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Why I stopped writing about Chinese Football

Following a lengthy hiatus, Wild East Football founding editor Cameron Wilson returns to explain his absence, and share some thoughts about the current state of the Chinese game.

It’s been nearly two years since I last wrote for Wild East Football. Quite a stretch considering I founded the website. Why? Well it wasn’t something I consciously decided to do. Just a culmination of many things, mostly banal and real-life related. But the main reason was I no longer had anything positive to write due to mounting disillusionment over Chinese football, and realizing there is little room for people who actually love the sport. In short – Chinese football is simply not about football. It’s about politics, business, and self-interest. These things are of course far from absent elsewhere. But in China they are all-dominating, because the ecosystem the whole population, and the sport, exists in is not designed for passion and love for anything not related to the bottom line.

Elsewhere, modern football is often derided and quite rightly so. But even although big business rules the roost in football in Europe, you can still enjoy the sport for what it is. I can only speak for my experience of watching Scottish football, but outside of the big Euro leagues, I think following a club in a lower league or a top league in a smaller country is probably much the same – people are there because they want to watch football, connect with their community and have a more visceral experience than big clubs like Bayern, Man U, Real Madrid, PSG, etc, offer. In so-called lesser leagues, there’s little glamour, pretension or money. In other words, there aren’t many reasons for people to support, play, manage, or run the game other than simply because they like football.

Ironically a lot of what there is to like about lower league football in Europe can be found in the CSL as well. But in China, it’s different because there’s so much else going on which, as a foreigner, it takes years to pick up on. So many times I have stood on the terrace at Hongkou seeing something unfold which was totally not about football. I’ve seen players who, behind the scenes, admitted to fixing games, yet were publicly honoured for their long service to the club. I’ve seen players lacking basic skills, able to take to the pitch based on their personal connections. I’ve seen well-connected players deliberately play like shit in order to undermine coaches they don’t like. Eventually, one day a light bulb suddenly switched on in my head and I said to myself “You never even had to think about all this stuff when you were supporting Dunfermline back home – it was simply football at the end of the day.”

Yeah. I know. I can hear some reading saying that all this happens elsewhere. And it does. But nothing like to the extent it does in China. Everyone here knows its not about football. In most cases, the players are in it purely due to a lack of better opportunities, and because of China’s hyper-competitive society, they are focused on nurturing connections with the right people to support themselves and their families after their short careers are over. It’s not in their interest to rock the boat or speak out about wrongs; you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

In China many aspects of clubs are run like state-owned enterprises. They are old-school. Connection rather than ability determines who goes and who stays. For playing or backroom staff it is an iron rice bowl – a guaranteed income. Showing loyalty and dedication to the organization, regardless of how badly-run or corrupt it might be, is simply a logical choice for many. None of this is conducive to truly professionalizing the game. Because it’s not about football. And for those in boardrooms running the game either in clubs or association level? Those truly dedicated to furthering football are a clear minority at best.

Yes, there have been a lot of efforts to improve the game, and certainly in many ways real progression has been made – relatively speaking. But other aspects – particularly political interference – have gotten much worse. The end result is real progress remains stymied. The latest rules regarding name changes are classic Chinese football – the idea to ban teams from having corporate elements in their name is very well intentioned, but the implementation is ham-fisted. The rules are intended to create bainianjulebu (one-hundred year clubs) and prevent teams from moving and changing name all the time. Yet the first thing that happens is clubs which have never changed their name, are changing name (such as Henan Jianye) and some are moving, like Shijiazhuang, to Cangzhou. This would be comical were it not for the tragic fact some long-standing fans are quitting following their teams. All the CFA had to do was make a rule saying any club which had been known by the same name all along would be permitted to keep it, in a grandfather-type arrangement, and any new team would be forbidden from being named after a sponsor. If it’s good enough for Bayer Leverkusen and PSV Eindhoven, its good enough for Chinese football.

