Fearing that its own footballing system isn’t good enough, China sends its U20s abroad to receive foreign coaching, but fails to qualify for the World Cup. This article isn’t about Marcello Lippi’s side failing to qualify for Russia 2018 whilst a youth team played in Germany though. It’s about the 1950s when China sent its most promising players to train in Hungary under their first ever foreign coach. The ending is the same though as the ‘50s team didn’t qualify for Sweden 1958.
State of Chinese football
After years of international and civil wars, football was not high on China’s agenda in the early 1950s. Bayi, the army team and defacto national side, were hopelessly outclassed on their first international tour. In 1951 they warmed up with an 8-1 loss to the Bulgarian army before being walloped 17-1 by their Czechoslovak counterparts.
Things were not much better in 1952. Delayed by political wrangling, the national team arrived too late to compete in the Helsinki Olympic football tournament, but did lose 4-0 to Finland in a friendly. They also lost friendlies to clubs in Poland as well Spartak Moscow on the way back to China.
According to Su Yongshun – more on him later – the authorities took two lessons from this: that the standard of football needed to improve; and that the national team shouldn’t go abroad until it did. Football was uniquely vulnerable to the second lesson, not just because Chinese football was of a relatively lower standard than Chinese table tennis and volleyball, but also because more foreigners could cram into a football stadium to watch China be humiliated than could watch a volleyball match in a gym. Whilst the travel ban was easy to implement, raising the standard of football was harder.
Sending China’s most promising players abroad to receive high quality coaching was the solution. In this, as in so much else at the time, China turned to Russia for help. In preparation for their trip, an ethnic Russian from Harbin taught the national team squad Russian. However, Moscow declined China’s request, saying that it wasn’t ready to host such a large number of athletes.
Lacking friends on the international stage, China’s other options were limited. However, a Hungarian side were touring China in February 1954 – they won all 11 games in Beijing, Shanghai and Wuhan – and a deal was struck for China’s footballers and swimmers to train in Hungary. Reflecting the political status of the time, the deal had to be specially approved by Deng Xiaoping and He Long. Over in Europe, the Hungarian politicians were delighted to welcome athletes from their communist “big brother.”
The Mighty Magyars
China could hardly have chosen a better partner. Puskás, Hidegkuti and Grosics were dazzling the world and famously thumped England twice. In fact, Hungary’s golden team notched up 42 victories, seven draws and just one defeat between 1950 and 1956. Unfortunately that defeat was in the 1954 World Cup final. As young Chinese keeper Zhang Junxiu (left) later put it “the Chinese team’s level was zero, and Hungarian football was Everest.”
Mindful of potential embarrassment associated with a poor senior side and with an eye on the longer term, China sent a largely U20 squad to Hungary. Notable exceptions to this were Chen Chengda and Fang Renqiu who had both travelled to the Olympics in Finland.
Not all of China’s promising young players went to Hungary though. In those politically charged days ‘family background’ was more important in selection decisions than footballing ability. Su Yongshun was amongst those denied a place in Hungary through no fault of his own.
A golden period
These days it takes 13 hours to fly from Beijing to Budapest. In April 1954 it took 13 days by train. For the majority of the next 18 months, the Chinese footballers and swimmers were based at Hungary’s Tata Olympic Training Centre.
Ke Lun was their nominal manager, although he had better political qualifications than sporting ones. This didn’t matter because the Hungarians appointed József Ember (standing on the right of the main image) to coach the Chinese. The 50 year old thus became China’s first foreign coach. Sometimes the difference between a coach and a manager is only the job title, and in 1954 this was precisely the point. China couldn’t formally be led by a foreigner.
Ember wasn’t impressed by the technical and tactical skills of his new charges. The young Chinese struggled in games against hotel employees, Olympic wrestlers, and the Hungarian track and field team. One of Ember’s first acts was to request more players. An extra 10 arrived in August 1954, bringing the total up to 25. Ember trained them in the then popular 4-2-4 formation according to a strict schedule. Up at 7am, two hours training in the morning, a further two in the afternoon, and lights out by 10pm from Monday through to Saturday, with Sundays off. There was plenty of match practice too; the Chinese played 83 games over the 18 months they were away.
