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The rise and fall of Bayi’s football soldiers

Bayi were the football team of China’s army. They were also one of China’s most successful sides for the first 40 years of their existence. However, the rise of professionalism led to the fall of Bayi. A famous name from China’s footballing past was eventually lost in 2003. 

Bayi, short for August 1st, were named after the date of the PLA’s foundation in 1927. They finished third in the first post-1949 national championships – held in Tianjin in 1951 – and won the competition in 1953. This set the tone for a dominant forty years as Bayi won the top tier a further four times and finished in the top three another 13 times. In fact, over the 28 championships contested between 1951 and 1992, they only finished outside the top five on six occasions. They also won the CFA Cup in 1990, beating Dalian on penalties.

Early days

As the PLA’s team, Bayi enjoyed some unique advantages. With no formal transfer system, their provincial and city opponents had to work with their local population. Bayi were different. All of their players had to be serving members of the PLA; they were ‘football soldiers.’ Even their youth team players needed a family connection to the army. However, with PLA personnel numbering in the millions and each military region having its own team, this was not a problem. In fact, it was an advantage. The PLA chose the best players from regional sides to create its national all-star team of football soldiers. Xu Genbao – the  founder of Shanghai SIPG – for example, ‘graduated’ from the Nanjing army team into the Bayi side.

Being the army’s team also carried political clout. The army wanted famous pre-war player Dai Linjing to coach Bayi. However, Dai was barred from taking on the role because he didn’t have a military background. Or rather, he was barred until Marshal He Long intervened to approve Lin’s enlistment, allowing him to coach the football soldiers.

Famous names

Reflecting their domestic dominance, many football soldiers played for the national side. In fact, Bayi were the defacto national team in 1951 when they travelled to Europe. Unfortunately they lost 8-1 to the Bulgarian Army before being thumped 17-1 by their Czechoslovak counterparts.

When China entered World Cup qualification for the first time, Da Lin was their manager and Bayi players like Jiang Jiexiang and Chen Fuzhen were in the team. China didn’t attempt to qualify again until 1982. By this point, Bayi keeper Li Fusheng was an established international, having first toured Australia in 1975. He was joined by two armed forces colleagues who later ‘graduated’ to Bayi – Huang Xiangdong who scored in the playoff game and defender Zang Cailing.

Two more football soldiers emerged onto the international scene in the 1984 Asian Cup. Centre back Jia Xiuquan was named tournament MVP, and his fellow defender Zhu Bo also played for Bayi. Both were managed by former Bayi player Zeng Xuelin and all were involved in one of China’s most humiliating attempts to qualify for the Word Cup. Zhu went onto become one of China’s most capped players and ensured Bayi were represented in China’s attempts to qualify for the ‘86, ‘90 and ‘94 World Cups, the former two with Jia as national captain. In between these Jia played for the team associated with the Yugoslav People’s Army, Partizan Belgrade.

Bayi wanderers

By the 1994 World Cup, football in China had turned professional with league matches organised according to a home and away schedule. Where should Bayi play? Unlike the other teams who turned professional, there was no sense of Bayi’s identity being tied to one city. As representatives of the national army, the team belonged equally to everyone and no one. In one of the first ironies of professional football in communist China, the PLA’s team sold themselves to the highest bidder.

Beijing reportedly paid Bayi 20,000RMB in 1993, although given that the league championship took place in the Guangzhou area that year it isn’t clear what they got in return. It does help illustrate the scale of the increase the following year though. For the first Jia A season in 1994, Bayi received 1.2 million RMB to play in Taiyuan. Over the following years, their nomadic existence took them to Shijiazhuang, Xian, Kunming, Xinxiang in Henan, Liuzhou in Guangxi and finally Hunan’s Xiangtan. As well as providing funds to support the team, this long march had other benefits.

