Japan made history on Tuesday when it defeated Colombia 2-1 in Saransk, Russia, becoming the first Asian team to ever beat a South American side in the World Cup.
Chinese fans are usually happy to root for their East Asian cousins in soccer — as long as they’re not playing China — but Beijing Youth Daily, which is the official paper of the Communist Youth League, took basking in reflected glory to its extreme in a Wednesday morning headline:
亚洲的胜利 (yàzhōu de shènglì) — “Asia’s victory.”
“It wasn’t just Japanese fans who were excited, but all of us spectators,” said the accompanying article, penned by Zhang Kunlong 张昆龙. “Because this is Asia football’s victory…Japan’s victory will only help Asian teams grow in confidence.”
The article also praised the performances of South Korea and Australia — both of whom lost their opening games by one goal — and Iran, which beat Morocco on a 95th-minute own goal.
“The overall possession game of East Asian teams and the exquisite technique of southwest Asian teams have injected a breath of fresh air to the World Cup stage,” Zhang wrote, possibly while cracking open a second bottle of vodka.
If it sounds like the author’s low expectations for what constitutes “exquisite football” might actually — far from praising — be insulting Asian football, I humbly ask you to give the guy a break, as he’s likely been conditioned by the unwieldy, inconsistent, confounding play of Chinese footballers to expect broken passes, bungling tackles, airmailed free kicks. China is an astonishingly bad soccer-playing nation, as everyone in China will readily admit, having qualified for the World Cup only once, in 2002, when two other Asian countries got automatic bids because they were jointly hosting the event. China once lost 5-1 to Thailand, at home, causing Chinese fans to riot.
Perhaps where the article really jumps the shark, however, is when it insists that “all five Asian countries in the World Cup had highlights.” Japan, South Korea, Australia, Iran, sure, but the fifth Asian country in this year’s competition is Saudi Arabia, which not only is bad at soccer — ranked 67th according to FIFA in the 32-team field — but fell flat on its face with a 5-0 loss to Russia in the tournament opener. Only one team in the entire competition is ranked worse than 67, and that’s Russia, at 70, which won by five goals.
“Even though it suffered a crushing 5-0 defeat to the host, things weren’t all bad for Saudi Arabia,” according to Beijing Youth Daily. “At the game’s start, the strong contingent from southwest Asia applied major pressure to Russia. At this point, one can’t merely look at the final score to gauge Asian teams’ performances, but one must also look at a match’s substance.”
It’s kind of a relief, if you think about it, to know that bad sports takes are universal. It doesn’t matter if you’re a talking head on FS1 or the official paper of the Chinese Communist Youth League, sometimes you just have to let a thesis — in this case, “Asia football is gaining in confidence,” whatever that means — get in the way of facts and reality. (I suppose a perfunctory word should be said here about how Chinese publications never really do let facts affect a narrative.) Japan beat a Colombia team that played a man down for 87 minutes and with its best player — who only entered as a substitute — hobbled by injury; but why worry about the “substance” of the match when the final score indicates that Japan is leading Asian football to glorious new heights?
But, you might be asking, did Chinese papers react to Japan’s win in the same way, saluting their brothers-in-arms?
You bet not! Here was the headline from Beijing Evening News:
日本赢球了也留下不光彩的”欺骗” (rìběn yíng qiúle yě liú xià bù guāngcǎi de qīpiàn) — “In victory, disgraceful Japan nonetheless leaves ‘cheating.'”
The incident that prompted this call-out? Japanese goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima had the audacity to protest a Colombian goal by asking for a video review.
In a sport routinely marred by contemptible acts from its loathsome and dastardly practitioners — Exhibit A: this flop last night from Pepe — and abounding with infantile protests to the most evenhanded of referee decisions — rageface, demonstrative shrugging, inscrutable pointing — it hardly seems necessary to cast aspersions on a player for daring to wag a finger.
But Beijing Evening News had a headline to sell, and so:
Even after the ball clearly crossed the goal line, after Japanese goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima intentionally pulled the ball from the goal, he hugged the ball, wagging his right finger while walking, indicating to the referee that the ball hadn’t gone in. This goal was extremely clear, whether by video replay or goal-line technology, the goal can definitively be confirmed. The referee ignored Kawashima’s request, but Kawashima’s obviously cheating behavior has left a disgraceful stain on himself and the Japanese team. As everyone knows, there’s both goal-line technology and video replay at this World Cup, there’s no risk of misjudgment when it comes to whether or not a ball goes in. Even so, Kawashima was very clear about how he kept the ball out, and engaged in an dishonest attempt to get what he wanted. This is not in keeping with the spirit of competitive fairness, and leaves a permanent record of disgrace.
“A permanent record of disgrace.” The article has been roundly mocked by Chinese readers. A sampling of comments:
“So sour I’m crying.”
“Is Beijing Evening News braindead?”
“Sour as hell. The Japanese really played pretty well.”
“Beijing Evening News is cheating itself.”
“Hilarious. I’m Chinese, I love my country, but this is truly sour grapes.”
“As someone who hates Japan to death, I was actually a bit embarrassed to see this headline…”
“No words. What, a goalkeeper would hold the ball and shout at the ref, ‘This ball went in, it really went in, believe me, ref!’ Comical.”
“Stop nitpicking, standing from the height of sanctimony talking nonsense.”
The lesson here? Sports makes people insane — with official newspapers, owned by the Chinese government, not excepting.
Upcoming games featuring Asian federation teams:
June 21, 8 pm China time: Australia vs. Denmark
June 23, 11 pm China time:South Korea vs. Mexico
June 24, 11 pm China time: Japan vs. Senegal
June 25, 10 pm China time: Saudi Arabia vs. Egypt
June 26, 2 am China time: Iran vs. Portugal
June 26, 10 pm China time: Australia vs. Peru
June 27, 10 pm China time: South Korea vs. Germany
June 28, 10 pm China time: Japan vs. Poland