China’s Literary Obsession with Soccer11 min read

From Maradona to Mo Yan Dave Haysom


The author Chen Cun had a good line about the twin failures that seemed destined to forever vex the population of China: the failure to have any success at the World Cup, and the failure to win a Nobel Prize in Literature.

That line had to be revised when Mo Yan brought home the Nobel in 2012. But the connection between the two prizes must have stuck, because two years later someone had the bright idea of shipping Mo Yan out to Brazil to offer his thoughts on the World Cup. This year’s competition, he concluded, had a hint of magical realism about it (“as if some invisible hand in the heavens was moving the ball around”), while the scale of Germany’s 7-1 defeat of Brazil was “unexpected.”

Nobel Laureate Mo Yan enjoys himself at the Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro (QQ)

Mo Yan’s reasonable solution to China’s continuing failure at football (to use the English term, and the literal translation of the Chinese word zuqiu) was to encourage more children to start playing the sport. “There are some kids in remote mountainous regions who will probably never kick a football their entire life,” he observed. Thanks to Xi Jinping’s “World Cup Dream,” that process is now underway: tens of thousands of schools will be introducing football to PE class, as part of an ambitious plan that aspires to bring football truly home by 2050. For the moment, however, China’s national team still brings only disappointment. During the latest round of World Cup qualifiers, China’s failure to beat Hong Kong stirred up memories of the “5.19 incident” of 1985, when a 2-1 defeat led to furious Chinese fans running amok around the Workers’ Stadium in Beijing.

But the national team’s failure to qualify does nothing to diminish interest in the competition. As international viewers may have vaguely registered through the increased presence of Chinese branding at stadiums, the World Cup is massively popular in China. Walk into almost any restaurant in Beijing and a TV will be showing an endless loop of replays, highlights, commentary, and football-themed gameshow contests. Chinese fans are having the same arguments about the new video assistant referees as everyone else in the world. Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar glower from billboards in every street. Putin memes abound. The optimum World Cup viewing conditions? Hunkered down on a plastic stool at a streetside restaurant, surrounded by walls of empty Yanjing beer bottles and a carpet of eviscerated crayfish, following the match on a big screen —  and your bets on your phone.

The World Cup has inspired many celebrated authors, with Karl Ove Knausgård one notable recent example, and China’s literati are no exception. The poet Shen Haobo has been posting a series of World Cup poems on his public WeChat account this summer, including this one on June 26th, after the Argentinian star-player Lionel Messi failed to score in their match against Nigeria:

Vying to win, Cristiano Ronaldo bares his teeth
Vying to win, Neymar cries and wails like a baby for the teat
Modric is vying to win like a long-maned horse
Messi, like Jesus
A cold look in his eyes
Dominates the pitch
Always losing
Mo Yan (second from left), Yu Hua (third from left) and Shi Tiesheng (seated). Photo: Sohu

A Yi 阿乙 is another author who often shares his thoughts on the World Cup, and has written football criticism in the past. While he has not addressed the sport directly in his fiction, he is not averse to sneaking in the occasional football simile: in his novel Wake Me Up at Nine in the Morning 《早上九点叫醒我》he describes one character guarding her mahjong tiles as protectively as Czech goalkeeper Petr Čech guards a ball he has just saved, “pinning it under his body, while he looked sidelong at the opposing team.”

Almost every Chinese writer seems to have a favorite anecdote about unexpected moments of glory on the football pitch. In ‘Playing football on the Basketball Court,’ 《篮球场上踢足球》 Yu Hua recalls a match played outside the Lu Xun Institute for Literature in which Mo Yan was brought on in goal for the opposing team: “I lifted my foot to strike the ball, expecting him to get out the way, but instead he guarded his goal as fearlessly as the famous soldier Huang Jiguang. I hit the ball into his stomach and he sank down onto his haunches, clutching his belly for a long time.” Elsewhere in the essay, he recounts another game, in which Shi Tiesheng – an author who spent his life in a wheelchair after sustaining injuries to his back during the Cultural Revolution – was promoted from coach to goalkeeper late on in a game against local students in Liaoning, knowing that the opposition wouldn’t dare take a shot for fear of hurting of him. (Despite their sneaky tactics, the visiting authors still lost.)

Football was a great passion of Shi Tiesheng’s 史铁生, though not his greatest: in his essay ‘My Dream,’ 《我的梦想》he ranks it at number two, behind track and field (literature was number three). “If I were an alien,” he writes in ‘Football, Inside and Out,’ 《足球内外》 “I would choose football as the means to understand humanity. When I came down from outer space, the first thing I would do is watch a football match.” In his short story ‘Football,’ 《足球》 two football fans in wheelchairs – Xiao Gang and Shanzi – make their way to a stadium to watch a visiting French team, with memories of Michel Platini lighting up the 1982 World Cup fresh in their minds. But the two friends have just one ticket between them, not to mention the possibility that a flight of steps will prevent either of them from getting into the stadium at all, and over the course of their journey the latent tensions between them are brought to the surface.

