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The 5.19 incident: China’s doomed attempt to qualify for Mexico’86

19th May 1985.The date alone is enough to chill the hearts of Chinese football fans. With the national side missing out on Russia 2018, WEF looks back at the ‘5.19 incident’ that ended China’s third attempt to qualify for the World Cup.

Initial qualifying rounds

Almost two months to the day after their unexpectedly successful run in the 1984 Asian Cup ended, China’s World Cup qualifying campaign kicked-off. China, Hong Kong, Macau and Brunei were all drawn in Group 3 with only one  able to progress to the next round. The Chinese were installed as favourites as their three much smaller opponents hadn’t even qualified for the Asian Cup the year before.

Gu Guangming

The initial group games were played in Hong Kong and Macau over the Chinese New Year period in 1985. Manager Zeng Xuelin’s 4-3-3 line-up was very similar to that which was so successful for him in the Asian Cup. Beijinger Lu Jianren was in goal behind a back four of Tianjin’s Lü Hongxiang and thee players from Dalian – Zhu Bo, Jia Xiuquan and the experienced Lin Lefeng. The midfield trio were Tianjin’s Zuo Shusheng, Hubei’s Lin Qiang and Li Hui from Beijing, with another Beijinger, Yang Chaohui, and two Cantonese – Gu Guanming and Zhao Dayu – ahead of them.

First up for China was Hong Kong. In front of over 20,000 fans, Hong Kong held their mainland cousins to a 0-0 draw. Not the start China had been hoping for. The squad were not allowed to dwell on it for long though as they had to play Macau three days later. Zeng brought in the Shanghai pair of Qin Guorong and Liu Haiguang as China rebounded with a 4-0 win in front of a considerably smaller crowd than they’d had in Hong Kong.

The Spring Festival celebrations were on hold however as China then faced back to back games against Brunei. The first ended with a thumping 8-0 win in Macau in which the dwarf tiger Zhao scored a hat-trick, and Liu Haiguang and Zuo Shusheng both got doubles. Zeng brought back Li Huayun to join Gu, Zhao and Liu in a four man forward line for the second game. Zhao and Liu both scored doubles as China beat Brunei 4-0.

Back to Beijing

Sitting top of the group, China now had a couple of months off before their final games in May. The players weren’t released immediately though as they played three exhibitions games in different districts of manager Zeng’s hometown of Meizhou, visited Dongshan School (these days linked with the R&F Soccer School) and celebrated the Lantern Festival in Meizhou.

Action from the ‘5.19 incident’ game

The squad reassembled in early May with a few new faces including Wang Huiliang, yet another Meizhou player. He was immediately thrust into the starting line-up for the penultimate match with Zuo Shusheng moved into the forward line and dwarf tiger Zhao dropped to the bench. China strolled to a 6-0 win thanks to two goals from Yang Chaohui and a debut goal for Wang, as well as goals from Asian Cup MVP Jia Xiuquan, Li Hui and sub Zhao. The comprehensive victory put China top of the group on goal difference. They would face Hong Kong on May 19th with progression to the next stage of World Cup qualifying on the line. China only needed a draw but Hong Kong knew they had to win.

In recent times it has not been unheard of for the CFA to give the national side more preparation time than the international window dictates, and thus the best possible chance of progression. In 1985, the authorities refused two of manager Zeng’s requests which would similarly have boosted China’s chances. First, Zeng was denied permission to watch Hong Kong’s two qualification games against Macao in late April and early May so wasn’t as prepared as possible. Likewise, his somewhat unusual request that the Sichuan and Guangxi provincial teams be coached to play like Hong Kong, to give the national squad practice against the most relevant opposition, was also denied.

The 5.19 incident – the build-up

Despite their earlier draw with Hong Kong, China were still the favourites. They’d beaten Hong Kong in qualifying for the Asian Cup six months earlier, had beaten them twice in qualifying for the ’82 World Cup, and Guangdong had won five of the seven Guangdong–Hong Kong Cup matches played to date. Expectations, it is safe to say, were high.

However, this weight of expectation placed a huge psychological pressure on the Chinese team, which was only added to when senior CFA officials visited the squad in the days leading up to the game. Being forced to play in their white away kit rather than their preferred red kit did not help matters either.

A further layer of pressure was added by Hong Kong’s colonial history. The Sino-British Joint Declaration which would return Hong Kong to China had been signed the year before and would be ratified a few weeks after the game. With the colony’s return agreed, one of the final reminders of the ‘century of humiliation’ was to be removed. Football gave the mainland another chance to demonstrate its strength.

The Chinese also had a more recent score to settle. The Straits Times reported that “fighting erupted among players at a bitter first leg” between Hong Kong side Seiko and Liaoning on May 5th. Seiko went on to beat Liaoning 2-1 in the qualifying round of the Asian Champions Cup (forerunner to the ACL). Being beaten by a side from the British colony was bad enough for provincial powerhouse Liaoning but would be unthinkable for China.

The 5.19 incident – the game

Zeng kept faith with the same XI that had beaten Macau, leaving top scorer Zhao on the bench. As captains Lin Lefeng and Leung Sui Wing shook hands before the game they both knew exactly what was at stake.

Despite a fast start from China it was the underdogs Hong Kong that took the lead. A freekick was backheeled to Cheung Chi Tak who hammered a shot into the top corner from 30 yards. 1-0 Hong Kong. China didn’t take long to respond though as Li Hui put in the rebound from Yang Chaohui’s shot. 1-1 with just over half an hour gone and China were going through. Hong Kong knew they needed to score again and that is exactly what they did. With “80,000 Chinese fans booing their every move” Ku Kam Fai put the Hong Kongers back in front on the hour mark. Now it was China who were going out.

Zeng had already brought on speedy forward Li Huayun and now turned to dwarf tiger Zhao in search of an equaliser. The rain came down and China piled on the pressure but couldn’t find the goal they needed. “Tempers flared as China failed to break through” and five minutes from time the Chinese dragged an injured Hong Kong defender off the pitch “in an effort to save time.” Despite this Hong Kong held out for a famous 2-1 win. The result was bad enough for China but it was what happened next that would really ensure the date 19th May became infamous.

The 5.19 incident – the riot

Whilst the Hong Kongers were delirious, the Chinese were stunned. A supposedly easy game had turned into a humiliating defeat. The 80,000 inside Gongti were quick to vent their anger. “Bottles, cups, chair legs and other debris” rained down onto the pitch. The ugly scenes meant both sets of players were forced to seek safety inside Gongti in what the South China Morning Post dubbed the “siege of the Workers’ Stadium.”

Things were no better outside the ground where “thousands of Chinese soccer fans rampaged.” Whilst attacks on cars carrying foreign journalists and officials displayed an element of anti-foreign aggression, other violence was indiscriminate as the Chinese vented their frustration. The Chinese national team bus was overturned and other buses were also stoned whilst cars were set alight; over 130 vehicles were destroyed in total. Such was the scale of the violence that truncheon wielding police were called in to break up the crowds. Thirty of them were injured in the clashes but eventually 127 people were arrested. The riot made headlines as far away as New York, whilst in China the People’s Daily condemned the events. Despite the political overtones, this was China’s first football provoked riot. The second followed within a week when Liaoning again lost to Hong Kong club Seiko, this time 1-0 in Shenyang.

The 5.19 incident – the fallout

The tensions sparked by an unexpected defeat to a foreign colony remained so high that the Chinese squad were confined to their compound for three days following the game. Zeng Xuelin didn’t return home for a week but still received letters with abusive messages and dangerous intent; contents reportedly included a knife blade and bullets.

Zeng Xuelin

The Sports Daily newspaper printed a front page apology from the team which blamed the defeat on them overestimating their own strength, poor tactics, and leadership issues. Backed into a corner, both CFA chairman Li Fenglou and manager Zeng were forced to reign. The tragedy of Zeng Xuelin was complete. Barely five months after he led China to their best ever finish in the Asian Cup the old hero was forced out of his job. Zeng would later recall that “the 5.19 incident was a nightmare…the heaviest blow that ever fell upon me.” He never held a permanent coaching job again.

Whilst China would’ve had to play four more games before qualifying for the World Cup, defeat to Hong Kong robbed them of this opportunity. More than that, it also marked a new chapter in the relationship of the fans to the national team. Given China’s relatively recent return to international sporting competition, the experience of completely unexpectedly losing a game to a rival they were expected to beat easily was a new one for the fans to take. Where previously they had known glorious defeat – missing out on qualifying for Spain’82 and losing the Asian Cup final in ’84 – now they simply knew the pain of defeat. And the despondency of a defeat that was irredeemable in any way.

It will be a long time before the 5.19 incident and its violent aftermath fade from the memory of Chinese football fans.

Sources: Main image from the SCMP, other photos from the SCMP and Dongqiudi. Quotes from the SCMP and The Straits Times

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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