China may not have qualified for the 2018 World Cup but there were nine players from Chinese Super League clubs in Russia. It was a reflection of the number of big-name players that have headed to the league since 2010 when clubs started to splash the cash on foreign talent.
More stars also mean more international attention but that can be a double-edged sword. A decade ago, incidents in the Chinese Super League went unnoticed abroad.
But that is not the case now as events this week demonstrated. With 11 minutes remaining of the 2018 Chinese Super League clash between Changhchun Yatai and Shanghai Shenhua on Aug. 4, most of the 15,000 plus crowd would have agreed that the game was heading for a fairly unremarkable 1-1 draw.
Then Demba Ba collided with an opponent and a few seconds later the Senegalese striker, well-known around the world for his past European career, grew visibly upset with Changchun midfielder Zhang Li. The referee gave both players a yellow card and that seemed to be that.
It wasn’t. A few minutes after the final whistle, Shanghai boss Wu Jingui gave his club’s version of what had happened.
“I learned that a Yatai player used insulting language toward [Ba],” Wu said in the post-match press conference. “Around the world, it has been stressed that there should be no insulting speech toward black athletes. The Chinese Super League has players of many different skin colors. We should respect our opponents and there should be no discrimination.”
Ba, who has played in France, Germany, Turkey and most notably in England with Chelsea, Newcastle and West Ham, did not publicly comment but did retweet a post from a fan that called for an investigation from the Chinese Football Association, or CFA, into the affair.
The CFA did just that and launched the first investigation into racist abuse on the football pitch that any Chinese football observer can remember. “We will investigate the event,” the CFA said. “If it is confirmed that racist language was used then we will punish the player.”
Three days after the game, both Ba and Zhang attended a hearing in Beijing. The Senegalese striker said that he had been the target of racist language. Zhang denied doing so.
By that time, Changchun had denied any wrongdoing, with reports appearing in the local media as to just what a great guy Zhang was, showing him joking around with team-mates of different races.
“He used Chinese, I used English, it is the same,” Zhang said afterward. “Maybe I was emotional and excited but there was absolutely no racial discrimination. Chinese players rarely have racism. They have played football [soccer] for so many years with lots of contact and help from foreign players. They have always been friends.”
Shanghai’s media were unconvinced. Still, the CFA has proved it is willing to act although it is not going to have an easy time as football governing bodies have found in the past.
There tend to be two kinds of racist abuse in football.
The first comes from the fans toward players and is usually easier to identify and punish. Italy has had issues for years. Famously, the president of the country’s football federation complained about “banana eaters” entering the league, which appeared to be a reference about black players.
Much of the abuse had come from the fans. It reached such a level last year that Pescara’s Ghanaian star Sulley Muntari walked off the pitch in protest after chants and insults from opposing supporters. His action was supported by some in the country but not all.
There were worries in Russia ahead of the World Cup as the country has long had issues. Leading club side Zenit St Petersburg has been fined by UEFA, European football’s governing body, on more than one occasion due to racist chants and abuse from fans.
Dealing with racism from the fans is usually more a clear-cut issue. The controversy here is more about the perceived leniency in punishments with Zenit getting fined just 50,000 euros (US$57,293) for the racist behavior, a paltry amount in the top levels of European football or soccer.
There is also the case of racism that takes place on the football pitch from player-to-player and this is harder to prove.
The Premier League in England, the most popular and cosmopolitan in the world, has not been without its problems on this field. In 2011, England captain John Terry was accused of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand.
The case dragged on for a year. Terry admitted using racist language but claimed that he was being sarcastic and that he was questioning what he thought was an accusation of racism from Ferdinand. In the end, Terry was stripped of the captaincy and never played for his country again.
Around the same time, Liverpool striker Luis Suarez was accused of racially abusing Patrice Evra of Manchester United. Again, there was an acceptance that Suarez had referred to Evra’s skin color but there were claims that it was almost a term of endearment in his native Uruguay.
Suarez was hit with a ban although his club Liverpool continued to support him.
The CFA has little experience in this regard as the federation is not packed with football people. In fact, they are more like government officials – accustomed to working quietly and in the shadows.
But the CFA moved quickly on Friday, finding Zhang guilty of racist language and hitting him with a six-game ban, as well as a 42,000 yuan ($6,100) fine.
The fact that there was an investigation at all shows how much Chinese football has changed and is still changing. That the CFA moved so quickly also shows how seriously they took the situation. An example has been set.
The CFA tends to adopt a low profile and says as little as possible. It rarely gets involved with anything remotely controversial. That is about to change. The same can be said of the interest and coverage from overseas. We are all waiting to see where we go from here.