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“China flexes her football muscles” – in 1979 – against Celtic, Chelsea, WBA and Middlesbrough

“China flexes her football muscles” and “Chinese aim for place in the World Cup”: two headlines that could’ve been written in 2017 but were in fact in a Celtic match programme from 8th August 1979. That summer a squad of 17 Chinese players travelled to Europe for a long forgotten two month tour of France, Romania and the UK.

Toulon Tournament
France 2- 1 China
Holland 2 – 1 China
Yugoslavia 0 – 0 China
Argentina 2 – 0 China

UK tour
WBA 4 – 0 China XI
Middlesbrough 2 – 0 China XI
Celtic 6 – 1 China XI
Chelsea 3 – 1 China XI

In many ways the late 1970s marked the emergence of the People’s Republic of China onto the international footballing stage. Participation in competitive tournaments like the AFC Asian Cup and Asian Games for the first time, tours to North and South America in ’77 and ’78 respectively and one to Italy, Germany and Austria later in ’78 were all crowned by readmission to FIFA at the end of the decade. Immediately preceding this, the summer of ’79 saw China play in their first truly international competitive tournament as well as touring the country where the rules of the modern game were laid down.

The 17 man squad picked for this important tour had an average age of just 23. With key players Rong Zhixing and Chi Shangbin missing, experience was provided by a core of six players in their mid-twenties who had played in Europe and South America the previous year. The players were undoubtedly unknown quantities to people in the UK though so British newspaper reports told fans to watch out for the likes of Yang Yumin with his “devastating turn of speed”, Gu Guangmig who “makes up in ball control what he lacks in inches” and especially Liu Zhicai whose description released to the media made him sound like “a Far Eastern version of Moore, Hunter and Jack Charlton.” The Guardian summed up the squad by saying that “there are several individualists who will attract attention if not an offer from Manchester City.”

Toulon Tournament 

China v Argentina in the 1979 Toulon Tournament

China became the first Asian nation to participate in the Toulon Tournament and in doing so this Chinese side became the first ever football team from the People’s Republic to participate in a worldwide competition abroad.  Although their squad was older than permitted, the Chinese managed to gain special dispensation by arguing that Toulon was the first stop on a longer tour so different rules should apply to them.  Despite finishing 6th out of eight teams, the Chinese obviously made a good impression as the whole team picked up the fair play award and Zang Cailing, who scored against Holland, was named the tournament’s most elegant player.

Friendlies in France and Romania 

The Toulon Tournament was followed by three further friendlies in France before the squad went to Ceaușescu’s Romania. The highlight of the additional games in France was playing against top division side Nice, although China lost the game 1-0.

Given the political links between Romania and China, sporting exchanges between the two countries had been relatively common. Indeed, China played a game in Galați on this tour, having faced a worker’s team from this area in Beijing the previous summer. The six games in France and Romania yielded four wins for the Chinese but a much tougher test was to come as they visited a country where, as The Guardian reported at the time, “teenage reserves change clubs for a quarter of a million pounds.”

Friendlies in the UK 

The UK leg of the tour had been organised by the Chinese Embassy and Jack Perry of the London Export Corporation, who’d also put up £20,000 for West Bromwich Albion’s tour to China the previous year, whilst financial support for the touring side was provided by construction firm Wimpey who were making their first venture into football sponsorship.

The itinerary that they’d put together was “designed to show the visitors a fair cross section of British life, both footballing and social.” It started off with a Wednesday evening game at the Hawthorns against West Brom in what could be seen as the return leg of a fixture that had taken place a year before at Beijing’s Workers Stadium in front of 80,000. West Brom ran out 4-0 winners this time thanks to three goals in eight second half minutes, but things could have been different if Xu Yonglai had taken any of his three great chances.

