If such a small scale protest can derail German football’s new relationship with China’s under-20 team, then why even bother trying? DW’s Matt Pearson writes that this is an idea that should have been a non-starter.
After negative reaction from fans, a mixed reception from clubs and plenty of manoeuvring from two major world powers, all it took was a handful of protesters and a flag to derail German football's first tentiative steps to welcome Chinese teams into the fold.
Six spectators holding a Tibetan flag at a match between TSV Schott Mainz and China’s under-20s caused the Chinese players to leave the pitch, spawned headlines around the world and the following terse statement from Beijing:
"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," China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters at a Monday press briefing in Beijing.
Compare the words above with those of Ronny Zimmermann, the German football association's (DFB) vice president, and the fact that this plan was doomed from the get-go hits you between the eyes.
"We live in Germany. We have freedom of expression," he said. "As guests, you should be able to handle that calmly and rise above it."
The walkout, and subsequent decision to abandon the matches scheduled for the rest of this year, proves the visitors simply couldn't handle it. This should have been obvious from the start. Germany’s culture of free speech and China's less relaxed attitude to the free expression of thought are incompatible.
And what was the point of it all anyway? For China it was sold as preparation for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics along with the vague notion of improving the standard of the global game in the country. Quite how a 3-0 loss to a fourth-tier outfit last Saturday, followed by a string of similarly low-key friendly encounters, would improve young Chinese players is not entirely clear to this observer.
For the DFB and the clubs the incentive is clearer. And it comes in the form of numbers rather than hopes. For some, but not all, of the clubs in the Regionalliga Südwest the €15,000 ($17,800) fee for playing the visitors from the Far East proved enough to salve any sporting concerns they may have had. For the DFB, potential future access to the Chinese broadcast market trumped the sporting implications of allowing a foreign side into the competition – even if they watered down the initial plan to make them the league’s 20th full member.
At a time when the DFB is drawing criticism from fans over its changing attitude towards the 50+1 rule, the implementation of VAR and its treatment of the fans, an experiment driven by a desire to put more money in the coffers, rather than to improve the sport for the people who care about it, was misguided and cynical. At best.