China Football Expert Cameron Wilson on the Crisis in the Game

By Ned Kelly, March 12, 2021

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The founder of Wild East Football, Cameron Wilson is a leading international commentator on Chinese football who frequently contributes to and is quoted by the world’s top media. Known to offer piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China, we caught up with him ahead of a China Football Forum panel discussion he will be taking part on Tuesday, March 16.

You recently wrote a heartfelt piece about your disillusionment with Chinese football that was subsequently translated into Chinese and went viral – were you surprised by that? And why do you think it struck such a chord?
I’ve featured many times in Chinese footy media over the years, and after I wrote a few stories for the Guardian a couple of years back the interest level intensified, so I wasn’t surprised. However, I was surprised the piece was translated so faithfully, so I respect them for that, especially at a time when it’s more difficult than ever to make constructive criticism in China.

I think people saw it for what it was – the honest opinion of a foreigner who had been supporting Chinese football for years. I think the Chinese media quote foreigners when they agree with at least some of what they are saying, especially if it’s things they can’t readily say themselves. Overall, I believe they understood that I have the game’s best interests at heart despite some harsh words.

You have been a passionate follower and chronicler of Chinese football for well over a decade – when did your disillusionment begin?
It was a gradual and difficult journey involving conflicting and painful feelings. Being a foreigner in China is all about joining the dots yourself – there’s so many things here no one will tell you, you need to work it out yourself. 

Over years of observation, patterns emerge and much of what I could see in Chinese football was pretty ugly. Seeing how political the game was and realizing the football was irrelevant was a soul-destroying realization. I thought about quitting, but the whole thing caused me to think about how I got into football in the first place. 

My dad worked in the pits in the 1980s and was involved in the Miners Strike. When he first took me to watch Dunfermline in the Scottish third tier, it was in the aftermath of that, and a very difficult time for a lot of people in West Fife. It highlighted how football was an escape and something which brought people together in challenging circumstances. These two things are still true today.

People around the world – including seasoned sport journalists – were astonished when Chinese champions Jiangsu announced they had gone under. To outsiders not familiar with the situation, can you explain how it could come to happen?
I wish I could say I was astonished as well, but I can’t. Conglomerates bankroll Chinese football clubs, mainly to be seen to be supporting government aims, and they derive a lot of brownie points from that. I think a range of pressures including slowdown of globalization, international tensions, the pandemic and a focus on the domestic economy as part of the “dual circulation” strategy have caused both business and government to focus on things they consider more important than Chinese football.

This is why there is no buyer for Jiangsu FC after Suning put them up for sale, and is why they look almost certain to no longer exist despite being crowned Chinese champions just a couple of months back. It’s tragic and a bitter reminder of just how far football has to go in China.

READ MORE: Chinese Super League Champions Jiangsu FC Go Bust

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2020 Chinese Champions Jiangsu Suning. Image via CGTN

In your article you say everything in Chinese football is about the bottom line. In what way does that manifest itself that takes it further than we see in Europe?

That’s the best question I’ve ever been asked about Chinese football. There’s just barely any examples I can think of in China where football sensibilities are put first. For example, in Europe you have got one-club men who could have easily moved to bigger clubs but didn’t because they put their love for their club over ambition, money or winning medals. Matt Le Tissier at Southampton for example. In China players only stay at one club because they simply have no better option. Football just never comes first in China. 

On the terraces, “civilized behaviour” trumps fan culture each time. For example, Shenhua fans are banned from bringing toy turtles into the stadium to wind up Beijing Guoan fans. And back home fans might grumble about 12 noon kickoffs or other anti-social times for TV purposes, but that’s nothing compared to matches in China often taking place during the middle of most people’s working day, for reasons which in 20 years following Chinese football I have yet to hear a sensible explanation for.

And then when it comes to letting kids play football, it’s no problem to do this in Europe or other places where the game is popular. But in China – the pressure for kids to spend every waking hour of their entire life preparing for gaokao (China’s annual college entrance exam) is intense. 

I suppose the takeaway here is that the bottom line is just harder for everyone to avoid in China than elsewhere. It is not really Chinese people’s fault.

READ MORE: Explainer: Everything You Need to Know About the Gaokao

Soon after the Chinese leadership declared the development of football to be a major goal, we saw a lot of silly money being spent on big names. Beyond that, how much did it lead to investment in grass roots development and facilities?
I think there have been a lot of investments in facilities and honest efforts to develop the game at grassroots level, but the underlying problem is a lack of a mainstream football culture in China to generate a more natural kind of desire among people to play or contribute to developing the game.

Everything here is top down, and that leaves little breathing space for spontaneity or autonomous football movements. Everything either has to be officially approved, or paid for; football has a hard time existing by itself in the unforgiving urban environment of China.

Just think about Shanghai – what can you actually do in this city without having to spend money? Playing any kind of sports is difficult due to the lack of space, available facilities and – crucially – most people just don’t have time as the pressure to take care of the bottom line is immense here.

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Wilson with a fellow fan. Image courtesy of Cameron Wilson

What do you think about the bringing of naturalized players into the Chinese National Team?
The great thing about Chinese football is that it attracts Chinese people who tend to be more open-minded and eager to connect with the outside world through football. In this way I think the naturalized players are a good thing, because it leads to a broadening of the often narrow definition of what it means to be 'Chinese.'

On the flip side, I’m not convinced all the naturalized players have a genuine affinity or sense of belonging to China, and ultimately that just cheapens the whole concept of international football, as we have seen elsewhere before.

You write passionately about your respect for Chinese football fans  do you think they will ever get the respect back that they deserve?
I doubt it. Fans are disrespected everywhere – just look at the latest nauseating attempts to reform the UEFA Champions League to let rich clubs who weren’t good enough to qualify get in, just because they are rich.

All this disguised as an attempt to appeal to 'Global Fans,' when it simply about bigger profits for already extremely wealthy companies, and absolutely nothing else. This is a gesture of utter contempt not just for fans, but for football itself. This is happening at the top of football so it inevitably sets the tone further down the food chain.

Fans are used and abused by politicians and big business the world over with scant regard given to the vital contribution they make to the sport. As long as the obvious fact that match-going fans are essential to football is not fully acknowledged by those in power, nothing will change.

Finally, what can people expect from the China Football Forum discussion?
A frank and honest discussion of what his wrong and how we can help Chinese football improve. I will be mostly focusing on the fundamental role culture plays in Chinese football, and pointing out that this can only be developed in an organic manner by ordinary people largely without business or politics trying to own it and control and exploit it. 

At almost every Chinese football conference I have been at, it’s basically a business conference filled with people who aren’t really into the sport, talking about how the can make some coin from it. This one will be very different and involve a much wider scope in an effort to start a bigger conversation about what actually needs to change.

Plus, there will be beers and at least some actual fans there, so expect some banter, laughs and anecdotes to liven it up and stop it getting too serious.


China’s Football Crisis Discussion

Tuesday, March 16 Cameron Wilson joined on stage by William Bi and Jeffrey Wilson at China Football Forum’s discussion on the state of Chinese football. You must register on WeChat ahead of time in order to attend – to do that, scan the QR on the flyer:

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[Cover image courtesy of Cameron Wilson]

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