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Did the Chinese government ban a footballer for six months to save face?

A controversial and bizarre six-month ban meted out to Shanghai Shenhua’s Qin Sheng for a stamp, demonstrates how political interference threatens to ruin the season and the Chinese Super League’s reputation.

Back on 11 March, Qin was sent off for stamping on Tianjin Quanjian’s Alex Witsel as the pair waited for a corner to be played into the box. The stamp was not particularly forceful but it was senseless and the referee showed Qin a straight red. Witsel wasn’t hurt and he went on to score Tianjin Quanjian’s equaliser in the 1-1 draw. For an ordinary sending off, Qin would have been given a one-match ban but after the match local media speculated that Qin’s petulant act might be punished by a longer suspension.

His club did not wait for the Chinese football association to act and seized the initiative by taking a hard line on the player. In an unprecedented step, the club relegated Qin to the reserves indefinitely, fined him ¥300,000 (£35,000) and cut his salary to the minimum wage for a Shanghai worker.

It was unusual to see a Chinese club act so harshly on one of their own players but things started to look very ominous when Shenhua allowed local TV cameras to film a sheepish Qin reading out a written apology before his team-mates, before being admonished by club chairman Wu Xiaohui. This public dressing down was extremely unusual for the normally closed world of Chinese football.

What was going on here? The reaction of the club chairman gives us some clues: “The extremely irrational behaviour of Qin Sheng has severely tarnished the image of this club, the football of Shanghai and even Chinese football. All the efforts made by others have gone down the drain because of him.”

Had this been any ordinary game, Qin might have been banned for a few extra matches and the incident would have been forgotten about. Indeed, this was exactly what happened when Gervinho stamped on Henan Jianye player Yang Kuo in a league match last season. However, unlike that foul, Qin’s stamp was broadcast live overseas, including on Sky TV in the UK. This meant one thing: the dreaded loss of Chinese “face” in an international context. Never mind how many people were watching or cared about the foul, it was a loss of face on the world stage and, when that happens, the Chinese reaction tends to be guided by emotion rather than reason.

Shanghai Shenhua knew this all too well. There was a tell-tale sign in the days after the match, when Shanghai Sport news carried footage of the incident with Sky sports commentary in English, translated on screen into Chinese characters. “Qin Sheng’s malicious conduct left the UK Sky TV commentator feeling somewhat shocked,” said the Chinese news report.

The same report showed another supposedly controversial incident in the game, where Shenhua midfielder Sun Shilin made a thumbs-up gesture towards Tianjin’s Alexandre Pato after the Brazilian had missed a late penalty to win the game for his side. “Although Sun’s action was not a foul, it made people feel discomfort,” the report went on. The media were not the only ones to frown upon Sun’s gamesmanship – he was later given a two-match ban – an unprecedented punishment for such a minor transgression that was barely noticed at the time.

But Shenhua know how the machinations of power work in China; Qin was in serious trouble because the match was televised overseas. Their harsh self-policing of their own player was surely an attempt to pre-empt and prevent a more serious punishment from the league. On the morning after China had beaten South Korea in a World Cup qualifier and given fans something to celebrate, it was announced that Qin had been suspended for six months. All of the good will and PR garnered from the victory over South Korea dissipated.

Media and fans were aghast at the severity of the punishment. “Kill the chicken to frighten the monkey” – a Chinese about making an extreme example out of someone to deter others – featured in many headlines as media took an incredulous tone.

The punishment defied logic and showed no consistency with similar incidents in China, which have usually been dealt with by way of four-match bans. It was later reported that the football association had decided upon a six-match ban for Qin but had been over-ruled by the General Administration of Sport (GAS), a government body. On its website the GAS criticised Qin for damaging the image of Chinese football through his actions.

In their attempt to protect the image of Chinese football, the government had in fact achieved the opposite. Much is written about China’s push for footballing success as part of a bigger desire to increase the country’s soft power, but such an extreme and disproportionate response to Qin’s conduct makes China look authoritarian and heavy-handed in foreign eyes. This weekend the headlines should be about the big match between Beijing Guoan and Shanghai Shenhua on Sunday, but Qin’s ban has overshadowed the action once again.

The heavy punishment does China no favours on the international stage but it also undermines Chinese football as a whole. The ban broke the football association’s own rules on player bans and even the wording of the decision – which specified that Qin would not play until September – was unusual in that it specified exact dates rather than a number of games. What happens if another player commits a similar offence in October? The Chinese season finishes in November so another six-month ban would mean the player would only miss a few games of the new season which starts in March. It appears that no thought has been given to precedent and consistency. As it stands, Qin will miss 22 games of a 30-game season.

On top of that, Shanghai Shenhua’s competitiveness has been compromised because of interference from outside football. A league cannot be fair if teams are not able to field their best team due to decisions that have been made without any precedent or proper process. Furthermore, according to the government’s 50-point plan, the football association is supposed to be made independent from the GAS – but the government seem to struggle to hold themselves back from intervening in the game.

Observers have also asked whether Qin would have been given such a harsh punishment if he were not Chinese. It is hard to imagine a foreign player being punished in this way. The double standards involved in Chinese football give undeserved deference to foreign players and undermine the confidence of Chinese players.

The overruling of the football association on Qin Sheng is just the latest piece of interference from above this season. The GAS previously changed the number of foreign players allowed at clubs right in the middle of the transfer window and just three weeks before the season began. China will not be successful at football until it changes its top-down approach and lets its football association get on with running the game without external interference.

This article also appeared on The Guardian Sport Network

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.

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