The feelings of the Chinese people were hurt once again this week, this time due to the actions of some Korean teenagers at the Panda Cup football tournament.
Hosted in Chengdu each year, this year’s edition was an U18 round-robin competition, with South Korea, Thailand, and New Zealand joining their Chinese hosts.
South Korea topped the group — thereby winning the title — while China lost all three games, without scoring a goal.
But when a Korean player, reportedly named as Park Kyuhyun, dared to place his foot on the trophy during the post-game celebrations, the Chinese internet exploded in fury.
It was, so the tide of opinion went, deliberately disrespectful to place a foot on the trophy, which as the Panda Cup, symbolized the very heart of China.
Despite a groveling apology and a publicized visit to the organizers, where Korean players and officials bowed deeply, the Chengdu FA bowed to the pressure online and took back the trophy, although South Korea have retained the title on paper.
The tipping point appeared to have been a claim — made by the same Chinese photographer who took the foot-on-trophy shot — that another Korean player later simulated the act of urinating on or inside the trophy, though there is no photographic evidence of such.
Left with just a teenage foot on a trophy — which, as many have pointed out online, is not that unusual — would we really be left with an international incident?
There is a Global Times piece doing the rounds in international media that has some fairly extraordinary quotes:
“stepping on the trophy as if it was hunter’s kill”
“the South Koreans acted like conquerors rather than champions”
“the young player ignored the universal ethos of sports which underlines fair play and respect.”
But the same author did concede that “the highroad in all this would be to give the teenager [sic] players a chance to right their wrongs.”
Instead, the Chengdu FA went with the humiliation route.
South Korean youngsters forced to publicly prostrate themselves in front of the cameras after Chinese netizens prove themselves to be the sorest losers of all (again) pic.twitter.com/dpyctl49lr
— Paul Ryding (@pjrydo) May 30, 2019
The trophy was snatched back, the Koreans felt compelled to issue yet another apology, the tournament organizers announced they wouldn’t be invited back, and the Chinese internet was sated once more.
As one Chinese soccer fan remarked to me this week, “Sure, it’s a little disrespectful to step on the Panda Cup, but it’s more sad that we lost all three games without scoring a goal. It doesn’t exactly bode well for the future.”
When the hyperbole dies down, the continued lack of success will have a far longer lasting impact.
Meanwhile, at the more adult end of the Chinese soccer landscape, it appears as if Marcello Lippi’s return as national team manager may have come with new stipulations, rather than simply an increased pay packet.
News came this week that Beijing Guoan’s Nico Yennaris — a.k.a. Li Ke — had been called up to the national team, just months after the London-born midfielder was given a passport as one of the very first players to become naturalized Chinese.
And while Yennaris’ form for the league leaders has deserved that call up, this groundbreaking move could just be the start.
According to reports in Chinese media, two Brazilians may soon join Yennaris on the Chinese squad.
Yennaris’ mother is Chinese, and the sporting authorities — whether in soccer, ice hockey, or baseball — have long followed a pattern by only considering “foreign” recruits if they have at least some Chinese ancestry.
But by selecting Elkeson and Ricardo Goulart, if the reports are indeed true, it would mark the first time China has naturalized true foreigners — perfectly legal under FIFA’s five-year residency requirement, but something that China has previously dismissed as inappropriate.
Given the strength of feeling that persists throughout society on this issue, it’s hard to believe that CFA suits have suddenly changed their minds so soon after recruiting Yennaris and other overseas Chinese.
Lippi, then, who managed Elkeson at Guangzhou Evergrande, would appear to be the man pushing this forward most strongly, perhaps as part of improved terms of his contract.
But it’s nothing more than a short-term measure, with unclear ramifications on both sides.
What happens to the players once their China careers are over? Are they supposed to stay in Guangzhou to collect their pensions or hand their passports back in and reveal themselves as true mercenaries?
From the CFA’s side, it’s also a huge risk.
The Brazilian pair may be good enough to tip the 2022 World Cup qualification campaign in China’s favor, but if things don’t play out as hoped, there is the potential for a massive social backlash.
Lippi, at 71, is only looking a few years ahead, so of course would want to pick the very best players legally available for the Chinese squad.
And if it all goes wrong further down the line, he won’t be the one picking up the pieces.
The NHL has announced that it will not be holding any games in China this year, due to what it described as “logistical challenges resulting from the multitude of events occurring in China during the same time frame as our NHL preseason games,” and has instead chosen to postpone the league’s third set of games until 2020.
The New Jersey Devils and Columbus Blue Jackets had initially been slated to come to China this year, though the league also struggled to attract willing teams due to reports that Calgary and Boston hadn’t enjoyed the smoothest of rides in 2018, due to a range of China-related logistical obstacles.
Additionally, after Beijing was declared off limits for the fall due to the upcoming 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC and Shanghai’s Mercedes Benz arena threw up staging difficulties, the league did its best to explore alternative venues in Tianjin and Hangzhou, but, in the end, decided to put the games on ice for a year.
The league’s statement this week said that the 2019-20 season would still see “player visits, ongoing investments in grassroots and youth hockey programs and events to continue to fuel the growth of hockey in China,” but noticeably made no mention of the 2022 Winter Olympics — the very reason why the NHL started coming to China in 2017.
That’s because Commissioner Gary Bettman — in all his infinite wisdom — continues to downplay the prospect of Olympic participation for the league’s players, saying the league has not changed its stance after refusing to allow players to go to the 2018 Pyeongchang Games.
ESPN hockey writer Greg Wyshynski wrote this week that, “Everyone expects the NHL will go back to the 2022 Olympics in Beijing because of how much groundwork they’re laying in that market.”
But it’s hard to lay groundwork without actually playing games.