Chinese Football Aims to Score with International Talent
The Super League could certainly use some positive publicity. Indeed, the delicate flower of Chinese football is thriving on a dung heap of scandals. When Georg Meyer, the German physiotherapist at Evergrande, first came to China in early 2012, he says that players warned him that he shouldn't be surprised if some of the referees' decisions seemed unprofessional. "Most of the good referees are in prison," they quipped to him.
It took the Chinese justice system three years to drain the swamp of corruption and match-fixing scandals plaguing the professional league, which wasn't established until 1994. A total of 33 players, referees and functionaries were banned for life from the game in February, and an additional 25 were given multi-year bans. But no one is willing to bet that the league is now clean.
"Chinese football is a microcosm of Chinese society," says Cameron Wilson, a Scotsman who operates a high-profile website in Shanghai called wildeastfootball.net. "There is a lack of transparency, and things are not always done according to the rule of law."
But as a reflection of the Chinese model, which is globally glorified and demonized in equal measure, Wilson says that the sport serves an important function: He contends that football acts as a magnet for the anger about much of what is pervasive in China but cannot be openly criticized in politics, business and society: injustice, arbitrary decisions, nepotism and incompetence.
The latter pertains primarily to the national team, which is criticized by China's sports reporters in a way that would land their political colleagues in jail. In early February, when the team lost to Saudi Arabia in a qualifying game for the Asian Cup, one newspaper used a strong pejorative to insult the coach. The object of their criticism was not so much the coach himself as the state football association, which hired the Spaniard José Antonio Camacho in August 2011 -- for a Lippi-class annual salary of $8 million -- but with pathetic results: China, which ranked 66th in football's world standings a year ago, has now dropped down to 109th place and failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Evergrande owner Xu and the club's fans apparently refuse to accept the notion that even in China, which has grown so accustomed to success, the country's own abilities occasionally fall short of expectations. Lippi is expected to lead the team to a third championship title -- that's a given. But above and beyond that, Xu plans to establish Guangzhou Evergrande as the top club team in Asia -- and finally put an end to the annual humiliation when teams from Japan, Korea and the Persian Gulf outplay the team of the great nation of China.
The names are right. The salaries should be enough. The initial results in the Asian Champions League -- three victories and a draw -- are good. But what happens if success still eludes them? If Xu simply grows tired of this project? Or if he finds a more effective method to network his company among the powerful and influential in China?
Barrios, the South American player, isn't really interested in whether China becomes a major football power or not. He won't stay around that long. He feels cut off from life in the country that sees itself as the new center of the world. Viewed from Guangzhou, his hometown of Buenos Aires lies exactly on the opposite side of the planet. There are no direct flights from China to South America, and he can no longer expect his parents to fly over 30 hours via Brazil and Qatar to China, where they can fall exhausted into the arms of their prodigal son.
"It was different in Dortmund," he says. Ah, Germany, whose language he has tenderly preserved, whose bratwursts he longs to eat again, and where he is investing the money he earns in China. "The southern stands! You can't imagine it!" he says in describing Borussia Dortmund's legendary stadium to his perplexed interpreter: "I scored twice against Bayern!" He'll never talk like that about China.
It's a Saturday afternoon at the Oggi restaurant in Guangzhou. The last people are turning in for the night in Paraguay, while the early birds are getting out of bed in Germany. Barrios also gets up. He limps into the park and takes the elevator to his empty apartment. He has to program his television recorder. In another nine hours, the Bundesliga games will begin -- and he wants to see Borussia Dortmund play.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen