This column brought you news last week of China’s latest footballing disappointment, this time in the four-team China Cup, and — as predicted — China finished dead last in the competition, having followed up a 1-0 defeat to Thailand with another 1-0 loss against Uzbekistan.
But that match was most notable for Wei Shihao’s 韦世豪 horror tackle against Otabek Shukurov, which left the Uzbek midfielder sidelined for the rest of the season with a broken leg.
In a ridiculous but hardly unprecedented display, Wei’s club side Guangzhou Evergrande swiftly announced a month-long suspension for their player, despite the fact that this should have been a matter entirely for the Chinese Football Association (CFA) since he was playing for the national team at the time.
Additionally, Wei must now report to the club’s HR department to have a “deep self-examination,” and, based on how that goes, the club may or may not decide to cancel his contract.
But in a further twist, Shukurov — who’s quickly becoming a hero among Chinese fans — called on Twitter for Evergrande to go easy on Wei and “commute their punishment” to something “less severe.”
— Otabek Shukurov (@OShukurov19) March 28, 2019
In a touching note, Shukurov said he had recovered from his initial depression over the injury thanks to his friends and fans, but when he heard about Wei’s punishment, he got upset all over again.
There’s no word yet whether Evergrande will act on Shukurov’s plea, but given the fact they have bent over backwards in recent years to appear subservient to the overarching goals of Chinese football — at least as far as owner Xu Jiayin 许家印 sees them — don’t expect Wei’s sentence to be commuted.
A number of top European soccer teams have announced plans to play in China this summer, as that annual battle plays out between club suits trying to squeeze every last penny out of their global fanbase and the players themselves who would rather stick hot pokers in their eyes than travel halfway around the world during their vacation following a season that’s already far too long.
The result — whether it’s in China, the U.S., or elsewhere — is that fans are charged top dollar to see a handful of first-team players conduct little more than a structured training session alongside reserve team lackeys, youth team hopefuls, and, if fans are really lucky, a couple of trialists.
Preseason games are an essential part of every club’s summer warmup, but gone are the days when they consisted of semi-competitive matches against local teams. Back then, players were concerned about shaking off the rust and rebuilding their match fitness, while diehard fans who couldn’t wait for the actual season to begin were charged far below market rate to see their heroes up close in July. It was a trade-off that worked for both sides.
That all changed when teams started to travel internationally, choosing to play not specific opponents, but in certain markets.
I’ll pick on Manchester United here, largely because they continue to take the piss with regard to the size of their global fan base — a farcical number that’s been exposed again and again and again..
But they are also one of the teams who announced their China tour this week, with a game against Tottenham Hotspur in Shanghai on July 25. As expected, the promotional poster featured three of the club’s big names — Romelu Lukaku, Juan Mata, and David de Gea.
But will any of the trio actually play?
In 2012, the poster to promote a game against Shanghai Shenhua featured Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs, and Rio Ferdinand. Of those, only Ferdinand featured, alongside such “legends” as Freddie Veseli (0 competitive league games for Man Utd), Marnick Vermijl (0), Robbie Brady (0), Powell (3), Ryan Tunnicliffe (0), Davide Petrucci (0), and — the ultimate joke figure — Bebe (2).
Four years later, on the ill-fated tour that saw a game against Manchester United at the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing called off at the last minute, the team’s lineup in Shanghai against Borussia Dortmund was noticeably stronger than in 2012, but when goalkeeping duties are shared between Sam Johnstone (0 senior games) and continual back-up Sergio Romero, who’s played just seven league games with the club in four years, it gives you an idea of how seriously the result is being taken.
Li Na 李娜 was at the British Embassy this week, as part of the Road to Wimbledon event. Also in attendance was Deng Yaping 邓亚萍, who won four Olympic and nine World Championship gold medals in her stellar career.
Li Na talking to British Ambassador Barbara Woodward at yesterday's Road to #Wimbledon event in Beijing. The lady in the middle is table tennis legend Deng Yaping (4 Olympic & 9 World Championship ????), who has a PhD from Cambridge. pic.twitter.com/T7yx44tmDM
— Mark Dreyer (@DreyerChina) March 27, 2019
Li will forever be associated with the French Open, where she won her maiden Grand Slam in 2011, and the Australian Open, which she won in 2014 and gave one of the best victory speeches in recent memory.
Both tournaments have leveraged that connection to promote themselves in China, with Wimbledon also following suit.
But with close to three million Chinese tourists traveling to the U.S. each year — far more than travel to Australia, France, or the UK — why isn’t the U.S. Open doing more to leverage the growing trends of Chinese outbound travel and sports tourism?
Finally, Sun Yang’s 孙杨 fortunes seems to be swiftly diverging — depending on whether he’s in or out of the pool.
These championships also serve as qualifying for Chinese swimmers ahead of the 2019 FINA Swimming World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea in July.
But with Sun’s doping case moving forward to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), there’s a growing chance that Sun’s career could be over before the World Championships even begin.
In other swimming news, there was a welcome return to form for 2012 double Olympic champion Ye Shiwen 叶诗文, who was a huge disappointment in Rio 2016.
Meanwhile, backstroker Fu Yuanhui 傅园慧 — who made headlines for talking about swimming during her period as well as becoming a viral star for her quirky post-race interviews — made the firm point this week that her commercial activities don’t interfere in any way with her swimming.
Fortunately for her, the Chinese Swimming Association seems to agree, but — as reported last week with the case of high jumper Zhang Guowei 张国伟 — many others in the weird realm of Chinese sports officialdom do not.