New Year’s greetings from the NBA, China and the AFC Asian Cup, and the X Games are coming

The China Sports Column is a SupChina weekly feature in which China Sports Insider Mark Dreyer looks at the week that was in the China sports world.

The good news is that China is safely through to the knockout stages of the AFC Asian Cup, with a very winnable game next against Thailand on Sunday. The bad news is that they enter the game having lost their unbeaten streak and face a much tougher draw in the knockout stages as a result.

Chinese football has seen several nadirs in recent years, but one particularly memorable low was a 5-1 defeat on home soil in 2013 against a Thai side largely made up of its Olympic (i.e., U23) squad, a result so bad that more than 100 people were injured in post-game riots.

So, while on paper China should comfortably progress against a Thai side routed 4-1 in the group stages by a now-eliminated Indian team, victory on Sunday would still provide a measure of revenge for China in what is the first competitive clash between the two sides since that disgrace six years ago.

But overall, Chinese fans have been pleasantly surprised by their team’s performance in the UAE, despite a fairly comprehensive 2-0 loss to South Korea on Wednesday.

Forward Wu Lei 武磊, whose strike rate for the national team has been less than a goal every four games despite netting a phenomenal 27 goals in 29 appearances this season, finally came good at the highest level, scoring two sublime goals against the Philippines last weekend.

And once you realize he’s playing with a separated shoulder that will likely require surgery after the tournament — teammates take note — it’s easy to see why he’s earned the respect of the fans.

With China having already qualified for the tournament’s latter stages, Wu sat out the game against Korea, but the match was yet another demonstration of China’s lack of striking prowess, and you have to wonder whether Wu’s presence might have changed China’s future course.

China only needed a tie to top the group, a result that would have seen them go into the bottom half of the draw and, crucially, plot a plausible route to the semifinals, with games against Bahrain and Qatar/Iraq, after which they may have faced a slumping Australian team.

But now, should they prevail against Thailand, China will likely face the top-seeded Iranians in the quarterfinals, a team they’ve only beaten once in regulation this century.

As ever, though, there are always non-footballing issues on the Chinese football agenda.

This week, the New York Times has taken up the tattoo mantle — a topic covered several times by this column — with a piece entitled “Short Pants and Long Sleeves,” in which the inky issue is continuing to cause consternation for Chinese officials:

At a news conference before a game with South Korea this week…, a tournament official tried to shut down a question about the tattoos before the Chinese national team coach, Marcello Lippi of Italy, could answer it. After it was rephrased, Lippi gave a short, diplomatic response, saying he was not unduly concerned by the edict. The team’s captain, Zheng Zhi, sitting to Lippi’s right, stifled a laugh but declined to comment on the issue.

Some of the paper’s comments were interesting, too, with one reader describing it as “a metaphor for modern China: if you cannot see it, then it must not exist,” while another wrote that every time he feels the U.S. is “about to surrender the mantle of global leadership, I read an article like this one which reminds me why China hasn’t moved as far as one would have expected over 3,500 years of recorded history.”

Some in China may quibble with that cited timeframe, but the point about a lack of progress is a valid one, especially when it comes to soccer.

May 1, 2012 – Shanghai, China – Jiangwan Stadium: √¬†SKB Vert Final.

The X Games are on their way to China!

X Games creator ESPN has partnered with Chinese sports platform REnextop to bring the coolest names in the action sports world to the Middle Kingdom this year.

The Summer X Games — featuring events including big air and street events for both skateboarding and BMX, plus Moto X best trick — will take place in Shanghai toward the end of May, while the Winter X Games are due to arrive in late November, with a venue still to be finalized.

Remarkably, given that the X Games has been running for 25 years, it’s the first time that both Summer and Winter events will take place in the same country within the same calendar year, although the showpiece annual events in Minneapolis and Aspen will remain as usual.

However, a couple of points of caution.

Previous international expansion for the X Games happened across the globe in 2013, but was abruptly canceled after just one season despite initial plans for a three-year run, though events in Oslo and Sydney last year were more encouraging.

Secondly, REnextop’s experience appears to be limited — and nonexistent outside the world of surfing — so ESPN is taking a rather large gamble by placing their eggs in this particular basket, especially for what is being touted as a “multi-year agreement.”

This column is all for large, international sporting events coming to China, but there have simply been too many fanfare announcements over the years that have ended in tears — anyone remember Jimmy Page’s rodeo at the Bird’s Nest? — to take these ventures without a healthy dose of skepticism.

Sometimes, being the most popular sports league in China creates its own issues.

How on earth does the NBA manage to keep topping its previous successes in its largest market by viewership?

Well, in true American style, the secret is simply to keep doing it bigger.

This year, a record 15 NBA teams will officially mark the Chinese New Year at their arenas for what is part of the league’s eighth CNY celebration.

The league will also debut a trio of new multi-platform series featuring three 2018 NBA All-Stars – Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks), Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers) and Klay Thompson (Golden State Warriors) – plus Chinese singer KUN. Additionally, more than 65 games will be broadcast throughout greater China during a 20-day period to mark the holiday, while 2011 NBA champion Jason Terry has already made stops in Changsha and Beijing this week to kick off the celebrations.

Next, the Warriors and the Rockets will wear their City Edition uniforms, featuring Chinese characters and symbolism inspired by Chinese culture, for the first time this season, while interactive campaigns across Toutiao, Douyin, and Weibo will ensure that no possible media avenue is left untouched.

But sometimes it’s not about what you do, it’s about what you don’t do.

Several of the players have been wishing their fans a happy Chinese New Year, though fortunately this year, no one appears to have made any slips of the tongue as JJ Redick did last year in appearing to utter a racist slur – something that fans didn’t let him forget —when he played here last fall.

Given the extended fallout from that particular incident, NBA bosses will hope this year’s bumper crop of themed festivities will be more than enough to distract fans from digging up something negative instead.

The China Sports Column runs every Friday on SupChina. Follow Mark Dreyer @DreyerChina.