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Sleepless (and Soccer-mad) in Beijing


Early last month, just as World Cup fever was just taking hold here, the Communist Party’s Central Publicity Department (nee Propaganda) quietly instructed the country’s media to – I quote – “lower the temperature” on their coverage of all things football.

This was no surprise. Like any overprotective parent, the minders at Propaganda make it their priority to check any big story short of a Party-sponsored publicity campaign, lest it spiral out of control. Even Super Girl, the smash-hit Chinese spin on American Idol, provoked their consternation last year – especially after foreign press billed it a pop experiment in democracy. The World Cup, nationalistically charged spectacle that it is, presents authorities here with a can of unpredictable worms. One that refuses to stay shut. Tonight – the night of the final game in Berlin – it’s a safe bet that almost no Chinese living near a TV set will get a good night’s sleep.

Not that China, eliminated early in the qualifiers, was appearing on the pitch. There’s little chance of that. But over the past few weeks, since the propaganda edict was handed down, there has been no sign that China’s soccer media (the most entrepreneurial and ballsy in a business that’s still state-owned) were paying any heed to the “chill” order. After all, it’s only soccer. Newspapers nationwide kept spewing forth 20 to 30-page daily inserts; podcasting bloggers kept piling up the clicks, several shooting to fame on Web portals overnight; and round-the-clock Cup programming on good ole’ China Central Television, whose PA checks and live studio audiences still vaguely recall the golden age of America’s small screen, was more dynamic, melodramatic and interactive than ever.

So why the fuss? Well, Among soccer-faring nations, China does not have the most illustrious history. Team China’s past is checkered with “black Sunday” losses to minnows like Hong Kong and Maldives. The national squad has all of one World Cup finals berth in 48 years of trying, and didn’t net a goal when it did make to the South Korea/Japan Cup in 2002. Match-fixing scandals and mafia-like control of team rosters, among a host of other problems, have stymied the development of its domestic leagues, and alienated many fans. For a country whose global profile has risen so rapidly in so many facets by which nations’ strength is measured, the backward state of its soccer is an increasingly glaring shame. So over the past two decades, not coincidentally, many Chinese have gotten well-accustomed to caring almost as much about other nations’ teams as their own, if not more so. Perhaps that explains surges of emotion that did transpire.

So, in keeping with an American Sunday tradition, here’s the week, er, World Cup month of games, in review:

JUNE 12. Australia v. Japan. Japan’s clinging to a 1-0 lead late in the game. Then the Socceroos explode for three goals in the last ten minutes. A dormful of students erupts in hateful chants in Chongqing, bombed by the Japanese during their WWII-era occupation; clapping and cries of ecstasy reverberate through the Beijing hutong (alleyways). A few days later, Japan played again. Police told bars in Wudaokou, hub of Beijing’s university nightlife, dominated by Chinese, Korean and Japanese students, not to show the game. Come Japan’s third and final game of the opening round, Ritan Park, where the emperor’s 500-year-old sacrificial altar to gods of the sun is now showing footie on the big-screen through the night, mysteriously suspends screenings of the late game for a couple days. Japan is to play in one of those late games….But, in the end, Japan lose and are eliminated. Chinese authorities breathe a collective sigh of relief. In Chinese newspapers the next morning, columnists trace Japan’s inability to put the ball in the net to its players’ lack of heart.

JUNE 15. The matches of World Cup, shown from the hours of 9 pm to dawn, have by now made night shifters out of hundreds of millions of Chinese. Reports from their workplaces show absenteeism is up, efficiency way down. Managers are livid. Cities warn cab drivers not to spectate and drive. And schools tell college students to turn off the damn television and study for final exams. One of those schools is privately run Shengda College, in the central China transit hub of Zhengzhou. There, students are already up in arms over a bait-and-switch scandal: On enrolling, graduates were promised diplomas straight from Shengda’s state sponsor institution, Zhengzhou University, only to learn that a change in the nation’s education policy meant the degrees would state “Shengda” as well.

To explain how the school’s kids reacted, most foreign news report focused on the bleak employment picture facing the nation’s fast-growing student body, especially the many whose peasant families go deeply into debt in hopes a son or daughter’s degree will buy their ticket out of poverty. But Hong Kong’s Ta Kung Pao had this contrarian version of events.

On the night of June 15, the World Cup was going red hot. As it was getting late at night, the school ordered the students to stop watching television. Certain students who were just informed that the ’03 and ’04 year students will be receiving Shengda College diplomas instead of Zhengzhou University diplomas took the World Cup incident to start a protest. They threw stuff out of the window and then led the other students to start a riot after midnight.

Admittedly, Ta Kung Pao is not The New York Times. But if its take is true, the incident was not an isolated one.

JUNE 26. Australia v. Italy. Australia stays toe-to-toe with Italy for two full halves. Then, in the waning seconds of the game, Italy picks up a controversial penalty kick when striker Fabio Grosso is accidentally clipped by Australia’s Lucas Neill. Third-country TV commentators worldwide hem and haw over the contentious call. But CCTV color man Huang Jianxiang explodes, siding with Italy all the way:

“Penalty! Penalty! Penalty!”

“Grosso made it! He made it! Don’t give Australia any chance! Great Italian left back. Grosso alone represents the long history and traditions of Italian soccer. He is not fighting alone.”

(Totti converts the penalty shot.)

“It’s a goal! Game over! … Italy didn’t fall to (Guus) Hiddink’s team this time (Hiddink had led South Korea to oust Italy in the 2002 World Cup). Happy birthday to Paolo Maldini (born on June 26)! Long Live Italy! Long Live Italy!”

(Huang then turns to Australia): “Go home! But they don’t need to fly back as far as to Australia because most of them live in Europe. Bye-bye.”

“Australia reminded me of a lousy team which eliminated China in the World Cup qualifiers in 1981,” Huang continued in a link-up with the Beijing newsroom after the game. ”Australia is just like the New Zealand team that beat us in 1981.”

“It (Australia) is full of neutralized Australians who play and live in Britain. I don’t care about the Australian team and don’t want to see Australia have good results in the World Cup.

“Australia (which has joined the Asian Football Confederation) now will fight for an Asian World Cup berth and it may not be good enough to handle South Korea and Japan. But it will very likely take advantage of the Chinese team. So I don’t like it.”

On web sites the next morning, Chinese Netizens fumed over Huang’s his unrestrained partisanship. Some even concocted reports – unfounded – of Australians protesting his comments at their embassy in Beijing. That night on CCTV, another soccer host read out a letter of apology attributed to Huang. His future on the air is up in the air.

To be sure, most folks in China, as anywhere else, follow World Cup for the fun of it all. Only a small minority get so carried away. So it goes to figure that the few outbursts to occurred have garnered all the more attention in China. One final highlight…

JULY 1. France upsets Brazil. Reuters had the details from Nanjing the home of centuries of Chinese political power,:

An elderly Chinese man went on a rampage in Nanjing after Brazil’s defeat to France in the World Cup quarter-finals last weekend. The man ran amok in a city square hitting people with a stick and shouting” “The Brazilians lost! There is nothing worth watching! I don’t want to watch any more games!”

So much for “lowering the temperature”.

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