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Saturday, February 10, 2007

QPR and China - Weekend Press Perspective

Times - Chinese brawl beats England’s witless wonders any day
You cannot beat a good grudge match as last week’s QPR ‘friendly’ showedRod Liddle
How would you rather have wasted your life on Wednesday evening? Watching an insipid and familiarly witless England side capitulate to Spain, those other European rank underachievers? Or enjoying the magnificent spectacle of Queens Park Rangers versus the People’s Republic of China — a cultural revolution if ever there was one? This was, as one of our tabloid newspapers had it, the “Peking Ruck”. The fun began when one of the Chinese midfield players, Zheng Tao, took rather literally Chairman Mao’s exhortation for a Great Leap Forward and attempted to decapitate a QPR player with a scissor kick. At which point he was hurled to the floor and had his head kicked in and jaw broken, remained unconscious for five minutes and was rushed to hospital, meaning he missed the rest of the game, which consisted entirely of a sparkling array of kung fu kicks, left hooks and mass brawling involving, so it is said, some 50 players. Indeed, club officials and spectators also took part: this was an inclusive game of football.

Marvellous stuff. But you know all this, because you probably watched the highlights on YouTube. Better than 90 minutes of watching Carrick pass the ball sideways to Lampard, who then passed it sideways back to Carrick who then, in a noble attempt to improve Anglo-Spanish relations — gave it straight to some chap in a red shirt. (Lampard was just terrific again, wasn’t he, by the way?)

The Chinese coach said after the QPR game that the whole business didn’t really live up to the Olympic ideal — a quote which gave me almost as much pleasure as the brawl itself. Never mind the Olympic ideal, mate; the QPR game destroyed half a century of cautious detente and gradual east-west reconciliation. If it had occurred during President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, the world might by now be a nuclear wasteland. You wonder what the QPR player can possibly have said to have provoked such a furiously athletic onslaught. That Taiwan should be recognised by the UN as the legitimate Chinese seat of government? That you can keep your bloody useless pandas, thank you very much? Or maybe, as a West Bromwich Albion player, on tour in China, once remarked while declining a club trip to the local tourist attraction: “Nah, I’ll give it a miss. See one wall, you’ve seen ’em all.” I’d love to know, but as the FA is now investigating the incident, I expect we’ll never find out.

Clearly, some grudge was working itself out on that training pitch, some slight, real or imagined, or occasioned through imperfect translation and misunderstanding. Football matches are always greatly improved by the intimation of loathing between the two sides, as Jose Mourinho well realises (but Frank Rijkaard apparently does not). It puts a certain malevolent spring in the step of all concerned; players and spectators. Normally I avert my eyes from Merseyside derby matches, as I cannot work out who I most want to lose; but next time around I’ll be glued to the screen. Rafa Benitez had no sooner suggested that Everton were merely a “small club” than the wreaths started piling up in Stanley Park and half the city was decked out in black armbands. He should have known better: Scousers, Rafa mate, take offence at a slightly quicker pace than the speed of light. David Moyes responded by saying that Everton were “the people’s club”, which is the same sort of consolation supporters of Manchester City cling to every time their team gets relegated in the same season that United win the European Cup, or the Premiership. And about as meaningful. The people’s club of Merseyside is surely Tranmere Rovers — but then we run into problems because they like to pretend they’re not part of Merseyside at all.

Are Everton a small club? Taken literally, they certainly are, compared to their city rivals. For example, they possess the smallest squad — by some margin — in the Premiership. But I don’t think Rafa meant that. He meant, I suspect, that Everton have neither Liverpool’s glorious past nor shining present. And whereas 20 years ago Everton, along with Spurs, Newcastle and Aston Villa, were regularly cast as footballing giants, likely candidates for a European super-league, now they have been backed into the position of perpetual also-rans, teams who begin the season with one eye on a Uefa Cup place and another cast balefully behind them at the relegation places. The economics of football means that these days every club, bar the top four, are “small” clubs and, what’s more, small clubs who might one day, through injudicious bookkeeping or overweening ambition, end up being very small clubs. I dare say that when Leeds United supporters make the unfamiliar trip to Carlisle next season they will still be telling themselves that they’re a big club; much as do the supporters of Nottingham Forest, Sheffield Wednesday and Wolves, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. A few decades back, “big” clubs that got themselves relegated — Chelsea, Spurs, Newcastle, even Manchester United — could reliably expect to be back among their peers within a season, or two seasons at most and maybe challenging for the title. The same rules no longer apply. Sink and you might very well stay sunk.