Bayi were usually the first professional team to play in the various cities that they called home. Once the local populace had a taste of football, it seemed that they wanted more. Shaanxi Guoli were set up the year after Bayi left Xian, whilst Yunnan Hongta were founded after Bayi left Kunming a year later.

High point of professional era

Bayi’s greatest success in the professional era was finishing 3rd in 1996 when based in Kunming. With 10 of the 11 other teams based more or less at sea level, Kunming’s almost 1,900m altitude no doubt helped Bayi. However, with future national team keeper Jiang Jin and one of China’s most capped players in Hao Haidong in their team, their success wasn’t all based on altitude.

Hao Haidong might have been a great striker but he wasn’t always easy to work with. When playing against Guangdong Hongyuan, Hao and Craig, son of Sam, Allardyce sparked a mass brawl that the ref had to rescue Allardyce from. Hao was so infuriated that he wanted to go to Guangdong’s hotel for round two that evening. Jia Xiuquan – the then Bayi manager – prevented that but couldn’t prevent a six month ban for Hao.

Challenges of professionalism

In the original era of ‘wild east football’, salaries were rising and foreigners like Allardyce were arriving. Bayi’s military ties now became a hindrance. Their players’ salaries were fixed on army wage bands so Bayi couldn’t compete with other clubs. Dalian Wanda signed Hao Haidong on a salary of 3 million RMB, plus a car and house in Beijing for example; something well beyond Bayi’s budget.

Other players also left and Bayi had trouble replacing them. Their former regional military ‘feeder’ teams hadn’t turned professional so Bayi’s talent pipeline had dried up. Nor could they bring in any foreigners. As foreigners couldn’t join the PLA, they couldn’t play for the PLA’s football team.

The football soldiers were eventually relegated in 1998, partly due to their failure to master a much more unsavoury aspect of professionalism: matchfixing. In 1995, Bayi were already safe and reportedly let Sichuan beat them in the final game of the season so that Sichuan could stay up too. In 1998, the positions were reversed and it was Bayi who needed Sichuan to do them a favour. The teams apparently came to an agreement but Sichuan’s Peng Xiaofang blew it by scoring. Unexpectedly trailing 1-0, Bayi were so flustered they couldn’t recover and were relegated.

The end

Bayi might’ve been down but they weren’t out yet. They displayed a flair for getting round the no foreigners rule when it came to coaching that would make Beijing Guoan proud. As with players, Bayi coaches had to be members of the PLA too which seemingly ruled out foreigners. However, South Korea also had an army team and their coach Lee Kang-jo was seconded to the PLA as a consultant to work with Bayi. However, as a member of a foreign army living next to the National Defence University, Lee was constantly under supervision, even by his own players. He was eventually denied permission to coach Bayi permanently.

Now playing in Liuzhou, Bayi returned to the top flight for the 2001 season. They finished just outside the relegation zone in 2001 and 2002 – although there was no relegation that year because of China’s long awaited participation in the World Cup – but were doing better in 2003. Until the decision was made to disband them that is. PLA restructuring meant that a professional football team was now an unnecessary drain on resources.

Bizarrely, this decision was announced mid-season. Bayi won their first game after the announcement 1-0 against Liaoning, but then lost 14 of their next 15. They went out on a high though, beating Yunnan Hongta 2-1. This was the last game either side ever played. At the end of the season both were disbanded. The football soldiers were no more.

Bayi 2.0?

After Bayi were disbanded, many of the senior players moved to Changchun, whilst Shanghai Hengyuan bought the youth team. The whole Hengyuan team immediately moved to Nanchang and attempted to cash in on their tenuous army links by renaming themselves Nanchang Bayi. The PLA stepped in to stop this and the team eventually moved back to Shanghai and became Shanghai Shenxin.

Shenxin are not Bayi 2.0 though. One of China’s most famous teams was undone by the move to professionalism that turned their previous advantages into disadvantages. Bayi’s name is now confined to the history books. The football soldiers are no longer a force to be reckoned with.

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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