Why China’s lack of success against Hong Kong on the football field isn’t its most vexing problem in sport

Zhengxu Wang says in their angst over the national football team, the Chinese are missing a far bigger problem in sport – the lack of mass participation

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 November, 2015, 4:52pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 November, 2015, 4:52pm

Last week was extraordinary for football fans in China. On Tuesday, the national team drew with Hong Kong, eliminating any realistic chance of moving into the second phase of the qualifying matches for the 2016 World Cup. Then, at the weekend, Guangzhou Evergrande won the Asian Champions League trophy, with a 1-0 victory over United Arab Emirates’ Al Ahli in the final.

READ MORE: Hong Kong football gets shirty: sports, politics, passion and fashion collide in World Cup clash

All around the country, fans have found it difficult to reconcile the excitement of Evergrande’s victory, the second in three years, with the embarrassment of the national team at the hands of Hong Kong. Those old enough will recall that this is not the first time a critical match leading to World Cup qualification has ended in discomfort for a proud Chinese national team at the hands of Hong Kong.

It was on May 19, 1985, that the overwhelming favourites, the Chinese national team, were defeated 2-1 by Hong Kong. Having reached the final of the Asian Cup the year before, it was probably the best national team that Chinese football has had, boasting star players such as Gu Guangming, Zhao Dayu, and Jia Xiuquan. Indeed, the team had even defeated the world’s top football team, Argentina, the year before at the Nehru Cup in India, a feat Chinese football probably wouldn’t dare to dream about again in the foreseeable future.

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Fans found it hard to stomach the defeat by the Hong Kong team, which represented a British colony on a tiny island. Riots broke out that evening near the Workers’ Stadium in Beijing, and the People’s Armed Police were called out to quell the trouble.

Since then, the numbers “5-19” have symbolised the Waterloo of Chinese football.

Certainly, it has not helped that cultural and political tensions between the mainland and Hong Kong have been running high of late. Neither has it helped that China has been doing very well in many other sports, harvesting Olympic medals in large numbers, never mind at the Asian Games and East Asian Games. Even disciplines traditionally dominated by Western athletes, such as sprint swimming, have seen breakthroughs by Chinese athletes.

READ MORE: Obsession with gold medals, trophies has led to corruption, admits China’s top sports body

All this must be put into perspective. First, despite the public fever it continues to inspire, football is just another sport, nothing more.

While national teams are competing to qualify for the World Cup, world governing body Fifa is finding it impossible to extricate itself from the largest corruption scandal in its history. Sepp Blatter, the organisation’s long-time chief, has succeeded in turning the four-yearly celebration of the best in the sport into an event synonymous with bribery and secret deals.

Football leagues around the world, meanwhile, have always been plagued by triad infiltration and gambling. Even the most successful leagues – England’s Premier League, La Liga in Spain, and Serie A in Italy – have, sadly, all been monetised and are more or less slaves to commercialism. Except for the extremely rich clubs, most teams in these leagues will never be able to compete for national and European titles.

Football stars, in the style of David Beckham, have become increasingly indistinct from celebrities in the entertainment industry

Indeed, Evergrande’s success reflects more the power of money than the improvement in Chinese football. Barely two days after the club’s victory, Xinhua published a commentary criticising the company for bad business ethics and letting commercial motivation ruin the sport.

Monetisation sees to it that, despite having the world’s most successful league, England can seldom produce a championship-winning national team. And football stars, in the style of David Beckham, have become increasingly indistinct from celebrities in the entertainment industry.

Why should an individual or nation be so obsessed with such a sport?

The other, more critical, perspective is that, despite the national sports squads’ extraordinary Olympic performances and the large number of spectators both in stadiums and in front of the TV, individual Chinese participation rates in sport is extremely low. Today’s young people in China are doing very little physical activity on a daily basis. Combine this with a new urban lifestyle and high calorie intake, and the net result is an increasingly high incidence of obesity and other diseases.

Chinese lack opportunities to get involved in sport from a young age, and maintain such involvement later in life. Besides the required two sessions of physical education a week, many students, especially females, stay away from sports.

Schools and universities only play a role in promoting competitive sports, involving a tiny number of student athletes, who are considered different from normal students.

In the UK, anyone can join university- or community-based societies to play an array of sports. And it is very clear that students from Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and other places have played many kinds of sport before they go to study in the UK. By contrast, mainland Chinese students, while large in number, show very little interest or skill in many sports.

The structural imbalance in China – a successful competitive sports sector, alongside sparse participation by the public – must be corrected. While the national government is now set to promote youth participation in football, the obsession should not be World Cup qualification, but to change the reality on the ground so that sports are for everyone.

Zhengxu Wang is an academic at the University of Nottingham who participates in various sports, including marathons and triathlons