And fail to create a global brand attractive to punters from Jakarta to Seattle and you won’t end up in the top four. Times

The top 10 sporting punch-ups Sunday Times -February 11, 2007
A look at ten classic sporting brawls from the Battle of Berne to the shock intervention of Tony Wilson's motherDerek Clements

1 QPR v China
Seven members of China’s Olympic team were sent home following a mass brawl that occurred during their friendly with QPR on Wednesday. The game at Rangers’ training ground was halted after a fight during which China’s Zheng Tao was knocked out and suffered two cracks to his jaw. QPR chairman Gianni Paladini has hinted that he could sack some of the players involved in the fight, which included up to 30 people

2 Jan 2007
Ulster rugby fans watched in disbelief as Toulouse lock Trevor Brennan waded in amongst them and repeatedly punched a visiting supporter. Brennan says he was provoked by taunts about his mother. Ulster fan Patrick Bamford, who claimed to have suffered a fractured skull, denied any such comments

3 Mark Vermeulen
Zimbabwe Test player Mark Vermeulen threw a ball at the crowd during a Lancashire league match after being barracked and then had to be restrained by teammates after a fan punched him. Vermeulen returned home to Zimbabwe, where he was convicted of arson after starting a fire at his country’s national cricket academy

4 Battle of Berne 1954
Played in Berne, Switzerland, the 1954 World Cup quarter-final between Hungary and Brazil became notorious for its brutal tactics. English referee Arthur Ellis sent off three players and after the game, which Hungary won 4-2, the violence continued as the incensed Brazilians invaded the Hungarian dressing room

5 Hartson kicks Berkovic in the head
John Hartson and Eyal Berkovic were training together for West Ham in 1998 when Hartson swung his left boot into the face of Berkovic, who was unable to eat for two days and, according to some, lucky to be alive. Television deemed images of the incident too gruesome to screen

6 Newcastle 2005
Graeme Souness always encouraged his players to show fighting spirit but he should have explained to teammates Kieron Dyer and Lee Bowyer that it was not meant to be directed at one another. The two players came to blows during a home defeat by Aston Villa in April 2005. Although Souness was quick to point the finger of blame at Bowyer, both players were banned

7 Wimbledon press punch-up 1981
John McEnroe stormed out of a press conference after being grilled by an English reporter about his break-up with girlfriend Stacy Margolin. On his way out, Mac accused the British of being ‘liars and s****’. After his departure, the press proved him right by brawling among themselves

8 College Football, Florida v Miami
The university teams came up with a unique way of reducing the size of their squads. After a Miami touchdown fists began to fly and both teams had a host of players sent from the field

9 Tony Wilson’s Mum
Tony Wilson fought Steve McCarthy in September 1989, was knocked down, stumbled to his feet and found himself cornered on the ropes. As the referee appeared to stop the fight, it was the cue for Mamma Wilson, aka Milna, to enter the ring and set about the bemused McCarthy with her high-heeled shoes

10 Ayrton Senna
Eddie Irvine will never forget his first Formula One race, the 1993 Japanese Grand Prix. Ayrton Senna lapped Irvine but failed to press home his advantage. Irvine wasn’t one to sit back and relax so, when the opportunity presented itself, he simply overtook Senna. The Brazilian was furious at Irvine’s cheek. At the end of the race, he went looking for the new boy and had to be held back as punches rained down on Irvine Sunday Times

Need to win sends Chinese crackers in modern-day Boxer Rebellion
By Jim White
Last Updated: 12:23am GMT 10/02/2007

Comment on this story Read comments

Telegraph TV: Chinese go crackers at QPR
Your View: Football fans' forum

If you missed it as it ran continuously on BBC News 24 on Thursday, don't worry, you can catch it on Telegraph TV (see above). It's also on YouTube, where the footage of the cultural exchange between members of the Chinese Olympic football team and players from Queens Park Rangers is already up there with the sneezing panda in the list of most-played clips.

And no wonder, the footage does make extraordinary viewing. This is what we see: after a couple of niggly tackles and off-the-ball shoves, the Chinese striker, Gao Lin, behaving as if he is an extra from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, suddenly leaps at a QPR opponent, wraps his legs around the player's waist and starts boxing his ears. As the Englishman struggles to free himself, the pair fall to the turf. At which point, not only do all the other Chinese and English players on the pitch join in, but so do half the members of the Chinese coaching staff. The scrap that ensues is far more aggressive than the standard push-me-pull-you of football handbags. When order is finally restored, the footage shows one of the visitors spark out on the ground. This, it turns out, is the defender, Zheng Tao, who was taken to hospital with a fractured jaw. The match was immediately abandoned by the referee, Dermot Gallagher, and the police called to impose calm.

