The Chinese Football Association (CFA) breathed a collective sigh of relief this week.
Not because China comfortably beat the Maldives 5-0, even though anything less than a win in Male against a side ranked 152nd in the world would have marked a new low, even by Chinese soccer’s desperate standards.
No, the relief came simply because The Elkeson Experiment — blooding a player in the Chinese national team who doesn’t have a drop of Chinese blood in him — didn’t backfire on the pitch.
Elkeson — now officially known as Ai Kesen — did all the right things.
He sang the national anthem before the game, and he draped himself in the Chinese flag after it.
Oh, and he scored two late goals (one of them on a penalty kick) to put the icing on a comfortable win.
It was a perfect start in the qualification process, but, longer term, what happens if Ai (are we really going to call him that?) doesn’t score enough goals to fire China to the World Cup finals?
The next nine months will be filled with largely meaningless games against teams from Guam (ranked No. 190) and the Philippines (No. 126), with only the games against Syria (No. 87) likely to pose any problems, although it’s very possible that both China and Syria will advance to the next stage.
Only then, after the better part of a year wasted on non-testing “competitive” games, will the real action start in the far more competitive third round, from which just four of 12 teams will progress to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, with a fifth given another chance through a play-off.
In other words, it’s a long time before we’ll know whether the gamble to naturalize Elkeson has paid off.
But so far, so good.
If newly-installed CFA President Chen Xuyuan is feeling a little happier this week, his counterpart at the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) — Yao Ming — is feeling nothing of the sort.
After failing to qualify for the second round of the FIBA World Cup on home soil, China managed to squeak past South Korea 77-73, but lost 86-73 to Nigeria, ending the tournament in a dismal 24th place and missing out on automatic qualification for next year’s Tokyo Olympics due to a worse points differential than Iran.
All is not quite lost at this stage, but China’s last chance to make it to Japan on merit will only come if it tops its six-team group in an Olympic qualifying tournament next year — a highly unlikely scenario.
In contrast to his players, who were outshot and out-rebounded by Nigeria, Yao stuck up his hand and took responsibility for the disappointing performances at the tournament, promising to continue with the reforms that he has introduced since becoming CBA head.
After the loss to Nigeria in their last game of the FIBA World Cup, question from media ‘If there should be someone to take responsibility for the failure, who shall take responsibility?". Yao Ming(the President of Chinese Basketball Association) answered 'Me'. #FIBAWorldCup2019 pic.twitter.com/9L2c0EE5ns
— Titan Sports Plus (@titan_plus) September 8, 2019
Teams from Yao’s era qualified for every Olympic tournament since 1984, with the highlight being an 8th place finish at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
But with that run now likely to end, Chinese basketball fans are set to experience the kind of malaise with which Chinese soccer fans are so familiar.
Elsewhere, China’s poor World Cup run has been matched only by the U.S. — who last lost in this tournament in 2006, but now leaves in 7th place after defeating Poland in its final classification game. It lost in the quarterfinals to France 89-79 and then lost 94-89 to Serbia.
Historically, the U.S. side is a big draw at World Cups and Olympic Games due to its star-studded lineup of NBA players, but although many of the biggest names stayed at home this year, there was still enough firepower for a legitimate shot at retaining its title, even though many pundits had correctly foreseen the team’s vulnerability.
The results speak to just how global the game has become, with Spain and Argentina edging Australia and France, respectively, in Friday’s semis to set up a Spanish-speaking final on Sunday in Beijing.
But the irony is that, while the gap between the U.S. and the chasing pack has closed, China seems further off the pace than ever.
Hong Kong’s sporting scene felt the brunt of the city’s continuing protests last week, with both soccer and tennis affected.
While the Chinese men’s football team was enjoying its trip to the Indian Ocean, its neighbors to the south fared less well at home, although a 2-0 loss to world No. 23 Iran is no embarrassment.
Larger headlines were made off the pitch, though, with boos drowning out the Chinese national anthem ahead of the game.
Some #HongKong 🇭🇰 #football fans ferociously booed #China’s national anthem before the @FIFAWorldCup qualifier against Iran 🇮🇷 at #HK Stadium. The HKFA had been fined becuz of similar incidents in the past. Video by my colleague Atom Cheung #HongKongProtests pic.twitter.com/ku86v9R0sS
— Damon Pang (@damon_pang) September 10, 2019
This is far from the first time this has happened, with the mainland passing legislation in recent years to make such actions illegal, but fans are continuing to make their voices heard, with plenty of other alternative songs sung at the stadium, too.
Given the unrest, Iran had earlier asked for the game to be moved, but were denied by FIFA.
The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), however, is taking no such risk, with an announcement this week postponing next month’s Hong Kong Open “in light of the present situation.”
With last year’s runner-up Wang Qiang, now ranked No. 12 in the world after her recent run to the U.S. Open quarterfinals — the highest-ranked Chinese player since Li Na hit No. 2 — the timing of this postponement is particularly unfortunate, with no news yet on when the tournament may eventually take place.
Also this week:
- One report says the UFC is looking to renegotiate its broadcast deal in China, with its rights now considerably more valuable given that Zhang Weili just won a world title.
- Defending champion Ronnie O’Sullivan beat Kyren Wilson 6-5 after coming back from 5-1 down in the quarterfinals of snooker’s Shanghai Masters.
- Wanda Sports appointed a new CEO after revenues fell 30 percent.
- And check out these pictures from the 7th Chinese Organ-Transplant Games.
Highlight of the Week:
This week’s video highlight comes from the World Taekwondo Grand Prix in Chiba, Japan. Remember when China’s Zheng Shuyin lost to Britain’s Bianca Walkden at the World Championships earlier this year due to a controversial disqualification in the final? Well, Zheng got her revenge this time, fighting back in the third round to take the match into a sudden death “golden round” (starts at 57:20 in the clip below). Once there, Zheng needed just seven seconds to take the win, prompting predictable celebrations, but expect these two to go at it again next year in Tokyo.