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The Goal China Can't Reach

By Xu Guoqi
Sunday, July 27, 2008

BEIJING My country is about to host the world's greatest sporting event and, we hope, claim a truckload of Olympic gold. But to hundreds of millions of Chinese, our widely anticipated bonanza of medals will mean very little. The real metric by which China judges itself against the rest of the world isn't the discus or the decathlon. It's not even our record-breaking economic growth rate or our postmodern skylines. It's soccer. And when it comes to our beloved sport, China is not just the sick man of Asia. It's the sick man of the world.

Our soccer tragedy is epic. Since the late 1970s, when China resumed international play after decades of self-imposed isolation, our national men's team has made it to the World Cup only once, in 2002. On June 14, we lost a qualifying match to Iraq, of all countries, thereby shattering our hopes of entering the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The rising superpower had been beaten by a failed state.

Such losses have not only plunged many Chinese into the sort of depression that only a Chicago Cubs fan could understand. They have also prompted doubts about Chinese manhood, undermined the country's vaunted can-do spirit and sparked agonized questions about our politics, culture and society -- even about what it means to be Chinese. For the regime in Beijing, success at the Olympics may demonstrate China's superiority, but for the country's long-suffering soccer fans, the only real yardstick of greatness is a victory in the World Cup. About 700 million Chinese watched the 2006 World Cup. They weren't happy.

In fact, soccer and China can make a pretty explosive combination. This beautiful game has an amazing ability to rattle the collective consciousness of 1.3 billion people. After the Chinese team's June defeat at the hands of the admittedly impressive Iraqi squad, China's Internet and state-run media erupted in howls of frustration, anger and self-doubt. One popular ditty called 2008 an unsettling, unusual year, with devastating snow storms that ruined the Spring Festival and the deadly earthquake that made people nervous about simply staying home. But one thing remained constant, according to the ditty: "At the crucial moment, China's men's soccer team stood up and proved to the world that nothing ever changes: It lost!"

After the defeat, a newspaper in the northeastern city of Changchun ran only a large, bold, black headline: "The National Soccer Team Lost Again. We Have Nothing To Say." No text followed the headline -- something I have never heard of in the history of communist China's press.

Our ongoing soccer misery highlights a basic paradox about today's China. On the surface, we seem to be feeling pretty ebullient, with our fast-growing economy, our newfound wealth and our showcase Olympics, with their peppy theme of "One World, One Dream." We're confident that the future belongs to us. But on a deeper level, many Chinese -- especially we men -- are unhappy, deeply frustrated and prone to strong, deep-rooted pangs of helplessness and abandonment. And it's all soccer's fault.

Well, not all. Readers may wonder why a people with so much going for them can be laid so low by a game. At root, it's because we Chinese want "face" -- not just from one another, but from the whole world. Chinese, especially boys, are brought up to believe that China is exceptional. (You Americans should be able to relate.) But we're not satisfied simply with believing this ourselves; we want others to believe that we're a great nation, too.

That's where soccer comes in.

The World Cup strikes Chinese as the most meritocratic, the most (gasp!) democratic, of competitions. Every nation, rich or poor, strong or small, has a real shot at winning. No country or regime, regardless of its wealth or power, can manufacture a victory the way that, say, East Germany used to during those dreary Cold War-era Olympic Games. On the soccer field, China is forced to test itself against the family of nations. It's social Darwinism as sport.

No wonder millions of Chinese fans link soccer to their national sense of honor. But when your team just isn't very good, that linkage between nationalism and sport can mean tumult and even tragedy. Think back to May 19, 1985, when Hong Kong and China faced off in Beijing. Had China won, it might have gone on to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. The team was heavily favored, and nearly 80,000 fans eagerly poured into the Workers' Stadium to watch the long-awaited triumph.

China, of course, lost.

This defeat was particularly humiliating: Proud, anti-imperialist China had lost to a team representing a British colony. Inside the stadium, angry fans lobbed glass bottles and smashed seats; outside, they torched buses, burned cars with plates from foreign embassies and damaged buildings. More than 2,000 police were dispatched, and at least 127 people were arrested. The Team China players had to be rescued from their supposed worshipers. And even after the players had safely returned to their residential compound, angry fans surrounded the building -- shouting and singing, with tears in their eyes, the Internationale's call for the world's suffering masses to rise up. China's National Sports Commission called the riot "damaging to China's national dignity." The national soccer team issued a public apology for blowing it, and head coach Zeng Xuelin was forced to resign.

Think this couldn't happen again? Flash forward to 2004 and the Asia Cup championship match between Japan and China, also in Workers' Stadium. Chinese fans sang an old anti-Japanese song and yelled: "Kill! Kill! Kill!" When the Japanese team -- predictably -- won, Chinese fans exploded. They torched Japanese flags and spat at Japanese fans. The chaos left both countries rattled and spurred a debate about sports and nationalism.

Part of the reason for China's tragic passion for soccer is that we believe we invented it, along with many other great gifts to humanity. One man in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) is said to have played soccer so well that he was eventually appointed prime minister. In the 1920s and '30s, China routinely fielded one of Asia's best teams. Japan may have been able to bully China militarily in the 1930s, but China was busily routing it in soccer. One brilliant Chinese shooter, Li Huitang, was even called "the soccer king of Asia."

That seems an awfully long time ago, though. The main bright spot today for Chinese soccer is the national women's team, our "Iron Roses," who have done extremely well, even winning a world championship in the 1990s. But this only makes matters worse for the country's pouting men. If the Chinese could win and prove their manhood in the 1930s, why can't we do it now? And why are China's men less impressive on the field than its women?

Some pundits have pontificated that we're going through an era of yin, or femininity, and have wondered what's gone wrong with our yang. Others maintain the problem is that only a small percentage of China's massive population actually plays sports. (Even more than you Americans, we are a nation of Monday-morning quarterbacks.) Others have tried to use our national soccer crisis as a rallying point for change. To make soccer better, we're told, we need the rule of law, more transparency, radical changes and widespread reforms. The underlying problem, they say, is that Chinese soccer is still ultimately controlled by the hidebound Communist Party. Others point to corruption: It's not just that many of our referees are bent, they argue, but that some of our players make the notorious 1919 "Black Sox" look like wide-eyed schoolboys. Then there are the supposed experts who insist that Chinese culture itself is to blame. On the surface, they argue, we look like great team players -- consider our dams, our irrigation systems, our Great Wall -- but in practice, today's fast-growing China has turned its back on communal values. These days, everybody wants to be the boss, and nobody wants to be the goalie.

I'm not persuaded by any of these explanations, but I'm intrigued by all of them. Our raw, unruly and wild feelings about our prowess at soccer, I think, have become something of a metaphor for the way we view our place at the world's table. Are we respected? Are we truly welcome? And above all: Are we a great power or just a middling one? As one Chinese Netizen posted, somewhat ungrammatically: "Now, you touched the Chinese's softest and most sensitive part."

gxu@kzoo.edu

Xu Guoqi is the author of "Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008." He teaches history at Kalamazoo College.

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