In the aftermath, the Chinese football authorities rather pre-empted the inquiry ordered by the Football Association when they paraded Gao Lin before the visiting media in order to apologise to the Chinese nation. He hung his head in shame like the defendant in a show trail during the cultural revolution. In contrast, the principal reaction locally can be summed up by the comedian Nick Hancock. After showing the footage on his ITV programme, Hancock's Half Time, he suggested that though we all know such behaviour is inexcusable, the average English fan cannot help but smile. Mass brawls like this are something many of us find amusing.

This was certainly not a view shared in China. "Chinese soccer sank to a new low on Wednesday when a supposedly friendly encounter descended into an ugly brawl that was more like a kung-fu movie than the beautiful game," reported the English-language China Daily. The thrice weekly sports magazine, Titan, opined that "these players are like firewood. One spark and they explode."

The weary tone of such reporting suggests that incidents like that at QPR are not isolated. And indeed, just as it was once said by a disgruntled former coach of Eric Cantona that wherever he went he was followed by the whiff of cordite, so a similar stink clings to much of Chinese football. The Olympic team are in Europe as part of their preparations for next year's Games back home in Beijing. An early encounter was in the south of France, where a fixture against Marseille's development side was punctuated by fouls and fisticuffs. This was quickly brushed under the carpet when the Chinese arrived in England to much fanfare as guests of Chelsea. The Stamford Bridge hierarchy presented the visit as part of their ambitious plans to colonise the Asian football market, speaking loftily of co-operation and partnership. There was little evidence of that, however, as the visitors were soon complaining of inadequate facilities at Chelsea's Cobham training ground and taking out their frustrations during a game with the club's reserves, an ill-tempered, niggly affair that rather undermined the term friendly. And then came the bout with QPR, in which, according to one eye witness, the Chinese reacted to the robust physicality of their hosts like men spoiling for a fight.

"To understand what is going on you have to understand that men's football occupies a very special position in China," says Ping Wu, a former journalist for Titan who is undertaking a research fellowship at De Montfort University in Bedford. "There is a saying in China: men's football is the drainage for the nation's bad mood."

Despite hosting the Olympics next year, China is not a sporting society. Most people don't play games; if they keep fit at all, it is through Tai Chi. Sport is entirely an elite business, its purpose political, to bring kudos to the Chinese state. In order to further that aim, children are singled out at an early age according to their physical type: the tall become basketball players, the tiny gymnasts. Their parents are paid a salary and the youngsters are trained in a militarised way in special sports academies, seven or eight hours a day from the age of six. With virtually no time for education, many sports people grow up functionally illiterate. The pressure on them to succeed is consequently intensified: not only does the state demand reflected glory, but they personally need to achieve, otherwise, in an increasingly sophisticated labour market, if cast away from sport, they can find themselves on the employment scrapheap.

Thus, winning is all that matters in China. The problem for the nation's footballers is that they don't win often enough. They have only qualified for one World Cup and their Olympic and Asian Championship record is poor. Paradoxically, as professional football is easily the most commercially successful sport, they are the richest athletes in the country. That puts them in a tricky position.

"China is strong at volleyball, badminton, women's football. So it would be unpatriotic to criticise these sports in the media," says Ping Wu. "Men's football is a target of hostility because they are rich but rubbish."

Now, that sounds familiar.

"Chinese media is only just emerging from the propaganda model," adds Wu. "Newspapers are now not state subsidised, they have to make their own way. They have studied western media and have come to believe bad news sells. They look to men's football to provide that bad news. Men's football is really the one area of Chinese society where you can openly criticise."

All this means, wherever the men's teams go, they are trailed by a small army of media-camp followers, looking for poor behaviour to fill the vast acreage of newsprint devoted to the sport. There has been plenty to report, like the time in 1999 when three players were caught in a bar with prostitutes the night before a game with Vietnam, or the friendly tournament in Beijing in 2005 so disrupted by fighting that it was abandoned. No wonder the first thing Chinese team manager Li Xiaoguang felt obliged to do after the battle of QPR was to say sorry, not to the country or the football community, but to "our friends in the media." It was damage limitation.

Maybe, then, as we watch them scrapping away on Telegraph TV, we shouldn't laugh too hard at the Chinese footballers. Ill-educated, suffering from a persecution complex, under enormous personal pressure to succeed yet rarely doing so, it is hardly a surprise that they snap so easily. And to think, on Wednesday night Gary Neville was complaining that England's players have a tough time of things. Sunday Telegraph


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