A qualified German electrician called Klaus Schlappner, minnows Yemen, and China’s attempt to qualify for USA’94.
China almost qualified for Italia’90 – but were denied by a calamitous ‘black three minutes’ – and almost qualified for the 1992 Olympic football tournament but missed out on goal difference. Almost. Tired of near misses, some at the CFA were convinced of the need to modernise. Discussions about starting a professional league were underway, and foreign guidance for the national team was also on the agenda.
China had employed Hungarian and Soviet coaches in the 1950s but had never had a foreign manager. A German known for his trademark hat and modest coaching CV would be the first. Klaus Schlappner was to be China’s saviour.
At first glance, Schlappner does not appear to be an obvious choice. His sole honour was winning the German second tier with SV Waldhof Mannheim in 1982/83. This was the most successful period in the club’s history, but Schlappner did not subsequently find the same success at other second division sides.
However, he was not completely unknown in China. On 1st July 1984, Schlappner’s Mannheim beat an almost full strength Chinese XI 1-0 at a packed Gongti to win the Great Wall Cup. Cantonese winger Gu Guangming was playing for the Chinese that day. He was reunited with Schlappner at SV Darmstadt 98 three years later, and reportedly asked by the CFA about Schalppner’s suitability to coach the national team.
Two other points were in favour of a German manager getting the China job. First, the West German’s had won the 1990 World Cup and the CFA no doubt wanted to be associated with this. Secondly, Volkswagen’s Chinese joint venture was prepared to sponsor the salary of a German manager for the Chinese national team. Schlappner beat the competition and was formally hired in late June 1992. This was big news. The CFA and Shanghai Volkswagen Automotive held the ceremony in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.
A Promising start
Just before Schlappner’s arrival, Chen Xirong – a veteran of China’s attempt to qualify for the 1982 World Cup – had guided China through the qualifying round for the 1992 Asian Cup. Schlappner took over where Chen left off. China finished 3rd in the Asian Cup, one place higher than in 1988, and their best since the team that Schlappner’s Mannheim side beat got to the final in 1984.
Schlappner also appeared on CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala where a single hair from his head was auctioned for 50,000RMB in a sketch (starts 5.45 into this clip). This brought Schlappner fame outside the football community, and eventually gave him the profile to launch his own brand of beer.
Within the football community, Schlappner also became famous for his phrases. In urging his team to take their chances and seize the moment, he wanted them to develop a ‘leopard spirit.’ Picking up on the indecision shown by some players, Schalppner told them that if they didn’t know what to do with the ball they should just ‘kick it into their opponent’s goal.’
World Cup Qualifying
What Schlappner would really be judged on though was qualifying for the World Cup. To get to USA’94, China would have to top a five team first round group, and then finish in the top two of the second round.
Schlappner set his side up in a 5-3-2 formation. The Liaoning provincial side’s decade of domestic dominance was just coming to an end but Schlappner’s preferred back five – Zhu Bo, Xu Hong, Zhao Faqing, Dong Liqiang, Li Bing – and goalkeeper Xu Tao were all either from or played for Liaoning.
Schalppner’s only other settled selection during qualification was his captain, Wu Qunli. The Cantonese veteran was joined in midfield by any two from Shanghai’s Fan Zhiyi (who sometimes played in defence and would go to the 2002 World Cup), future national team manager Gao Hongbo (who sometimes played as a striker), Li Ming of Dalian, the ‘king of Yuexiushan’ Peng Weiguo, and/or Hubei’s Wei Kexing.
Shandong’s Hao Haidong (who also went to the 2002 World Cup) was a near permanent fixture upfront, along with either Gao, Hubei’s Cai Sheng, or the Cantonese Xie Yuxin.
Disaster in Irbid
In common with all the other Asian qualifying groups, the first set of fixtures was played in one country, and the ‘return legs’ played in another. China had to travel to Irbid in Jordan for their first four games. China opened by hammering Pakistan 5-0 before dispatching hosts Jordan 3-0 four days later. On 28th May 1993 they faced minnows Yemen.
Schlappner compared Yemen to “a little snake” and said China could easily beat them. He was partially right. China had the dominance, racking up 26 shots despite Dong Liqiang’s early second half sending off, but not the luck. The game’s only goal came when a Yemen freekick rebounded off the crossbar, hit keeper Xu Tao and went into the net. China lost 1-0. An embarrassing defeat to a country that had never even qualified for the Asian Cup.
Their problems were compounded two days later when they lost 1-0 again, this time to Iraq. In the days of two points for a win, China had four points from four games whilst Iraq topped the group with seven. China would need to be flawless in their remaining four games and hope Iraq slipped up. Luckily for China, the final group games were in Chengdu.
Too little, too late
China did win all four games but it wasn’t enough. Gao Hongbo took his total to six goals in as many qualifying games as he scored a brace in wins over Pakistan and Jordan. By the time defender Xu Hong scored to beat Yemen 1-0 though, China were already out. Iraq’s earlier win over Pakistan had put them through. Xu’s late winner against a second string Iraq team in the final game provided little comfort. China had missed out on the World Cup party. Again. This time mainly because of a 1-0 loss to minnows Yemen.
A contested legacy
Schalppner’s time was almost up. In 1994 he became a technical advisor to the CFA and Qi Wusheng was made China manager. It would be hard to describe Schlappner as a successful manager based on his results. Coming third in the Asian Cup was impressive but China had historically performed well in this competition and whilst qualifying for the World Cup was perhaps an unrealistic goal, making it into the second round of qualifying was not. Allied to a winning percentage among the lowest in China’s modern era, this led some fans to label Schlappner an ‘international liar.’ The initial largely uncritical acceptance of a foreign saviour had soured.
However, as China’s first foreign manager, Schlappner had to deal with many unexpected problems on top of the language barrier. Those he has spoken about include dubious pre-match meal choices, and selection pressure from Provincial Associations and even Deng Xiaoping. Superstition also played a part. Schlappner reportedly refused to move from hotel room number 519 before the loss against Yemen, despite the negative associations this holds for Chinese football. In challenging, if not overturning, some of these issues, Schlappner claims to have laid the foundations for future success. The loss in Irbid may also have contributed to the growing demand for a professional league in China. A demand that Schlappner himself was in favour of.
Whether acting as a de facto agent, promoting youth competitions and football schools, or simply as a voice in the media, Schlappner is still an active part of Sino-German footballing ties over twenty years after his time as China manager ended. Whether future generations of Chinese fans will mainly remember their first foreign manager for his wider, less tangible contributions or the embarrassing loss in Yemen remains to be seen.
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