Very few footballing events symbolises the state of the wider society that it is played within. England’s win in 1966, perhaps, expressed in sports form of an age where the post-war Britain ‘never had it so good’. West Germany’s win at the rainy pitch of Wankdorf Stadium in Bern did not not only reflect, but probably also precipitated the Wirtschaftswunder that propelled a nation from the rabbles of physical and spiritual ruin to uplifting peace and prosperity.
But these two are just positive examples. Opposite the German team on the pitch on 4 July 1954 were the best team Hungary had ever to offer – Kocsis, Hidegkuti, and Puskás. Their eventual futile efforts is a microcosm of a country and a governmental system that never were. Heysel Disaster, also, reflected and British society that is deeply divided. More often than not, football shows its pessimism-inducing side.
Equally, in contemporary Chinese football, the ever so dangerous slide of northeastern teams in Chinese professional league football has also become lamentable and a shadow of the economic demise of an once-proud industrial belt. As local governments and corporations are hit by ever-growing debt and talent drain – which forces them to lay down even more stakes in the sanction-busting trade with North Korea, the Northeastern football teams are hit by scandals and dismal performance on the pitch. Their business model nowadays are increasingly bear a resemblance to a banana republic – selling their best players overall and the hottest young prospects to maintain the team, only for the teams to be hit by even more financial burdens resulted from disappointing scorelines in the actual matches. After this season, it won’t surprise me if we see no teams from the region that once boasted teams like Dalian Shide, which dominated Chinese football at the turn of the century and players – many of whom active are still, like Zheng Zhi, Feng Xiaoting, and Wang Dalei, some of the best in the current generation – that made the backbone that sent the national team to the World Cup in 2002.
So what happened? The turning point probably came a long time ago. In 2003, Zhang Yuning (not the one who now has few opportunities in Werder Bremen) joins Shanghai Shenhua for a then unimaginable official price tag of 4.9 million RMB (the reported actual price is somewhere around 8 million). A year later, Li Jinyu easily broke the record to join Shandong 12 for million. Ever since things turn always for Northeastern teams in their efforts in retaining the local talents. Even though in 2006 the Northeast managed to have four teams at the top flight in the same season and was able to replicate the achievement in 2012 and 2013, it did not cover up the fact that the gravity of power in Chinese football has irreversibly started to move southwards. Luneng and Shenhua were the teams everyone out there to beat. But beating they rarely did. Only in 2007 when both, especially Luneng, slipped, that Changchun Yatai won the League title under a charismatic and tactically innovative Gao Hongbo. That was the second season Yatai played in the Chinese Super League.
But it was not to be replicated. The arrival of Evergrande and (private) money football in Chinese leagues cement the power of teams of the south. The old business models of traditional kind proved more than unsustainable; even people at Guo’an and Luneng realised private capital is the key to footballing success. The Northeast tried to do the same with Aerbin, but what a scam that has turned out to be.
Football teams in the Northeast don’t entirely have only themselves to blame. The difficulty to attract investment is prevalent once you have gone past Shanhai Pass. But then people might argue Northeast football’s failings are the same as the rest of the region as the unwillingness to change and comply with the new rules set them apart and down from the rest of the country. The unusual display of cowardice is not helping, either: in 2012, Liaoning’s decision not to enter the qualification rounds of the AFC Champions’ League shocked its supporters as much as the rest of the Chinese football community. The reaction was the typical ‘I know they are shameless and low but I did not know they this shameless and low’. A full explanation was never given officially, even though it is widely understood they fear losing the qualification – an unlikely though possible outcome – and thereby dropping to a lesser competition, which will be bothersome for the team’s League campaign. The decision itself says more about Northeastern football in general and Liaoning in particular than this article could possibly articulate. Imagine a European team in UCL qualification quits for fear to drop to the Europa League.
Liaoning is done and dusted, in League One and probably even lower as they still managed to sell their best players to clubs such as Hebei and Suning in the transfer window that is about to close. But the man who partly made – or simply put up with the fateful and illustrative decision for Liaoning is back in CSL. Ma Lin is back in Dalian Yifang as the head coach. The Mr Yes of Chinese football was appointed by the local sports bureau, rather than the company that put money and effort into their promotion last season to guide their new season. Fans will be surprised if he is found to be a better manager than the Spaniard Juan Ramón López Caro. And as this is written, the local government might succeed in a takeover without having to pay.
Yatai might survive longer and give more of a fight, but it was only in 2016 that they were engaged in the relegation battle as well. Last season’s safe sailing can be a turning point, but also might prove short-lived. In CL1, two main Northeastern teams are the familiar names that are gradually more hated than loved – Liaoning and Yanbian. Dalian Transcendence and Heilongjiang Lava Spring might give Northeasterners hope, but that is different from expectation, let alone certainty. To paraphrase a now-infamous politician said when he entered and exited the high political arena, Liaoning and Yanbian were the future once. Wuhan Zall and Meixian should more than able to secure promotion if they don’t prove the biggest enemies of themselves. Give it a sigh, but don’t be too disappointed when there is no Northeastern team in the CSL in 2019; it is a eulogy that lasted 15 years.