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Editor’s column: Bizarre tattoo ban completes shambolic Welsh night for China

WEF founding editor Cameron Wilson’s weekly look at what’s what in Chinese football

This week there’s only one thing to talk about. And that of course is a certain football match which took place in Nanning last night. How ironic that Wanda offered the Wales team more money to come to China if Bale played. They may be regretting that this morning. But in a sense there isn’t a lot to say about the game. Humiliating results are unfortunately not unusual for China. Of course a 0-6 beating at home to anyone is an embarrassment, and even if Wales are a very good team, better than many think, China shouldn’t be getting beat so comprehensively at home by them. And I think that was the problem last night, just the nature of the defeat. China were outplayed in every department and Wales made it look like a training game. “Men against boys” said one fan on Weibo today, with a reply below saying “No, men against little girls” the other. Cruel remarks but many will feel they were not far off the mark. And despite my initial reaction of feeling there wasn’t much to be said about last night’s debacle, there’s still a need for perspective and reason after very bad results which are hard for Chinese football to swallow. And ultimately what with Wales having Bale and a number of other well-known EPL-based players, last night is a fresh wave of bad publicity which needs to be countered to an extent.

Bad defeats the norm

Out there on the streets there’s mixture of reactions. I think many fans are used to the disappointment, but others absolutely furious – as this tweet I made earlier shows. I’m assuming that footage was recorded after the game last night although I did wonder if it was recycled form one of China’s numerous other football humiliations over the years. The fact that one can’t be quite sure which defeat its referring to underlines the point I am trying to make here. Namely that, such bad results have unfortunately become normal for China and that there has to be a certain recognition of this because its clear public outrage and humiliation of the players is not helping the team develop. It is frustrating for many of us who follow the game here and want to see the national team do well. Most of all I want to see this for the fans, as being a fan of the Chinese national team is certainly not an endeavour for fair-weather types. Those who do follow the team deserve at least some respite from the cycle of failure the guozu finds itself in. We know that the Chinese team is not as bad as the constant bad results suggest. We know that, on a good day, and when well coached, China can compete against the best teams in Asia – like Iran, Australia, Japan, Korea and so on. But the key word here is “compete”. And also important to note here that the best teams in Asia still lag quite some way behind the world’s strongest teams. I mean, look at China’s best results in games which mattered in the last few years. A couple of narrow 1-0 wins over the Uzbeks and Koreans in World Cup qualifying. Beating Qatar 2-0 at home to make the final WC qualifying round by the skin of their teeth. These are the only real notable wins for China and none were convincing or comprehensive at all. No matter how much we may think China under-performs or feel they could do better, the reality is that at their best, they are a team which is just about competitive at Asian level only. So we shouldn’t really be surprised that they were comprehensively taken apart by a Wales team featuring one of the world’s most expensive footballers playing out of his skin.

To continue the point above, I think its useful to highlight out just how limited this Chinese team is. Yes many of the players individually are reasonably skilful and at least a few of them could probably hack it at a higher level in Europe, but the main problem with Chinese footballers has always been their mentality. Having watched CSL games for years I can say there really is not the same level of fight or determination or hunger from local players in these games and its frustrating to watch at times. There’s a lack of leadership and just what appears to be a plain lack of desire to win. I don’t know if its down to a lack of self-confidence, or if the players simply are over-paid, under-professional and just don’t care that much. But its a really obvious pattern and it is not going to change soon, partly because it’s tolerated every week in the CSL. This is the problem – there’s always this idea in China that representing your country is some massive deal compared to playing for your club. Sure, its an honour to represent your country but the huge emphasis on it here undermines the CSL. Players should not be approaching CSL games any differently from national team games. Professional players should be doing their utmost to win every game they play. Yet it often looks like much higher standards are suddenly expected for internationals, placing a burden of expectation on the players. Often there is a kind of manic over-reaction here to both China’s successes and failures on the football pitch similar to like how there used to be with in England until very recently. But when China made the final qualifying group for the WC last year there were fans excitedly preparing their travel plans to Russia and the media were treating the players as heroes. Yet China had no business being in the final round of qualification and got there largely on luck. I totally understand the feeling from the fans and media in general, but at the root of it all I suspect there isn’t enough realisation of the reality of where China is at football wise. It’s simply has a long way to go when it comes to football and the players regularly fail to deal with the pressures of the glare of the fans and media because they don’t have the mentality to deal with it and this differing approaches between CSL and national team games is undoubtedly a part of it.

Could China fall out of love with Lippi?

Last night’s result was obviously Lippi’s worst during his tenure as China coach. One can’t help but wonder what was going through his mind as the goals flew in. But his tactical selection seemed to be naive with four purely attacking players selected in the front half of the team – Wei Shihao, Wu Lei, Gao Lin and Yu Dabao. Normally we wouldn’t expect to see more than two of that quartet start a game. Also in the squad were two very bizarre call-ups – midfielder Fan Xiaodong, 31, and striker Tan Long, 29 – both players from Changchun who made the bench. It’s very difficult to see what Fan brings with his paltry haul of three caps, or Tan, who until a couple of years ago was playing in what is effectively the US first division, one level under the MLS. The Chinese national team has always had these really curious picks, where it very much looks like factors outside of football are bringing in players to get one or two games before never being seen in a red national team shirt again. You would think Lippi wouldn’t stand for that, but he has enough China experience now to know how to roll with the punches here and may think its just not worth opposing. And at this late stage in his career, he may simply not care. But again… outside interests are getting in the way of the coach doing his job. Anyway, Lippi’s job is safe for now but he’s definitely blotted his copybook with this result and should there be any more excessive defeats his position will look shaky. The biggest concern now is if the CFA interprets last night’s result as having had something to do with the fact that China is only taking one week off to prepare for international games this year instead of the customary two. Ostensibly this seems to have been done because there just isn’t enough time to take two weeks off from CSL matches for this during a World Cup year. But no doubt there will be someone, somewhere who thinks China wouldn’t have gotten beat 0-6 if they had more time to prepare. They should perhaps look to the clubs that Wales players come from and see what kind of schedule they have. One a lot more taxing than any of the Chinese national players for sure and all are based in countries where its understood that having a strong national league is essential to provide strong players for national teams.

China need better defensive, not tattoo cover

Although there seems to be no official comment on this, from TV evidence and this wechat post it’s clear that China’s numerous tattoo-sporting players were told to cover up their ink last night. This is another example of outside interests interfering in Chinese football. That someone, somewhere thinks tattoos are relevant in any way is fairly amusing – China’s national team players have far more pressing matters to concern themselves with. We can’t blame the poor performance entirely on whoever it was who thought it necessary for the cover up, but psychologically it would have been a distraction. It sent a message to players that powerful individuals would be scrutinising their appearance last night. The Chinese national team really does not need more things to worry about. Tattoos are the height of fashion for footballers these days and regardless of what anyone may think of this personal choice, they have been worn openly every week in the CSL without issue. Yet again we see a kind of dichotomy between what’s acceptable domestically and on the international stage, and how different standards apply to both. It’s symptomatic of the special emphasis placed on the national team, to the detriment of all else in Chinese football. It’s unfortunate that meddling from outside is still so common in the Chinese game. Until that becomes a thing of the past, really embarrassing results such as the one against Wales are going to keep cropping up.

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.

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