Spectators raise Tibetan flags at the match between TSV Schott Mainz and China's under-20 team at in Mainz-Mombach, Germany, on November 18, 2017. Photo: Hasan Bratic / dpa
Spectators raise Tibetan flags at the match between TSV Schott Mainz and China's under-20 team at in Mainz-Mombach, Germany, on November 18, 2017. Photo: Hasan Bratic / dpa

After less than 30 minutes of play, the under-20 Chinese national football team left the pitch in protest, sparking international controversy around the first of a series of ‘friendly’ matches it was due to contest in Germany. The unfurling of four Tibetan flags, and an accompanying “free Tibet” chant, at the November 18 match, were provocations manager Sun Jihai could not ignore.

Had he done so, the incident would have merited little more than a paragraph on an otherwise ordinary lower-division game. Instead, the demonstration, and the fate of future matches, became the topic of intense debate on talk shows in Germany, Asia, and with football fans worldwide. How it all came to this is an intriguing story.

China has been very keen, in recent years, to make inroads on the global sporting landscape, and part of the national strategy is to learn from global champions. With this aim in mind, Chinese authorities reached out to German officials to help further China’s so-far negligible gains in world football. A plan to allow the Chinese under-20 squad to compete in Germany’s fourth tier was hastily agreed. It backfired even quicker.

The contract, drawn up by the German Football Association (DFB), was met with skepticism by many senior figures in German football, and by fan groups. They called the inclusion of a Chinese team a “money grab” – not entirely a spurious claim, since participating teams each received a €15,000 (US$17,600) payment. The DFB, noting that the Regionalliga Südwest (one of five regional leagues that make up the fourth “division” of German football) only had 19 participants, believed that finding a 20th would be expedient. Inviting the Chinese team to fill out the fixture list – as part of a five-year agreement and playing matches on a ‘friendly,’ non-competitive basis – seemed like an ideal solution.

Roll on the first match, and among a crowd of 400 people, six protestors – four Tibetans and two Germans – brought the action to a standstill after unfurling Tibetan “snow lion” flags. Even the demonstrators themselves were surprised by the team’s reaction and by the impact their protest engendered.

The incident took on heightened significance when Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang referred to it in a press briefing. “We are firmly opposed to any country or any individual offering support to separatist, anti-China and terrorist activities, or activities defending Tibet independence, in any form or under any pretext,” he said. “I must stress that mutual respect is what the official host should provide their guest, and that respect between any two countries should be mutual.”

Iran’s Masoud Shojaei (right) fights for the ball with China’s Zhag Xizhe (left) during a 2018 World Cup qualifying football match in Tehran on March 28, 2017. China are ranked a lowly 60th in the world by Fifa. Photo: AFP / Atta Kenare

The Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, backed the manager’s decision in an editorial, citing Fifa (football’s international governing body) regulations that restrict political banners at games. “China’s national junior team handled themselves correctly, demanding that German authorities take action against the flag of advocates of Tibetan independence. The German authorities should be ashamed that they did not have control in the stadium.”

Minister Lu Kang’s remarks did not receive a response from German government officials, but they did fuel further media debate.

The league’s chairman, Ronny Zimmermann – who is also President of the South German Football Association (SFB) and Vice President of the DFB – had initially condemned the protest, saying: “We want to be good hosts, and as a result we are not happy with this incident. We condemn the use of football as a deliberate provocation against our guests.” However, he now reassessed his position, stating: “We cannot ban the protests, there is the right to freedom of expression here and certain rules apply. As a guest, you should be able to handle it calmly and stand above such actions.”

Kicker, Germany’s leading football magazine, seemed conflicted, but chose to genuflect somewhat to the Chinese stance. “Freedom of expression is an inviolable good of a democracy, but sport and sporting events should stay politically neutral. Football should unify, not separate.”

