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Bobby Charlton’s Chinese protege who never was: Wu Chongwen

Who are the current FIFA World U20 Champions? Anyone? Well, it’s actually Ukraine, who beat South Korea 3-1 in the final in Lodz, Poland, last year. I wouldn’t be especially surprised if you failed to answer; the Youth World Cups, both at U20 and U17 levels are not high on anyone’s radar.

There is a belief that these tournaments showcase the “Superstars of Tomorrow” but it’s not clear that’s always the case. While it’s perfectly true that Maradona, Ronaldinho, Messi and Pogba all have U20 winners’ medals somewhere in their sock drawers, a lot of players, especially from the U17 level, fall by the wayside. Perhaps they might have physically developed too quickly, perhaps they might find themselves unable to cope with the different demands of the pro game. Perhaps, too, team officials might have been a little economical with the truth when filling in birth dates. There have been any number of scandals since the first of these tournaments in 1977 and, presumably, many guilty players have slipped through the net as well.

These tournaments can, however, give a fair idea of the quality of football development in any given nation. In Asia, Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia often qualify. Uzbekistan has done well recently, as have Qatar. China hasn’t qualified for either of the age group World Cups since 2005, which probably says all that’s needed about the youth scene over the past decade and a half.

However, China did qualify for what was then the U16 World Cup in 1989. They brought a seventeen boy squad to Scotland, including a number of individuals who star in the professional league that was then still merely a glint in the CFA’s eye. Seven of them, including Gao Feng, Wei Qun and Su Maozhen, went on to have major international careers. But I doubt you will have heard of their captain. He was an accomplished central defender by the name of Wu Chongwen.

Su Maozhen

The tournament itself, for any that weren’t there, was a bit of a slow burner. In the opening match, the hosts met Ghana at an embarrassingly deserted Hampden Park and played out a tepid goalless draw. However, as the sixteen team event progressed, and Scotland did better and better, crowds and interest began to pick up. When, precisely two weeks after that opener, Scotland faced Saudi Arabia in the final back at Hampden over 50,000 were present. They saw Scotland lose on penalties against a team who, though nothing was ever proven, looked to the naked eye at least a year or three older.

Back to the beginning. The Chinese squad, along with those of several other teams, were housed at the Stirling University campus, it being summer holidays for the students. They were quite hard to approach; don’t forget this was June 1989 and China was making news around the world, news which a rather fierce chaperone was quite eager to keep away from the boys. However, we filmed a training session and were granted an interview with the captain.

Wu cut an impressive figure. He was confident and articulate, and exuded a sense of leadership. He was short for a centre-back, at 1 metre 75, but clearly understood the game and made up for his lack of height with excellent positional sense. A couple of days later, he led his country out against Argentina at Dens Park in Dundee.

It was a tight match; few chances with a well-drilled Chinese team snuffing out any South American attacks. There’s always a talking point at some juncture though, and in this case it involved Wu. He was late on an Argentinian forward who tried to turn him on the edge of the box and who then, just for embellishment, went down as though he’s been taken out by a mystery sniper. Of course, one would hope for a calm referee to give the foul, take a few seconds to process what had happened and then, after a moment’s reflection, present whatever card might be necessary. Sadly, Mr Lopez of Guatemala was not such a referee. Almost before the striker had hit the turf, he rushed up and, with as much flamboyance as he could manage, waved the red card over the Chinese skipper. Wu was devastated and was virtually in tears as he trudged off.

Actually, the incident seemed to galvanise his teammates, and the ten remaining Chinese mounted an impressive rearguard action to earn a worthy point. Back in Stirling, Wu was distraught; sitting in the corner of the players’ common room and avoiding eye contact with everybody. Mr Lopez, meanwhile, must have benefitted from a directive which valued self-importance and attention-seeking. The Referee’s Committee awarded him the final.

Wu missed the next match, a one goal victory over a poor Canadian side, and returned for the must-win encounter with Nigeria, the tournament favourites. They were heavily outmatched and lost 3-0. The Nigerians, rather surprisingly, lost to the Saudis on penalties in the quarters and then, less surprisingly, were banned from the next tournament after being found guilty of including over-age players. So the Chinese campaign had probably gone as well as it could.

Five years later, in the first season of professional football, just about every member of the 1989 squad was starting with one of the twelve teams. But there was one obvious exception; Wu Chongwen was nowhere to be found. So I questioned one of his teammates from Scotland. “He’s left football,” I was told. “He’s working as a Customs Official now.” That I hadn’t expected.

Wu Chongwen had an interesting back story; born into a rural family in Wanning on Hainan Island, he was apparently brought up by an uncle after his parents died. Fortunately, Wanning is something of a football hotspot and, once it became apparent he was a talent, he was picked up by the Guangdong provincial system (Hainan was still part of Guangdong until 1988).

