The year Beijing beat Inter Milan and China beat Roma
Major European clubs are now frequent visitors to China to play in pre-season friendlies but this trend started back in 1978. In that year China welcomed double European Cup winners Inter Milan and European Cup Winners’ Cup champions Sporting Lisbon, as well as sending their own national side out on its first tours to South America and Western Europe.
The Chinese national team started one of its busiest ever years with away fixtures against teams from Hong Kong and Macau over Chinese New Year. They had their sights set on more exotic opponents though as they followed up a historic tour of North America the previous year with their first tour to South America. The Chinese played nine fixtures and the history books show that they beat Venezuela 1-0 in Caracas, lost 1-0 to Colombia in Medellin before drawing 2-2 in Bogota three days later, and ended their tour by losing 2-1 to a Peru side who would make it to the second group stage of the World Cup later in the year. The Chinese won all five of their friendly games against club and university opposition on a successful tour.
With China making its first steps to become more open to the rest of the world on political and economic levels, there were now opportunities for international sporting exchanges which would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier. In 1977 the New York Cosmos had made a ground breaking tour to China and in 1978 they would be followed by the first Western European professional clubs to play in China: West Bromwich Albion from England; Inter Milan from Italy; and Portugal’s Sporting Lisbon. This meant the Chinese national team’s hectic schedule continued as after playing West Brom on May 19, they beat Mexican club Zacatepec 1-0 on May 24, lost 2-0 to Ghana on May 29 and then faced Inter Milan on June 6.
Double European Cup winner Sandro Mazzola had made over 400 appearances for Inter before retiring in 1977 to become their general manager so the club were always going to look kindly on his suggestion that they tour China at the end of the ‘77/78 season. Officials at Chinese embassy in Italy were less convinced though, requiring three visits from Mazzola before they, and more importantly the Chinese National Sports Commission, agreed to the tour.
Two days after winning the Italian Cup, Inter began a twenty nine hour flight via Athens, Damascus and Rawalpindi, before finally arriving in Beijing at 11pm local time. Less than twenty four hours later they took the field against a Chinese XI in front of 80,000 at Gongti. They fell behind to a Wang Changtai goal before Alessandro Scanziani equalised for a 1-1 draw. Scanziani’s goal came from a corner taken by Inter legend Mazzola who brought himself out of retirement for this game. Captain for the first half, he substituted himself off at the break to allow new signing Evaristo Beccalossi to make the first of his over 200 appearances for Inter. Gongti is thus the unlikely answer to the Italian pub quiz question where did Mazzola play his last game and Beccalossi his first for the nerazzurri?
Whilst Mazzola and the back-room staff exchanged ideas and information with Chinese coaches and doctors the next day, the Italian players went to visit the Forbidden City and Great Wall. They were back at Gongti the day after to face Beijing (today’s Beijing Guoan) who were one of China’s strongest sides at the time, having finished second in the 1977 Championship. However, West Brom had beaten Beijing 3-1 the previous month so Inter wouldn’t have expected any undue difficulties. Their hosts had other ideas though and, perhaps aiding by Inter suffering from end of season fatigue, Beijing scored an 87th minute goal to record a famous 1-0 win. Inter player Gabriele Oriali didn’t take the loss particularly graciously, describing the Beijingers as “tactically naïve.”
Chastened by the loss, the Italians travelled south to Hangzhou and its famous West Lake to face the Chinese national team once more, and again recovered to draw 1-1 after going behind. Inter finally recorded a win by beating Guangdong 3-1 in front of 50,000 fans at Yuexiushan a few days later. Guangdong’s late consolation goal came after an error by another future Inter star making his club debut in China; goalkeeper Walter Zenga. This was Inter’s last tour game and as they prepared to leave Guangzhou, Mazzola remembers the Chinese team flying in especially to say goodbye. Scanziani was only too happy to leave though as he was tired of the heat in China – something that all players in today’s CSL have to contend with.
