The road to the Olympics has begun for China's U20 team. A friendly at fourth-division TSV Schott Mainz saw the Chinese players walk off the field after activists unfurled a Tibetan flag.
Football fans in the western German city of Mainz had two options when it came to watch live matches on Saturday: Bundesliga side 1.FSV Mainz 05 played host to Cologne at the Opel Arena, while at the Mombach sports ground fourth-division TSV Schott Mainz hosted the newest face in regional football in Germany – China's U20s.
After an agreement signed by the German football association (DFB) and the Chinese government in June 2016 aimed at raising the level of football in the Middle Kingdom, it was decided that China's U20s would join Germany's 19-team southwestern regional league- the fourth tier of the German football pyramid. The most immediate aim is to prepare the young national team for their qualifying campaign for the 2020 Olympics.
For clubs like TSV Schott Mainz, the fee of €15,000 ($17,700) for the matches they play against the would-be Olympians come as a welcome shot in the arm. They also help round out the schedule in a league that is one down from its usual 20 teams this season.
"We have 19 teams in our league. When one of those teams is exempted, it makes sense to add a friendly match," Schott Mainz coach Till Pleuger said.
"Of course, the financial component is important. Even if we are sponsored by a local company (Schott), we are still a sports club with 28 different disciplines. And we are really small compared to other teams in this division. We just got promoted and we have a lot of expenses, like upgrading of the stadium, the cost of which is estimated at €250,000."
Despite the cold of a November weekend on the banks of the Rhine, around 400 spectators turned out to watch the first outing of China's U20s. It's hardly surprising that there were plenty of journalists but there were also some local fans and – of course – Chinese spectators. Around 50 Chinese fans huddled in one corner of the stands cheering every skillful move from their U20 team.
Mainz dominated the opening minutes, but China's young stars resisted. The Chinese team even created the best chance of the first half and they almost scored on a header after some neat combination play from a corner kick.
Tibetan flag interrupts the game
Midway through the first half, the game was interupted when the Chinese players left the field as one. It quickly became apparent that this was because a number of activists had unfurled a flag of Tibet, which the Chinese players clearly regarded as a provocation. The activists were quickly surrounded by security officers, and one ot them gave a television interview.
"We didn't do this to interrupt the game,” said Tenzin Thabye Nanglo, a 30-year-old Tibetan man who came to Germany in 2013 as a refugee. "We just unfurled our flag to show the TV channels in China that we still exist, that we haven't given up. In China we have no freedom of speech. Here, a Chinese man came to me and wanted to take my flag away, but I'm not here to pick a fight. It was a peaceful act."
The Chinese team refused to return to the field until the flags were taken down.
"I came here today because it was a unique opportunity to see stars of the future,” said Hang, a Chinese student who has lived in Germany for the past three years. "It's a pity that this game has been interrupted because of a political action. Politics have no place in a football stadium," he added.
After around half an hour the activists removed their Tibetan flags and the Chinese U20 team returned to the field. Despite more rousing support – including a passionate rendition of their national anthem - the break seemed to have disrupted the flow of the young Chinese team. Mainz asserted their control over the match, scoring two before the halftime break.
Press conference no show
The story was much the same in the second 45 minutes. The fourth-division side was the better of the two, and as much as the Chinese team tried to resist, they remained ineffective.
"They are too harmless," commented an elderly Mainz supporter. Moments later, the Chinese U20 team proved the man's the point by wasting a good opportunity to pull one back. Worse yet, the home side countered with a third goal less than 30 seconds later, running out 3-0 winners.
China's U20s didn't disgrace themselves, but both the head coach, former Manchester City player Sun Jihai and team manager Shao Jiayi (known in Germany for his time with 1860 Munich and Energie Cottbus) know their young and inexperienced group still has a lot to learn. How they'll go about that improvement remains unclear as the Chinese delegation left quickly after the game and no team official showed up for the post-match press conference.