Wu joined the national U16 squad and, in early 1988, as part of their preparations for the Asian Championship, they embarked on a month long visit to England. As part of the programme, they played a couple of matches in Manchester where they were seen by Sir Bobby Charlton whose Soccer Schools were one of the first international projects involved in developing young players from around the world. After watching the Chinese win both of these games, Charlton invited two of them, Wu and forward Su Maozhen, to stay in England for extra supervision. Apparently, they had created a bit of an impression with Wu singled out for praise by Alex Ferguson. Sadly, though, after greatly impressing in the early tests, an ankle injury meant he had to turn the opportunity for extra training down.

Wu and Su from a Manchester United publication. Credit: @FledglingsBook

Wu was back for the Asian Championship in Bahrain that November, leading the team to a third place finish. After impressive wins against Japan and Iraq in the group, they overcame the Iraqis one more in the play-off, this time on penalties, which earned them the final Asian ticket to the World Cup.

It’s quite hard to check what happened to Wu after his experiences in Scotland. Frequently mentioned is his presence as a member of the victorious Guangdong team at the 1993 National Games. A nice thought, but also completely untrue; Guangdong finished third behind Liaoning and Beijing, and Wu wasn’t even in the squad. After a bit of digging, it seems whoever came up with that fact had confused it with what was probably the highlight of Wu’s career. In November 1989, he led his province in the football tournament of the National Youth Games in Shenyang. Unexpectedly, they beat hosts Liaoning in the group stage, and then again in the final to win the gold medal. The decider had finished goalless after extra time, and Wu scored in the penalty shootout which Guangdong took 5-4.

There’s not much of a trail after that. He moved up to the national U19s in 1990 but the squad failed to make the finals of their Asian Championship. They were a little unlucky; the first round group matched them with North Korea, Macau and Hong Kong and, in one of those mismatched goal avalanches which characterise such tournaments, China’s eleven scored against Macau were trumped by the North Koreans, who banged in eighteen.

Wu was included in Guangdong’s 1989 Jia A squad but that season, but for the next few years, they were very much also-rans in league play, overshadowed by Guangzhou, the other team in their province, among others. And then there were the injuries. His ankle caused further problems and it took him a year to return to fitness in 1993.

The final act came in early 1994. Quite why the CFA thought a series of physical tasks were required to qualify a footballer to play 22 professional matches will always be a mystery but that’s the way it was. The tests included a run of 3000 metres, to be completed within twelve minutes. Obviously stamina is important but such a feat doesn’t come naturally to footballers and a number failed to pass. Wu was among them. Sixty metres from the line, his ankle gave way. Not only was he now ineligible to play that season, he faced more rehab. So he called it quits, left football completely and embarked on a new career as a customs officer in Shunde.

Bobby Charlton with Wu and Su in 2004

In 2004, there was a last sighting. Bobby Charlton visited China and expressed an interested in meeting the two players who had so impressed him sixteen years previously. Su Maozhen was easy enough to track down but no-one knew where Wu had gone, Eventually he was located back in Hainan and gave what was characterised as a slightly wistful interview about what might have been.

So, injuries permitting, would Wu Chongwen have reached the very top? Possibly; Guangdong did very well in the early years of the professional league and Wu certainly had the ability to thrive. But researching this article has uncovered a few facts which reflect poorly on the football authorities in China.

The 1989 U16 World Cup was for players born after August 1st, 1972. In the official handouts, Wu Chongwen’s birthday is given as August 25th of that year. Fair enough. But check out the Guangdong Jia A squad lists between 1989 and 1992. These say Wu Chongwen was born in May 1971. On that evidence it seems he was an overage player in Scotland. And it gets worse. The official squad list from 1989 gives every player eligibility (except Su Maozhen, whose birthday is listed as July 30th, though I believe a bit of leeway was granted in those days). But these players all went on to professional careers and more information has come to light. It seems almost every member of the 1989 squad was overage. Fu Bin, the goalkeeper, was actually born on May 6th 1969 which means he was 20 when he faced Argentina.

This particular incident occurred over thirty years ago and the Chinese would hardly have been exceptional in such flouting of the rules. The players involved have long finished their own careers and are now, in some instances, coaches themselves or even, in Li Ming’s case, a club general manager. They wouldn’t have had any choice in the matter when they were selected. But the impetus behind any such infractions would have been a desire for cheap success at youth level earned in a way that compromised chances for the future. Winning a youth tournament should give hopes of improvement once those talents hit the senior ranks. But if those players are two years older than advertised, that improvement has already occurred and their results were achieved under false pretenses. Mucking around with the criteria in order to point to a healthy youth programme is only cheating oneself.

Which brings me back to my original point; there’s no reason to get over-excited about who succeeds at youth level because winning such a tournament should not be seen as an end in itself. I do hope the CFA has come to see it the same way.

Tom Lewis has worked in television for longer than he'd care to remember and, though his first love is football, has filmed all sorts of sports in over forty countries. He first saw the Chinese national team in 1979, arrived in Shanghai just in time to watch them clinch the 1983 National Games title and has been following the ups and, mostly, downs of football in the PRC ever since. Supports Sichuan Quanxing.

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