Mostly unmentioned in reports is that after play resumed against TSV Schott Mainz – the Free Tibet protestors having voluntarily removed their flags – the host team ran out 3-0 winners

The only real winners, in fact, have been Tibet-Initiative Germany’s volunteers, whose objective of bringing attention to the plight of Tibetans has been achieved. One activist at the game told Deutsche Presse Agentur: “We want to draw attention to the unlawful and violent occupation of Tibet and the suppression of fundamental human rights.”

China deployed troops and occupied the Himalayan region after the communist revolution in 1949, under the pretense that Tibet is historically and intrinsically part of China. Accusations of persecution of Buddhist culture followed, and China, in response, allowed the establishment of a Tibetan autonomous region in 1965. That has done little to quell international protest, however, and the current Dalai Lama – the Tibetans’ spiritual leader, who lives in exile in India –  has become an international symbol of religious freedom.

The protest at the first game led to the cancellation of three matches (against FSV Frankfurt, Wormatia Worms, and Bundesliga club Hoffenheim’s reserves), and the postponement of any further fixtures until February 2018. FSV Frankfurt’s president, Michael Görner, was emphatic in his support of the right to protest. “The club’s position on the issue is clear,” he said. “We will not back a single centimeter off the basic rights of our democracy, including those relating to freedom of speech.”

With German football now entering a four-week Christmas break, all parties have the chance to reflect and weight their options. The uncertainty and social fallout have been frustrating for Chinese under-20 manager Sun Jihai, a former Chinese international who was, somewhat inexplicably, inducted into English football’s Hall of Fame in 2015 (he spent an unremarkable few seasons at Manchester City from 2002-2008).

“The team came to Germany to improve their football and to gain experience,” he said after the match. “I expected football to be talked about, but now it is about something else. For me, this was a friendly match, and I hope it will just be about football here and nothing else.” The opposing manager, TSV Schott Mainz’s Till Pleuger, showed little sympathy off the field: “We see it as apolitical. Just as the Chinese are allowed to hang their flags, others are also allowed to do the same.”

Most now expect the program to quietly end at the beginning of the new year, but the DFB holds out hope of carrying on. “We sincerely regret having to postpone the series, and want to clarify in dialogue how to continue the project in the near future,” it said in a statement. “It is the firm intention of both associations to further strengthen the mutual connection.”

Sun Jihai, who is now the coach of China’s under-20s team, is seen (right) in his Manchester City days, vying with Spanish striker Fernando Torres, then of Liverpool, during an English Premier league football match at Anfield, Liverpool, on May 4, 2008. Photo: AFP / Andrew Yates

Ronny Zimmerman is also seeking reconciliation. “We will now look for a conversation with the Chinese delegation on this topic, and recommend they handle such incidents more calmly. We believe this adjournment is essential in order to give us the time needed to discuss the situation calmly and openly, and find a reasonable solution. The two federations will try to work out a way of relaunching the project again quickly.”

The goal of the extended German stay was to galvanize the Chinese team and improve its chances at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo (Olympic football competitions are contested by players under 23) as China looks to evolve into a global force in the world’s most popular game. China’s own league structure is set to add 10 new professional teams to its roster next year and interest is said to be growing among the population. At senior level, the national team is currently ranked a lowly 60th in the world, however, and the under-20s have shown little sign so far that they can raise the bar. Mostly unmentioned in reports is that after play resumed against TSV Schott Mainz – the Free Tibet protestors having voluntarily removed their flags – the host team ran out 3-0 winners.

Read: Six takeaways from football’s Chinese Super League in 2017

A cancellation of the series would be a setback for both countries – on sporting grounds for the Chinese, as they seek to develop young players, and in a commercial sense for the DFB, which is keen to establish a foothold in China’s sporting market.

Klaus Schlappner, a German who briefly managed the Chinese national team in the 1990s, warned China’s football authorities: “You have to ignore such protests. I told that clearly to the U-20 representatives who traveled to Germany. This is a bad setback for German-Chinese football friendship, which we build up over many years.” Schlappner’s prediction: “I think they (China) will now go to Spain or England.”

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