Xu Kun’s 徐坤 story ‘Goddamn Football《狗日足球》 also revolves around the visit of a foreign team, Boca Juniors, to Beijing. Xu Kun is a refreshing exception to the male dominance of this list, and she delights in puncturing the ritualized masculine comradery of the sport. Her protagonist, Liu Ying, is perplexed by the way every man around her is suddenly transformed into a football pundit when the 1990 World Cup kicks off. Eventually she has an epiphany:

Football is the international language of men! In this age of isolation, they need it to communicate. Plus it lets them feel again the bravery and glory of neolithic hunters, chasing down prey, chasing down women, chasing down everything in existence that it was possible for them to possess. Any man not proficient in this language, who couldn’t blather on about football for three hours with his eyes shut, would be cast out from male society, would not deserve to be called a man at all, would be an object of scorn and ridicule until the day he died.

At night, realising that every lit window represents a man staying up late to watch football, she begins to feel sorry for them. After all, “the vast majority of them don’t have the faintest hope of ever knowing what it feels like to step out onto the pitch themselves, and so they can only gather around a tiny television, thousands of miles away, and indulge their collective yearning through a little glass screen.” Liu Ying is ultimately won over not by football but by one particular footballer. Her initial impressions of Diego Maradona are not particularly favorable: “squat, roundish … from his appearance you wouldn’t have been able to tell he was a footballer – he looked more like a weightlifter who’d been squished by his own barbell.” But the buffeting he receives from the opposition makes her feel sorry for him, and her sympathy turns to adoration when she sees him scampering goalwards with the ball glued to his foot.

Yi Sha’s tribute to Diego Maradona (Weibo)

The famous retired Argentinian player Diego Maradona’s presence in the crowd has added an extra piquancy to this World Cup. The poet Yi Sha, whose Weibo account has been providing a running commentary on the competition, offered the following tribute after Maradona’s health scare in the aftermath of Argentina’s loss to Sweden: “My hero forever, he taught me the true nature of patriotism, opposing Eurocentrism, and had a profound influence on the writings of my youth.” The political slant to this appreciation is not unusual. The exploits of South American footballers in the 1970s and 80s fit into a politically expedient narrative: the victims of colonialism striking back at their former oppressors by beating them at their own game. For example, Li Er 李洱, in his essay ‘The Chinese Football Fan,’ 《中国球迷》recalls how to his primary school classmates at that time, Brazilian footballer Pelé was a role model in the same pantheon as legendary PLA soldier Lei Feng.

But it is the contrasts that Maradona embodies – the beauty and the ugliness, the talent and the self-destruction, the humbleness of his roots and the decadence of his appetites – that make him a particular figure of fascination for writers. In Shi Tiesheng’s story, Shanzi reflects on the fact that Maradona “didn’t look beautiful, but he looked amazing as he ran, fell down and leapt back up again, looking like no harm could ever come to him”. “Even if Maradona / Did use stimulants,” Shen Haobo writes in ‘The Murder of Maradona,’ 《谋杀马拉多纳》 another of his World Cup poems, “It doesn’t matter.” Before the 2010 World Cup, novelist Feng Tang 冯唐 wrote an essay ‘Big Wave’《大波》on Maradona in the form of an open letter, in which he compares the artistry of writing and football. Maradona also shows up in Feng Tang’s coming-of-age novel Give Me a Girl at Age Eighteen 《十八岁给我一个姑娘》, when the narrator and his classmates try to wheedle their way out of running laps by flattering their PE teacher, telling him how uncannily he resembles Maradona, with his stumpy stature, his curly hair, and his Argentina team shorts (though his salary doesn’t extend to the price of a matching shirt).

The cover of ‘Legend of a Football Star’ (KongFZ)

And surely Wang Meng 王蒙 had Maradona in mind when he described Unt, the hero of Legend of a Football Star 《球星奇遇记》, as “a cross between the legendary Helen of Troy and Zhu Bajie of Chinese myth.” This absurd, hyper-saturated novella, published in 1988, follows the picaresque adventures of Unt after he is plucked from a life of menial work and heralded as the world’s most talented footballer. No one pays any attention to his protestations that there has been some kind of mix-up. His arrival, the town mayor insists, has been forecast through both astrological portent and computer calculation, and his football pedigree is without parallel: he won the Golden Fish award when he was five years old, the Golden Cannon award when he was seven, the Golden Flea award at age eleven, and the Golden Bedbug award at age fifteen.

Unt has arrived just in time to take part in a pivotal derby against their deadly rivals. Win, and he will be lavishly rewarded; lose, and his body will be inexplicably disintegrated. The stadium is packed, and the match remains delicately poised as the final whistle nears. All eyes are on Unt as the opposition’s star striker comes barreling towards him. Terrified, he turns his back and hunkers down on the turf:

Unexpectedly, the ball came straight at his arse. Perhaps it was the uncommon might of his anus, or the strength of his tailbone. Perhaps it was some coincidence of geometry, or a supernatural power Unt had never before suspected he might possess. … A miracle of world football occurred: the ball bounced back off Unt’s arse, overturning the laws of Newtonian physics as it flew across the pitch, straight and true, and landed right in the back of the opposition net.

After exactly fifteen seconds of stunned silence, the crowd goes wild. Victory is assured, and the reaction to Unt’s heroics is rapturous: a dance move inspired by his actions becomes a worldwide craze, an international network of schools and institutes dedicated to Untology springs up, and a pharmaceutical company pays him millions to use his likeness as an icon of virility in their aphrodisiac ads.

It may be some time before the Chinese national team earns similar acclaim. ∎


Header image: Chinese fans watch the World Cup in Beijing (photo: Alec Ash)