As Inter were coming to the end of their tour, Sporting Lisbon were just finishing their season by winning the Portuguese Cup 2-1 against fierce rivals FC Porto. The winning squad, and the referee who had awarded them a controversial goal, embarked on their own tour to China just 48 hours later.
Whilst Inter’s tour was organised by a club legend, Sporting’s tour was promoted by the Portugal-China Democratic Association of Friendship which was the only Portuguese political group recognized by the Chinese Government at a time when Macao was still under Portuguese control. The political implications of the tour were therefore not lost on anyone and the weekly Expresso paper stated that “the conditions are finally created so that diplomatic relations between Portugal and China can be opened within weeks.”
Whilst players on previous tours had been bemused by the quiet crowds in China, the Sporting players were confused by how quickly the crowd arrived. Although 80,000 were present for kick off in Beijing’s Gongti, the players remember the ground being empty an hour before this. Sporting beat the Chinese XI 2-0 with goals from their two Brazilians: a first half header by Ailton, followed up by a freekick from Meneses. Sporting’s captain Augusto Inácio was impressed with the conduct of the Chinese – “the players were very correct, they never answered back to the referee and accepted everything he decided” – but less so with their play as, in an echo of comments from Inter’s Oriali, he thought the Chinese players had a “lack of technical rigor” and were “tactically imperfect.”
Two days later Sporting were back in action at Gongti, drawing 0-0 with Beijing who couldn’t record their second high profile scalp of the summer, before travelling south to Kunming. This was an unusual venue for a high profile foreign team to visit as Yunnan was not one of China’s strongest provincial teams; Sporting duly beat them 2-0. The Portuguese club rounded off their tour with a stop in the colony of Macau where they beat the representative side 5-1.
After a summer at home, the Chinese team continued their year of firsts by touring Western Europe for the first time in the autumn of ‘78. Given their existing relationship with Inter Milan, the San Siro was the first stop for the Chinese but it was a case of third time lucky for the Italians as Inter won 6-2 in front of almost 70,000 fans. China went on to lose 2-1 at Bologna before going to West Germany and Austria. However, as China had not yet re-joined FIFA and the European seasons were in full swing, the Chinese were limited to games against the West German B team and German Amateur side, as well as second tier side Wuppertaler SV. The games were played in the space of a week and China lost all three although had He Jia converted a late penalty it would’ve been a 2-2 draw with the German Amateurs. They had a happier time in Austria though, with two wins against Austrian club sides and a 4-1 win over the army team.
The Chinese rounded off their tour with another visit to Italy and Mazzola remembers being pleased by the progress made by the Chinese in the short time they’d been away. They drew 2-2 with the Italian army team and in their final game beat Roma 2-0 at the Stadio Olympico thanks to a double from Li Fubao.
The almost feverish activity of the national side in 1978 was to make up for years of self-imposed exile from international competition because of their withdrawal from FIFA. All of the build up for the Asian Games, held in December ’78, paid off as they beat Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Qatar, Malaysia, hosts Thailand and Iraq again – all teams that China has recently had problems against – to finish third out of the fourteen sides that took part.
Even after this tournament the Chinese still had three Asian Cup qualifiers to play, meaning that they played in over 40 friendly and competitive matches in 1978 against international, professional and amateur teams from across the globe.
China were emerging from the international shadows in 1978 and the progress made since then is perhaps best summed up by the career path of a boy born in Beijing in 1965. According to a recent interview, he was so desperate to see the game against Inter that he used a “secret passage” and crawled into the stadium in the morning and stayed hidden until the evening kick-off. He was rewarded with the “thrill of seeing those black and blue jerseys” which were “beautiful.” Some 38 years later in 2016, that boy was on stage in Milan holding one of those beautiful shirts as vice-president of Sunning Sports Group who had just bought a controlling interest in Inter. Both Gong Lei and Chinese football have come a long way since 1978.
Sources: Quotes from the Inter players from this blog, Sandro Mazzola quotes from this interview, Gong Lei quotes from the Corriere della Sera on 7/6/16 and quotes from Sporting’s Inácio from The Expresso. Photos from the Inter website, the Sporting forum and this website.