sport lacks a sustainable foundation. In an article for SupChina, Cameron Wilson, a leading international commentator on Chinese soccer, described the fundamental problem as China’s reliance on a Soviet-style sports mentality that prioritizes the national team above all else:

One of the least-recognized failures of Chinese soccer — among its many — is the way the CFA treats the CSL like a vassal at the service of the country’s soccer brand. Most of what you will read about Chinese football, in English at least, focuses on the failures of the national team, or looks at the game through an economic or political lens. For example, discussing Xí Jìnpíng’s 习近平 supposed love for the game and how big business rides on his coattails, lavishing astronomical sums of money on the sport, trying to curry political favor by helping China find 11 guys who can do a decent job of kicking a ball around. […] But China’s top-down nature is precisely why it has had little success in its football project.

If we take a look at the fundamental nature of the sport, we can see why domestic leagues are given priority in successful football countries. Football’s essence is based on its simplicity, ease of play, and as a result, its strong connection to the communities in which it is played. In other words, it is a sport that grows from the bottom up. It is a game that is essentially a product of civil society — something most commentators agree is in serious decline in modern China. In a similar way, football’s governance and focus just reflects the centralization of power in China in general.

 […] The key point is that, for most kids growing up, they most likely dream of one day playing for their local club, or a big club in their country. And if they fall short, in a football country they will have no shortage of other clubs more suited to their level, and still make football a viable career choice. […] In China? They are lucky if there are even a dozen professional clubs with either the money to pay wages or the fanbase to offer some glory or adulation. [Source]

At the national level, women’s soccer in China has fared much better: the women’s team is ranked 19th in the FIFA world rankings, compared to the men’s position at 74. While the Chinese men’s national team lost 3-1 to Vietnam on Tuesday, the Chinese women’s team defeated Vietnam by the same score, 3-1, in Sunday’s quarterfinal match of the AFC Women’s Asian Cup. China is the most successful team at the Women’s Asian Cup, having won eight titles, including seven consecutive titles from 1986 to 1999 (the Cup was formerly biennial, and is now quadrennial.) The win on Sunday kept alive China’s hopes of winning a ninth title at the competition, and sealed China’s spot in the 2023 Women’s World Cup. On Thursday, the women face defending-champion Japan in the semifinals. So far, only China’s women’s team has made progress on Xi’s stated goal to “win glory for the country.”

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