The F Word part 4: In which I arrive in China

Any pretensions I may have entertained of Learning Chinese Through FootballTM would have quickly been doomed to failure. Although I had a good grasp of the basic numbers, the names of the world’s leading clubs and players are often unrecognisable and hellish to pronounce. I wouldn’t imagine that Paul Gascoigne found it particularly easy.

I did, briefly, try: in my first or second week I played my first game of football in quite a while. Disappointed to see the fruitless-yet-predictable results of my time-honoured technique of chasing-the-ball-all-over-the-pitch-and-then-kicking-it-straight-to-the-other-team, I turned to our goalkeeper and asked him how the Chinese say ‘Fuuuuck!!!’ He told me, I repeated it about ten times and then promptly mispronounced it catastrophically for the next ten months.

Chinese kids (male kids, that is to say, which is most of them) love playing football, especially in a curious 20-a-side variety. Nor is it unusual to have to share your tennis court with two or three other pairs. There are just so many young people with so much energy to expend. Now personally, as I may have mentioned somewhere around here, my own preference would be for them to devote their efforts to storming the bastions of power and making their country into a decent place to live, but what the hey. They prefer to direct their youthful frustrations elsewhere.

One of my students, faced with the question of which people he would least like to meet, surprised me by not offering the standard responses (usually ‘the Taiwanese President’ or ‘anyone from Japan’). His answer was that he would hate to meet the football players of AC Milan, given that he was a fan of their city rivals Inter.

How had this 20-year-old boy (as the Chinese like to say), no more from the north of Italy than I’m from Shanghai (I’m not), developed such a strong emotional attachment to Inter Milan? Well, he’d read about the team in officially approved articles in state-controlled newspapers and on the government-sponsored internet. These days, if Michael Owen fails to score for Newcastle of a weekend, or if the Chelsea manager suggests he may need to strengthen his right-back position, it is back-page news around the world – and in China (and probably in Japan, although for different reasons) it makes the front page.

This contrasts with a genuine lack of interest in home-grown football. In early 2005 the start of the soccer season was delayed for several weeks because a number of clubs didn’t have the funds to field a full team and to travel to matches. When I went to see China’s number 1 team Dalian Shide I saw a sparsely populated stadium witness the most desultory performance I’d seen since, well, my own a few months earlier. After what I think was the fifth goal (I wasn’t sure, as we arrived late, the result of a fairly unnecessary argument with my slightly irrational then-girlfriend over my paying almost three euros for two tickets), the players left the pitch five minutes early, presumably because they simply couldn’t be bothered to run around in the cold to such a lukewarm reaction any more.

In European football and American baseball, though, there is a huge amount of interest. The Government don’t mind; they seem quite happy to see their young people doped up to the eyeballs on this particular foreign opiate. And football and basketball are foreign imports – it is a form of cultural imperialism just as profound as Hollywood movies or McDonalds.

This Guardian article from two days ago, about the aspirations of a certain British football club to cash in on this new ‘goal rush’, reads like a grotesque and hilarious satire of the original Age of Expansion:

Sheffield United’s manager could become a household name in Chengdu after his club revealed at their AGM yesterday that contracts have been exchanged on a deal to buy the Chinese second division club Chengdu Five Bull FC for a “minimal” sum with completion anticipated early in the new year.

“We are taking the Blades global,” enthused Kevin McCabe, the chairman of Sheffield United’s plc, who already has extensive real estate development interests in China. “Chengdu city has a population of 11m and is the capital of Sichuan province which has a population of 100m. Although I don’t expect them all to become Sheffield United fans, this does represent a potential fan base which we can use to develop both the Five Bull and Sheffield United brands.”

Five Bull boast a 40,000-capacity stadium, but it represents virgin marketing and merchandising territory. Previously effectively under government ownership – the club was run by a collective of state enterprises – the Chinese government’s recent decree that the country’s soccer clubs can no longer be even indirectly state-owned dictates that Five requires outside investment.”We intend to establish a club shop at the stadium for the first time as well as a Blades Bar in the city and to sell branded merchandise, also for the first time,” McCabe explained.

The idea is that Five Bull fans will develop a twin affection for the Blades, their enthusiasm fuelled by the internet and satellite television transmissions of English football.

Now speaking as someone from Sheffield, there is little more absurd to me than the thought of someone from Sichuan province dreaming of visiting Bramall Lane. I’m aware that what might appear mundane to me could seem exotic to someone from China and vice-versa, but I can assure anyone who hasn’t had the opportunity to see it for themselves that there is very little of the exotic or charming about that part of the city. There are, of course, many positive benefits of globalisation – the internet and being able to buy pesto in Dalian spring to mind – but this, while certainly not the worst thing about our brave new world, is definitely not the best.

The article put me in mind of William Gibson’s article about Singapore: a place where the past has ceased to exist. Forget about silk dresses, Mao suits and charming Sichuan tea shops – what the future has to offer China is a replica Sheffield United football top – made, in China, natch – and a Blades theme bar.

To me, it sounds uncannily like my particular vision of hell.

The F Word part 5

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