Tim Cahill, Ryan McGowan and the Griffiths brothers may be the most famous Australians to play in China but they were far from the first. In October 1976, Australia became the first international team to tour China after Chairman Mao’s death.
A touring Chinese squad had visited Australia in the summer of 1975. Just over a year later, Australia announced that they would play two matches in China as part of their eleven game tour of Asia and Europe. The ASF was “delighted…as the [Chinese] games would provide an important part of Sino-Australian cultural relations.”
A few weeks later – having drawn with Indonesia and beaten Singapore – the touring party arrived in Hong Kong. Goals from ’74 World Cup veteran Atti Abonyi (main image) and John Nyskohus gave the Australians a 2-0 win over the British colony’s representative side.
Arriving in Beijing
The next stop for the eighteen Australian players, six officials and two journalists was Beijing. One of the party was Ron Smith, the assistant coach who doubled as accounts manager. For Smith and the players, China was just one stop on a long tour. “I knew it would be very different to most other countries we were due to visit but when you travel to play football your interests are very different compared to when you visit a country as a tourist.” However, political events in China did influence the tour.
Chairman Mao died in early September 1976 and the ‘Gang of Four’ were overthrown in early October. By the time the Australians arrived in Hong Kong in late October, demonstrations against the Gang of Four had begun. The Canberra Times reported that “tension and uncertainty” gripped the Australians as they saw TV pictures of “vast crowds thronging Tiananmen Square” all “hailing the downfall…of the Gang of Four.” The squad left the safety of their Hong Kong hotel and, like the New Zealand team a year before, took the train to Guangzhou and flew up to Beijing. Ron Smith remembers the Australians staying in a hotel just a kilometre from Tiananmen Square.
The next day, the Australians had a chance to practice at Gongti ahead of their first match. The orthodox practice session had been preceded by an impromptu training session at the Great Wall though. After they’d toured a section of the Wall whilst “rugged up in Chinese Red Army greatcoats against a chill autumn breeze” according to The Canberra Times, coach Jim Shoulder put the players through their paces. Watching Chinese officials “roared with laughter as the groaning Australians attempted knee bends, toe touchers and a series of limbering-up exercises.”
Playing at Gongti
Australia took on what is variously described as a Chinese select XI or the Beijing side in front of 80,000 at Gongti. Heavy overnight rain had caused “ankle deep puddles” which mean that conditions were “more suited to the Peking duck” than football according to Soccer Action magazine. Displaying the same ‘show must go on’ attitude that has blighted more than a few CSL games over the years, the match went ahead anyway. The spectators who’d reportedly paid the equivalent of five Australian cents for tickets certainly got value for money.
The Australians won 5-4 in a match with a number of “glaring errors” but just as much “attacking adventurous football.” Abonyi scored two for Australia but it was “fleet-footed leftwinger” Shen Xiangfu – later to manage both Beijing Guoan and Shanghai Shenhua – who was man of the match for Soccer Action. Their reporter thought the whole Chinese team was“stamped with class.” Li Weimiao – scorer of the winner against Inter Milan in 1978 – and Liu Lifu were also on the scoresheet, Liu’s coming via a “pulverising twenty yard drive.”
Ron Smith particularly remembers the behaviour of the crowd, who were silent after a goal and only applauded as the teams lined up to kick-off again. The Soccer Action journalist was also taken by the crowd, which he described as “more typical of a cricket ground members’ enclosure than a football crowd. They applauded politely, cheered with a commendable restraint and never booed. In fact the loudest voice all afternoon was that of Australian skipper Peter Wilson ordering his men around.”
Just like the New York Cosmos and West Brom teams who would follow them to China, mealtimes proved to be an area where the Australians had issues. Smith recalls that many of the touring party “expected the food to be similar to the Chinese food we could buy in Australia but it was nothing like it…Peter Wilson our captain survived the Chinese leg [of the tour] on tins of Sustagen, toast and the like.”
The official banquets were an assault on the eardrums as well as the tastebuds. Soccer Action reported that at almost every official dinner the hosts “served up lavish helpings of political invective” and stated that the Gang of Four’s efforts to take power had been “smashed or crushed.” However, this was accompanied by “genuinely warm expressions of friendship and respect for the visitors.”
The hosts also demonstrated their hospitality by taking a group of officials, including Smith, to the opera. “There were English subtitles at the side of the stage and the songs were about the plentiful supply of food and equipment for the farmers. It was enlightening to say the least.”
The Australians were well looked after and, as Smith recalls, “were never short of a minder or two.” The Aussies turned this to their advantage though, much to the consternation of the Chinese official who counted players on and off the bus. Smith remembers that “there was only one door, at the front of the bus, so one day some players climbed out of the back window and got on the bus twice which caused havoc for a few minutes.”
Australia’s second and final game took place at Yuexiushan in Guangzhou. Two goals from striker Peter Ollerton ensured that they ran out winners over Guangdong (who’d just returned from winning an invitational tournament in Pakistan). This was a “vintage Australian performance” in which they “tackled the swift and skillful Chinese out of the game” according to Soccer Action. Guangdong coach Su Yongshun – who would go on to lead China to the brink of the World Cup – later wrote that he had never come across such a vigorous and aggressive side as the Australians. Su remembered Cantonese star Rong Zhixing being carried off on a stretcher after one heavy challenge early in the game.
The Chinese once again showed themselves to be generous hosts though, with three doctors rushing out to join their Australian counterparts when George Harris went down with cramp. The Soccer Action reporter thought that the crowd were “marginally more demonstrative” than in Beijing. “Fair minded almost to a fault, they even applauded the referee” when he gave decisions against them.However, when the referee disallowed an Australian goal the authorities panicked. Smith remembers “an official running from the grandstand to ask if us if the referee had made the right decision. We said of course because we were worried about the consequences he may have faced if we said he was wrong.”
Australia’s time in China was as brief as it was historic. Less than a week after becoming the first national side to play in China since Mao’s death, they were on their way to Europe. There was still time for one final act of kindness though.
On the way to the airport, Ron Smith realised he’d left his newly bought chess set behind in the hotel in Guangzhou. He told one of the interpreters and gave him his address in Australia. Smith “never expected to see the chess set again” but about three months after the tour it arrived at his house in Australia. A fitting final act to what had been an eye opening tour of China.
WEF would like to thank Ron Smith and everyone at OzFootball
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