Before the tour, The Guardian had stated that “the standard of China’s soccer is thought to rank with the English Third Division.” As the second half of the West Brom game was shown on the BBC, the British public and press could now form their own opinions. Reports were mixed, with positive comments on the Chinese employing a sweeper behind a disciplined defence, their neat passing and ability to launch attacks from deep in their own half. However, their finishing was dammed as being “as vicious as pink blancmange” and some of their tackling “strained the motto of ‘friendship first, competition second.’” The learning wasn’t only in one direction though. The CFA’s Deputy General Secretary Yang Xiuwu was leading the tour and commented on the differences in crowd behaviour between China and the countries they visited in 1979 by saying that “there is no whistling or all these strange kind of shouting noises” in China. It was the absence of these “shouting noises” which had unnerved the New York Cosmos players on their tour to China two years earlier.

Clad in their “regulation issue suits…in a uniform grey the shade of industrial smog”, the Chinese then travelled up to Ayresome Park to face Middlesbrough. Despite the Boro forwards playing “as if their boots were laced together”, the “sporting and non-aggressive play” of the Chinese was not enough to prevent them going down 2-0.

China on the defensive Celtic Park

The tourists also created “a most favourable impression” on Celtic boss Billy McNeill and it was to Glasgow that their grueling schedule would next take the Chinese. They were welcomed by a piper before being treated to a ceremonial dinner but this courtesy didn’t extend to on pitch matters as Celtic thrashed the Chinese 6-1. Xu Yonglai netted China’s first goal in the UK to make it 2-1 to the hosts after 69 minutes but a Murdo MacLeod hat trick fired Celtic to a comfortable win.

Scottish headline writers clearly relished the tour, wheeling out plenty of puns including “Celtic’s Chinese cracker”, “Celtic break down the wall of China” and “Chinese torture.” Their colleagues south of the border were no different as “wall crumbles”, “Chinese may prove no takeaway”, players taking “a bamboo curtain call” and “Chinese carryout: Xu Jianping [goalkeeper] about to feed his forwards” were among the headlines and captions used.

This tone continued in Chelsea’s programme with a message of good luck to the new DJ/announcer, hoping that he doesn’t “have too many problems wrapping [his] tongue around the Chinese names.” The Chinese scored their first goal against English opposition at Stamford Bridge but still lost 3-1 to a second division Chelsea side for whom Ray Wilkins was making his final appearance. This game also brought the 60 day long tour where the Chinese side had played 14 games in 11 cities to an end. In many ways however this tour was part of the beginning.

China in action at the Hawthorns

Despite the results, all the reports and match programmes make clear China’s desire to broaden its international experience in order to put it in a stronger place for World Cup qualifying campaigns to come. FA Chairman Sir Harold Thompson spoke of Chinese football “moving ahead fast” with West Brom Chairman Bert Millichip going further: “in ten years time I think they could have a very strong World Cup team.” This view was echoed by Billy McNeill who wrote that “in five to ten years time they could be formidable figures in the World Cup.” These statements are easy to mock in hindsight but were actually closer to the mark than many may imagine; China were just 90 minutes away from qualifying for Spain ’82.

China have still only qualified for one World Cup but headlines such as the “China flexes her football muscles” in the ’79 Celtic programme are once again appearing in the sporting press. West Brom are under Chinese ownership, Nice are majority owned by a group of Chinese and American investors, Middlesbrough reportedly turned down a separate offer from one of these investors, Chelsea have an academy with Guangzhou R&F and Chinese characters are a common sight on pitchside LED advertising screens all across the English Premier League. China’s footballing ambitions are now well known but the ’79 tour shows that they are nothing new.

Sources: All quotes are from the individual match programmes or articles written at the time by Michael Smith, David Lacey, Julie Welch and John Dougray for The Guardian, except the headlines from the Scottish press. These, along with the photo from the Celtic game, are from this website, whilst the Toulon image comes from the official website.

Donald began following Guangzhou R&F having moved to China in the same year that R&F moved to Guangzhou. The club's first foreign season ticket holder, Donald was able to watch three seasons at Yuexiushan before returning to the UK.

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