China turned their thoughts to the Asian Games after narrowly missing out on the World Cup. Continuing a newly started trend, their preparation involved a foreign tour. So it was that instead of being watched by the eyes of the world at Spain 82, China’s tour kicked off in front of a thousand fans at English fourth tier side Hereford United.
In tandem with a gradual thawing of international political relations, progress on the football field was also made in the late ‘70s. A flurry of Western clubs visited China after ground breaking visits by Australia and New Zealand. The Chinese made equally pioneering tours of their own to Western Europe and the Americas.
Now restored to FIFA, China almost capped their emergence onto the international stage by qualifying for the World Cup at the first time of asking. They fell agonisingly short as they lost a winner takes all play-off against New Zealand. The national team still got a summer trip to Europe though as part of their preparations for the Asian Games later that year.
First stop Hereford
Players from Liaoning and Guangdong dominated the 18 man squad. Tianjin had the next largest contingent, and there were also two from Shandong. Beijinger Shen Xiangfu and Guizhou forward Wang Feng completed the touring party. Ten of this group played in the World Cup qualifiers and five went to the UK in 1979. On that occasion they played West Brom, Middlesbrough, Celtic and Chelsea. This time Hereford United, Wigan Athletic, Glasgow Rangers and Charlton Athletic were on the itinerary.
When the Chinese landed at Heathrow, Hereford were beating Southern League Gloucester City 4-2. That Hereford were playing at all was an achievement in itself; they’d come within 24 hours of being liquidated six months previously. The club’s SOS fund was still trying to raise money and as part of this they played what the Hereford Evening News described as “a mixed bunch of opponents: soldiers, rugby players and the Chinese.” Hereford beat an Army XI 7-2 and saw off Jacksons All Stars 9-5. That team included Welsh rugby captains Gareth Edwards, Phil Bennet, Steve Fenwick and Gareth Davies but it was “world kung-fu champion Frank Lynch [who] snapped up a hat-trick.”
Hereford were “attempting to enhance the prestige of the fourth division” in the game against China. In the event, “United were never overawed” and both sides created plenty of chances. The hosts took the lead and “only a number of fine saves by Xu Jianping” kept Hereford to a single goal.
China reportedly “impressed with their speed and ball control”, especially “tricky winger” Gu Guangming. His Cantonese teammate Zhao Dayu equalised with a penalty after Liaoning’s Chi Shangbin was felled. Gu then scored the winner six minutes from time. After going winless on their first tour, this was China’s first win against a British team on British soil. A pre-season friendly against a fourth tier side on a Monday night in front of 1,100 spectators wasn’t the most glamorous way to record the milestone though.
Wigan was China’s next stop. Seven engineers from the Chinese National Technical Corporation who were visiting a nearby factory were also at Springfield Park for the game. Perhaps the engineers should’ve been helping Wigan College. The Wigan Observer recorded an underwhelmed College official saying of their newly purchased robot: “I was expecting something with arms and legs but this turns out to be a box.”
Third division Wigan had just beaten Scottish side East Fife 2-0 in a “game that never rose above the mediocre.” Despite this, the friendly against China was sufficiently interesting for national paper The Observer to dispatch a correspondent to the North West.
The game finished 1-1 and was chiefly notable for an incident involving Zang Cailing. According to The Wigan Observer, Dalian born Zang “threw international relations to the wind in committing a series of bad fouls.” The referee eventually gave the Chinese the choice of substituting Zang or having him sent off. Unfortunately, the message got lost in translation and led to “a horde of Chinese team officials and the referee gesticulating wildly” at each other.
By this point China were 1-0 down to a John Rodgers header – the second headed goal they’d conceded in two games. The equaliser came shortly after the sending off and was “splendidly crafty”. As described in The Observer, at a free-kick “Chi Shangbin strolled from a position in the Wigan wall, apparently for a conference, but instead whipped round and fired home” to equalise. Chi wasn’t the only player singled out by The Observer, with Gu Guangming again catching the eye as a “delightfully showy and mobile winger.” Indeed, the team as a whole “played neatly, using the short ball quickly and precisely.” This was echoed by the Wigan Observer who contrasted China’s style with Wigan’s “more typical English attitude of hard work”.
Return to Glasgow
The PRC scored their first goal in the UK through Xu Yonglai at Celtic Park in 1979. Unfortunately, they conceded six to the Scottish Champions that day. In 1982, China had an “intriguing Ibrox date” with the other Glaswegian giants, Rangers.
The Evening Times worried about the “distressing malady” of Rangers’ lack of a goal scorer. The 3-1 win over China went some way to alleviating that. The paper also credited both Chinese keepers for keeping the score down. Sub Xu Jianping replaced “remarkable talent” Li Fusheng but “got himself into a fankle” and made “astonishing lapses”. Xu “ended a hero” though after saving a late penalty from Billy Davies.
Rangers went 2-0 up through Redford and John MacDonald. The diminutive Zhao Dayu set up Tinjan’s Zuo Shusheng to pull a goal back against the run of play. Craig Paterson’s header made it 3-1 before Xu’s late penalty save.
Rangers dominated so much that the Glasgow Herald called the Chinese goal “a shock.” Nevertheless, the paper also noted “the cool precise football” of the Chinese, which the Evening News less charitably described as lacking “imagination and spirit.”
In 1979, China lost 3-1 against second division Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. In 1982, China lost 1-0 to second division to Charlton at The Valley. That was their final games in the UK. Friendlies in Italy and Spain were next for China before a return home. They’d earned a break. The 18 man squad had played 14 games in a month. It was no sightseeing visit and nor was it – purely – about building international sporting links. Instead, it was preparation.
India hosted the Asian Games in 1982 and China wanted to do well in the football part of the wider competition. Fifteen of the 18 players who’d toured Europe made the squad. After 1-0 wins over both Malaysia and Bangladesh, China drew 2-2 with India in the final group game. Shen Xiangfu opened the scoring but China needed Zuo Shuseng’s 82nd minute equaliser to earn a draw. They lost 1-0 to North Korea in the quarter finals to conclude a hectic couple of months.
1982 ended as it had begun for China’s footballers – with disappointment. The summer tour sandwiched between these two events was probably the least important of the trio from a footballing perspective. It was, however, still a significant part of China building footballing links. It also set the stage for Elton John’s Watford to play in front of 80,000 in Beijing the next year.
Photo credits: Hereford Evening News, Wigan Observer
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