Chinese football in crisis? Don’t believe everything you read - especially in the English press

The Sun, the Guardian and the BBC have had their say on the state of football in the mainland, but is it all that bad? Did we expect any better?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 October, 2016, 3:05pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 October, 2016, 8:34am

China crisis. That’s the headline that the subeditors of the English press are delighting in. Whether it’s The Sun using it for their investigation into the Chinese Super League or the Guardian plumping for it after China lost their last World Cup qualifier to Syria, the crisis talk is all the rage.

Not only are the English press in agreement on headlines, they also seem to have joined heads on the angle that coverage should take: the more negative the better and the age old rule of the tabloid press of not letting the truth get in the way of a good story.

Take The Sun’s takedown of the Super League, which was included as a pull-out in the print version of the paper last Monday.

“The Land of the Dragon”, as they call China, is full of “lazy, jealous Chinese footballers and vastly overpaid millionaire mercenaries”. Wow.

Yes, wages for some foreign players are inflated, but that’s the same in the Premier League.

And yes, some of those players can be seen as mercenaries, but football is a career and these footballers are just attempting to make the best of their short career.

Sports writer for Britain’s biggest tabloid under fire for branding people of China ‘lazy’ in article about Chinese Super League

But for the vast majority of players, they are not on salaries similar to Shanghai SIPG’s Hulk and Shandong Luneng’s Graziano Pelle, just earning better money than they could in other leagues. Is every footballer that goes overseas a mercenary?

The money is an easy target and it is the reason that most people outside of China have started to pay any attention to Chinese football, so it makes sense this is what people want to read rather than players are putting in performances that warrant their wages. But that doesn’t explain the rest of the coverage.

Watch: China v Syria highlights

Let’s start with the fact that stadiums are half empty. They often are, but there’s a number of reasons for this. Chinese sporting stadiums are usually massive so there’s always going to be a struggle to fill them given the fact that the Super League, certainly in big cities, is priced comparatively to the English top flight.

Then there’s restrictions from authorities that means the away section is often located in one end with no home fans in that end at all.

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At places like the Workers’ Stadium, the home of Beijing Guoan, not all the stands are open anyway in an attempt to control the amount of people descending on downtown Beijing for matches – the side is well supported and could probably fill the 66,000-seater stadium, but they are never given the opportunity.

Watch: The Sun’s documentary (Part 1)

How about touts struggling to sell tickets for face value? Also true on occasion, but for a Shanghai derby, Guangzhou Evergrande coming to town or Beijing facing off against one of the Shanghai sides, you’ll pay well over than the printed price.

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Nowadays at Old Trafford tickets are often offered for face value by touts, so this is hardly a phenomenon unique to China.

The Guardian, meanwhile claimed there was anger on the streets after China’s loss to Syria.

Watch: The Sun’s documentary (Part 2)

There wasn’t even that much anger on social media – the place where people are always disproportionately irate than they feel confident being in real life – more the resigned embarrassment that so often accompanies the Chinese football team’s latest indignity on the international stage. So some people were angry outside the ground, that doesn’t really justify the headline.

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And nothing justifies this line from the BBC: “The Chinese team faces Uzbekistan on 11 October which will decide if they qualify.”

It’s the fourth of 10 fixtures to be played in this stage of the World Cup qualifiers, so unless there are more than three points on offer it is not the be all and end all of China’s hopes of making it to Russia.

Right now, China are not likely to be at the next World Cup. It’s no crisis. They were never likely to be, and only just scraped through the first stage of qualifying.

The plan that is now in place is for China to qualify for the World Cup again in the future rather than immediately, so failure this time out while not welcomed, is hardly unexpected.

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China’s chances might be about to increase anyway. Fifa boss Gianni Infantino’s proposal of expanding the World Cup to 48 teams would make qualification easier.

Watch: The Sun’s documentary (Part 3) featuring Hong Kong’s Jack Sealy

Does that mean it is a conspiracy from the game’s governing body to bring China into the fold as opposed to the latest harebrained scheme from the corridors of power? That’s what this week’s BBC World Football podcast would have you believe.

Everyone is in the business of clicks these days and talk of crisis and conspiracy gets everyone frothing at the mouth and diving below the line to comment.

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Nothing beats a transfer rumour for that. Here’s one: Joe Hart has been linked with a move to Super League side Hebei China Fortune where he will link up with former Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini. You read it here first. Don’t let the fact that there are no foreign goalkeepers allowed in the Super League make you doubt it.