After so many years supporting the game here, it’s just so completely frustrating to see such well-intentioned policies being completely screwed up. This is exacerbated by my perspective and experiences, being that of a writer professionally trained to rise above bias as far as reasonably possible, of being in China for over 16 years, of being a Shanghai son-in-law reasonably well integrated into everyday Chinese life, and of being a supporter of clubs from two completely different football backgrounds – Scotland and China.

I’ve been here long enough to realize that the more you know about China, the more you realize you don’t know. So I am careful to make assertions. What I do feel qualified to speak on is of being an active fan of the game having spent many years rubbing shoulders with Chinese fans. I am deeply moved by their dedication considering the struggles and barriers they have to surmount to support a team; issues I was so incredibly fortunate to never even have to think about when my father took me long to East End Park as a boy.

Football fans anywhere in the world are often treated with obvious disdain by the rich and powerful. This is of course true in China too, but so many extra factors go against fans. It’s no secret that the game here has a decades-long history of corruption, match-fixing, mismanagement, and chaotic administration. On the pitch, the quality is patchy at best, and an utter lack of professionalism is common among players. Cronyism dominates in many clubs – its often not how well you play but how good your relationship is with club insiders that determines if you get a game or not. Over the years countless clubs changed their name, colours, badge or even moved to the opposite end of the country. This has destroyed anything fans could form an emotional attachment to and build the foundation of a local football culture to inspire love for the sport, spanning the generations, in that community.

One of the most obvious disgusting features of Chinese football is the transfer market. It is a cesspit of bungs and favours changing hands for all manner of nefarious purposes other than its intended one – addressing the footballing requirements of clubs. Managers and players come and go like a merry-go-round. Continuity to promote stable growth and development, with pertinent, measured signings to strengthen the club’s long-term football goals? Forget it – agents and club insiders getting their cuts from as many deals as possible each window, is what matters. It’s absolutely rotten, and anyone who even takes a cursory glance at player movements in just one transfer window can see it.

Incredibly, despite all this, fans still turn up. And they always have – even before the days of big-money deals and Oscar, Hulk, Fellani, Witsel, et al. And this is what to this day I still find so utterly compelling and invigorating about the sport – its power to inspire and bring people together. It’s capacity for international communication, for the expression of belonging, of representing a community. It’s sheer gravitas, its stubborn historical peculiarities. It’s ability to bring meaning and depth where there previously was none. It’s ability to allow contrasting cultures to understand one another through shared love. And of course it’s sheer entertainment value – there is a reason it’s called “The Beautiful Game.” All of the above exist in spades in Chinese football. Yes, the fans are the best thing about Chinese football, hands-down. And yet they are treated with sheer contempt on a regular basis when in fact the authorities should be bending over backwards to nurture their love for the sport.

Herein lies one of the secrets of Chinese football – that such a dysfunctional phenomenon does not attract ordinary Chinese people. China is a more conformist society than most, and there is less room for ideas and pursuits outside the mainstream. Chinese football is not mainstream. So those who do follow it are already somewhat different in a place where differences or sticking out in some way are often frowned upon. This makes the game even more fascinating, and the fans easier to connect with. In general Chinese football fans tend to be a bit more international and open-minded, than the rest of society. In particular, those in dedicated fan groups tend to love football so much that they are wiling to accept whatever is on offer – despite the diverse multitude of mind-boggling shortcomings in the game here – something I deeply respect. For this reason, the fans tend to be idealistic in some ways – they want to see local football grow, so they get behind it regardless of anything, rather than take the cynical approach of the Chinese mainstream who regard it as rubbish. Yet, the frustrating part is this is what makes the average fan so accepting of obvious wrongs – they know that they could easily have no football to support at all. Typically its only when a club’s existence is threatened that the fans feel they have nothing to lose by speaking out. Anything else, they usually just shrug.

