SHANGHAI – In China, the World Cup is a late-night affair. Matches are played past midnight to devoted crowds that — for a month, at least — shed all discipline and productivity. In the Shanghai neighborhood I called home through two previous World Cups, raucous roars would rumble down streets and up stairwells any time a goal was scored, no matter the hour.
It’s the sort of sleep-depriving enthusiasm that in most places is reserved for the home team (or the team playing the home team’s rival). In China, though, there hasn’t been a World Cup home team since 2002, when the Chinese side failed to score at all in three losses.
Ever since, China’s soccer fans have been left looking for proxies. (Argentina is a longtime national favorite.) All the while, they grumble under their breaths about the government’s control-freak approach to choosing athletes for the national team and a lack of youth developmental leagues outside of the official system — problems that have relegated what should be a beloved national team to 103rd in FIFA’s world rankings.
The status is so low that only a starting lineup of 11 corrupt Communist Party cadres could claim to have more haters.
The losses are legendary, and worthy of front-page attention. In 2011, for example, the national team’s already slim World Cup qualifying hopes were extinguished by Iraq in a 1-0 loss that set off weeks of soul-searching about whether China’s national star had really risen if it couldn’t beat a war-torn basket case of a country.
Then, two years later, playing in a Chinese stadium, the Chinese managed to lose 5-1 to a Thai team that replaced seven of its regulars with youth players before the game. China’s home field in that match provided no advantage, but it did give Chinese fans an opportunity to riot and injure more than 100 people.
Shortly after that loss, the Southern Metropolis Daily, an independent-minded, soccer-loving newspaper in Guangzhou, offered a broad, socially minded editorial explaining the disappointment: In this century China and its economy have experienced a leap in strength, and “the rise of China” has inadvertently become a consensus at home and abroad. In contrast, looking back at Chinese soccer, except for the 2002 World Cup it’s spent 11 years heading step by step into the abyss.
The national team has become synonymous with corruption, boorishness and spoiled, entitled athletes who make American professional basketball players resemble Roman Stoics. The situation was made worse by a 2012 match-fixing scandal that resulted in the conviction and imprisonment of players, referees and the former head of China’s soccer association. Far from enhancing the credibility of China’s soccer culture, the crackdown seemed to damage it further.
In my recent experience, referees who make controversial calls at Chinese professional matches aren’t called idiots or blind. Rather, they’re called corrupt and accused of blowing a “black whistle.”
Chinese soccer fans aren’t ignorant of the fact that international soccer is just as corrupt, if not more so, as China’s. But in a sense, that’s an even graver insult. If lesser countries can prosper on the international stage despite corruption, shouldn’t much-bigger China be able to do so as well? Until then, cheering for Argentina will have to do.
Based in Shanghai, Adam Minter covers politics, culture, business and junk.