Within five months, another Chinese men’s national team were eliminated from an all-important tournament’s qualifier. On 15th January, China’s U23 team lost 1-2 to Qatar in a bitterly fought match with only 10 men, having led the game from fourth minute. Zhang Yuning’s injury and He Chao‘s red card proved the turning points. Almoez Ali scored a brace afterwards to send Massimiliano Maddaloni’s boys packing. But unlike the Doha victory 5 months ago, which gave supporters cause for renewed optimism, the defeat in Changzhou incensed almost every possible group in Chinese football.
The decisions made by the referee, Iranian Alireza Faghani,were controvesial and caused an Internet storm in China. The Chinese team received 7 yellow cards, including two for He Chao in contrast to Qatar’s only one for the goalscorer Faghani. Three yellows for China were for dissenting. Tameem Al Muhaza, the Qatari right-back, made an expressive challenge on Hu Jinhang towards the end of the game but only received an verbal warning. He Chao’s yellow-carded tackles were relatively small and less careless.
So it is no surprise that the referee became the target for everyone’s wrath after the game. But the fire soon spread. The fans expressed vitriolic attacks on the Chinese Football Association, which is widely considered as incompetent and tolerant towards injustices done to their own team. ‘Home matches are like away matches, away matches funerals’ become the mantra on the Chinese Internet. Worse, the FA is thought by some as in cahoots with the continental association, which ‘is controlled by West Asians’.
He Wei, a renowned football commentator known to fans as ‘poet He’, wrote sarcastically on the Chinese social media site Weibo that people who thought the new U23 policy in the Chinese Super League last season was successful – a team must start a u23 player every game – are no longer talking. The Chinese FA described the policy as vindicated in an article on its website after the first game’s victory over Oman. The article has since been removed.
More unusually, Zhang Yuning, the Werder Bremen forward who suffers from injury and lack of real-match experience in the Bundesliga this season, strikes at ‘the leadership’ for ‘not changing and not tough’. The striker later made a second statement saying he was talking about logistics during the tournament.
Nobody is going to think about it the way the FA want they to. The damage has already been done and calls to go for Gou Zhongwen, the deeply unpopular Sports Minister and principal author of the U23 policy, which is set to be doubled down in 2018 season, are growing at a precipitous rate. Fans have already no-showed at subsequent games; don’t be surprised if they manage to sneak a banner or two into a CSL game in the new season.