Zhang Junxiu particularly benefitted. He became friends with Gyula Grosics (right) and learned to dive by watching the golden team keeper practise. When the Chinese played a tournament in Poland, the press dubbed him the “unbreakable Great Wall.”
Looking back, the Chinese players remember this as a “golden period” in their lives. Their memories of their “second home” are so powerful that some were even moved to tears in a documentary about their experiences.
In late 1955 Ember came back to China with the players to continue as their coach. A trip to Melbourne for the ’56 Olympics was his target, but political factors intervened. The squad were in pre-tournament training when the news came though. The PRC had withdrawn from the Olympics in protest at Taiwan’s participation.
It was a double blow for Ember as the Hungarians weren’t there either. Soviet repression following the Hungarian Revolution robbed them of the chance to defend their gold medal.
The end of the Olympic dream meant the end of careers for some older players who hadn’t been to Hungary. Some became provincial coaches, two ethnic Koreans were sent to North Korea to help develop football there, whilst another two returned to the Dalian Shipyards team – the future Dalian Wanda/Shide. Ember stayed on though and continued to coach the national team.
First attempt at the World Cup
China may have backed out of the Olympics, but they were still in FIFA. May 1957 saw the team preparing for World Cup qualifiers. Now managed by Dai Linjing – himself a pre-war international – China were drawn against Indonesia. Seven of the players who went to Hungary appeared in China’s short qualifying campaign, with midfielder Zhang Jingtian and forwards Nian Weisi and Wang Lu starting every game.
China lost their first match 2-0 away in Indonesia. Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping and He Long all watched the return game at Beijing’s Xiannongtan Stadium. Early goals from Zhang Honggen and Nian Weisi, followed by ones from Sun Fucheng and Wang Lu in the second half helped China to a 4-3 win.
The away goals concept hadn’t been invented yet so, having won a game each, the two sides played a decider in neutral Burma. This ended 0-0 which meant that Indonesia advanced thanks to their better goal average over the three games.
China’s first attempt to qualify for the World Cup ended in disappointment. It was always a long shot though as Africa and Asia had just one World Cup place between them. Which country had the honour of representing two entire continents? Wales.
What happened next?
Dai Linjing resigned after failing to get past Indonesia. China were led for almost the next thirty years by men associated with the Hungary visit.
- Chen Chengda managed China between 1958 and 1962 but was denied meaningful international action by China’s withdrawal from FIFA. This was similar for Fang Renqiu in 1964.
- Apart from Fang’s brief interlude, Nian Weisi and Zhang Honggen rotated the managers job between them from 1963 until 1980. Whilst the Cultural Revolution effectively halted football for a long period of this, the latter years saw China rediscover world football. Nian and Zhang, sometimes with Zhang Junxiu assisting, took China on ground breaking tours to the USA and Western Europe in the late 1970s. During the latter, Nian visited West Germany to meet old coach József Ember.
- Su Yongshun’s treatment in the Cultural Revolution forced him to confront far greater horrors than being denied the opportunity to play football in Hungary. He overcame them. Remarkably, in 1980 he became manager of the country that had robbed him of years of his life. With China now back as a FIFA member, Su took them to within 90 minutes of qualifying for Spain ’82.
- Zeng Xuelin was in charge for China’s attempt to qualify for Mexico’86. This ended in the infamous failure of the 5.19 incident and the 1-0 loss to Hong Kong.
Chinese women’s football was also shaped by the Hungary trip. Cong Zheyu was the first manager of the Chinese Women’s team.
In some ways, the Hungarian episode foreshadowed future developments in Chinese football. Although China didn’t have an official foreign manager until 1992, there have been a succession since then. Nor has the idea of sending youth team players abroad to train gone away. A team went to Brazil in the early 1990s, and the U20s controversially played in a German regional league last year. The 25 players who went to Hungary over sixty years ago were the trailblazers for all of this.
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