Protest and Politics in Chinese Soccer

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From my colleague Jessie Jiang:

Like the long-suffering supporters of the Chicago Cubs, China’s soccer fans know all about disappointment. But their steadfastness is being put to yet a new test, this time involving a fading star and the withdrawal of a top-tier domestic league club.

After a scuffle between two players in a Sept. 28 Super League match, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) imposed eight-game suspensions on both offenders. One of the combatants was Li Weifeng, a former national team captain now playing for Wuhan Guanggu, a team already on the verge of relegation. Li’s suspension sent tens of thousands of angry Wuhan fans into the city’s streets to call for the CFA to be disbanded. Shortly after Guanggu announced its withdrawal from the Chinese Super League, the country’s top professional confederation. The CFA reciprocated by disqualifying the team from all national leagues and fining the club $44,000.

This is all indicative of a long-running weakness in the Chinese sports system–too often it’s governed by the whims of strongmen rather than the letter of the law. That’s why the CFA assumes such power when it comes to controversies like this. It falls under the golden umbrella of the General Administration of Sport, a giant bureaucracy attached to the State Council. Boosting the level of the Chinese soccer–to borrow a cliché from Washington–requires more than just the blame game. Disbanding the CFA wouldn’t make much difference if major decisions are still made behind closed doors.

As usual, heart-broken soccer fans poured out their dismay in cyberspace, many vowing never to watch Chinese soccer again. But if history is any indication, few can refrain from turning on the TV when the next game starts. “Why do they keep loving it so much?” I asked a sports blogger for a story on the national Olympic team’s horrific performance this summer. “Because it is fun,” he said. “Sports are no politics, but they sure bear some resemblance.”