Scoring goals and saving face

Why world football needs to get to grips with China’s culture

Simon Chadwick

PHOTO: Fang Yingzhong/Color China Photo/AP Images

Arts, culture & society | Asia, East Asia, The World

20 March 2017

The concept of ‘face’ is an important aspect of China’s culture which applies both on-field and off. With increasing Chinese ownership of clubs worldwide, it’s a concept football fans need to understand, Simon Chadwick writes.

In a recent English Premier League football game at Stamford Bridge stadium in London, Spanish international Cesc Fàbregas scored a goal for the home team Chelsea against one of his former clubs, Arsenal. Aside from the quality of Fabregas’ goal, the most notable feature of it was that he refused to celebrate in front of Arsenal fans with whom he had previously had a good relationship.

This led one newspaper columnist in England to exclaim that Fàbregas’ conduct “[was] one of the most loathsome sights in football. Fifa ought to have signed an executive order banning it years ago, or a Football Association sub-committee granted presidential authority to stamp out this most devious act. Former players who choose not to celebrate scoring against their old club. They are pests – a stain on the game.”

Perhaps; although Fàbregas may have unwittingly marked himself out as a potential future signing for a Chinese Super League club. What he did was something that many people in China may have found admirable or, possibly, just normal. Indeed, what the Anglo-centric rant of an English columnist has done is yet again accentuate some of the cultural differences between Europe and China, which those who have a stake in football should understand.

Fast-forward several weeks, and Shanghai Shenhua midfielder Qin Sheng was sent-off during a Chinese Super League game against Tianjin Quanjian, following his foul on Belgian international Axel Witsel. Qin was fined ¥300,000 by Shenhua and then forced to train with the club’s reserve team.

His club issued a statement after the dismissal which said, “Qinsheng [will be] asked to make a public apology in front of the whole team and he will report to the reserve team and train with them from today…taking his attitude and future behaviour into consideration, the club will cut his salary to a certain extent.”

The goal in West London and the sending-off in Shanghai may not seem to have a great deal in common, yet they are united by one important aspect of Chinese culture: face (Miàn zi or 面子). In simple terms, some observers identify face as being the prevention of embarrassment, which is bound-up in notions of honour, respect and reputation. In Chinese terms, it can, therefore, be said that Fàbregas did not want Arsenal fans to lose face because of his celebrations in front of them. Similarly, a public apology was sought from Sheng for the way in which he had caused his teammates and club to lose face.

These two examples, whilst helping to illustrate the notion of face, nevertheless reveal that the phenomenon is a more subtly complex one than the examples themselves actually suggest. At one level face is about an individual’s prestige, which they may feel is deserved given their position or status. This suggests that a player heading to China from a big European football league such as Serie A or La Liga, even if they were never especially accomplished players, might be justified in receiving respect and therefore have a right to expect that their face is protected.

In the same way, a manager or coach may believe their position to be worthy of respect and that others therefore ought to show regard for their face, even if their successes were in the past. Face also extends to groups and the amount of respect someone gives to collections of significant others. The Fabregas and Sheng incidents are examples of this – fans and teammates. Yet there are other potential examples that might become apparent in football, for example in relationships between younger players and older players, clubs and commercial partners, and possibly even hooligans and players.

Apart from understanding the nature of face, those of us with an interest in football should also know something about the actions associated with it. For instance, it was somewhat unwise of Argentinian international and Shanghai Shenhua player Carlos Tevez to apparently complain about Chinese food, another important aspect of life in China. Face is such a complex notion that one can lose or gain face not just for themselves but also for others. As such, Tevez could have done himself and China a favour, gaining face for the country, its people and himself by instead saying how great the food is.

It is important though that football does not just see face as a cultural phenomenon with which one needs to be familiar when working in China. For European football clubs with Chinese owners, sponsors or players, face remains important. Thus far, relations between fans and clubs at places like Italy’s Inter Milan, Spain’s Espanyol and England’s West Bromwich Albion have been largely cordial.

However, at Den Haag in Holland, the fan/club relationship has been rather more fractious. Following the club’s acquisition by a wealthy Chinese businessman called Wang Hui, it seemed to lurch from one crisis to another. Den Haag’s Dutch fans will presumably claim this was due to Wang’s management of the club, although one senses that the problems may have had some of their origins in issues of face.

Indeed, the chairman of Den Haag’s fan association, Jacco van Leeuwen, is on record as having said “[in our town] the character of the people is that when you don’t like it, you say it directly; you don’t hide.” Such views are inconsistent with the likes of Wang keeping face and may account for the subsequent antagonism between the football club’s fans and its owner. What might have seemed like honesty and openness to the Dutch, may nevertheless have been interpreted by Wang as a loss of face.

Trying to understand face in a cross-cultural context is, therefore, both difficult and problematic. However, with China looking overseas for investments to sustain its interest in football, and with the likes of Europeans looking to China as a source of business, then we are likely to see people and organisations continuing to lose face for some time to come.

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