Many of the magical traits found generally among Chinese people when communicating one-to-one – respectfulness, hospitality, generosity, warmth, patience, and desire for harmonious interaction are found in even greater depth among Chinese football fans, such is their desire to connect with the outside world via the sport. I’ve had so many more deeply rewarding experiences through Chinese football than I would have, had I never been involved in it. These deeply personal experiences and the connections formed really drew me in and made me emotionally invested. Herein lies the problem. The closeness and time spent. Many of the Shenhua fans I rub shoulders with say “Cammy we don’t really look at you as a foreigner, and you’re a Shanghai son-in-law, so you are one of us.” I don’t think I have ever spoken much about this before. I get embarrassed by compliments. But I consider it to be one of the greatest honours of my life, to be accepted in this way by a group from a society which is quite different to that of which I was born.

But whilst this is a humbling honour, like everything it comes with responsibility. An expectation that one is no longer purely a foreigner and should be aware of the subtle complexities of Chinese culture. This created a huge problem. I may have been blessed with decent communication abilities, and an ability to understand the other, but as someone brought up in Scotland, where more direct communication is the norm, this put me on a collision course. Particularly as my personality is generally up front and straightforward. If I believe something is wrong, in general I think this should be pointed out and discussed in an open and frank manner to bring about improvement for all concerned. But this is just not how it works in China. I know this, and I often hold back. But an increasing awareness of the absurdities of the game here became unbearable for me and pointing them out on social media often resulted in chastisements along the lines “Hey Cammy don’t be such a foreigner, we expect better of you.” Now, I don’t think a lot of Chinese people read this site, certainly not the CFA otherwise it would have been blocked years ago, but I did not want to turn my writings into a rant or constant stream of negative nonsense. My Twitter feed is like this to a certain extent but its simply impossible to avoid that completely if one is to comment on Chinese football honestly. And grumbling on Twitter is one thing, longer-form diatribes on websites are another. So I simply decided to shut-up.

There are many more challenging aspects to commentating on Chinese football, and plenty of new ones have emerged in recent years as, to put it euphemistically, China’s international relationships have grown more complex and strained. The game is absolutely dripping with politics now, it was always the case but when you see the media carrying reports of players joining the party and writing self-reflection essays, you know that pressure from above is increasing even more. This was not something seen until very recently and is not a development which I believe helps inspire much passion or interest in the game, along with the endless other top-heavy and dreary nationalistic pronouncements which accompany so many of the decisions and policies carried out in relation to the game. There is no example anywhere in the world of footballing success being led by people who aren’t football people. The fact that something as obvious as this has to be stated is a stark illustration of how depressing the Chinese football situation is.

So why am I back? I realized that saying nothing accomplishes little other than avoiding further disillusionment. I have been quoted by international media on the game here hundreds of times, but I don’t believe I am some massively influential person. However, I do believe my views count for something, and I should continue to give them come what may.

There’s also another factor, for a few years I was earning some kind of income from the game and building business connections. But I realized that people like me who understand the depth of football, the fundamental role that culture plays in the sport, and have a passionate love for football in its purest form, are not trusted, because business people know people like me won’t put business interests over those of football. Football business doesn’t want to hear from anyone who will remind them of their vapid nature. Just look at how many fan representatives appear at all these Chinese football business conferences – none. It’s just a big group of people looking for their next opportunity to make money.

Indeed, recently I said something along these lines at a Chinese Football discussion panel I was on at an event hosted by the Shanghai Foreign Correspondent’s Club recently. “But we are all in Chinese football to make money” was one reply.

“Really?” I said, “Well, I am not.”

I think football, or any other sport people like and want to get into, deserves far better than to be dominated by business and political organizations. They are ultimately short-sighted and self-serving institutions, they know this so allocate huge importance to trying to convince fans otherwise. We need to focus on highlighting the real truth – that football with out fans is nothing. The coronavirus has finally delivered proof. Let us hope the footballing powers that be, not just in China but all over the globe, can finally recognize this.

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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