Own goal

China’s football troubles reflect broader issues within the economy

Slow growth and politics take their toll

IT WAS A hot and sticky night for football. Because of covid-19 restrictions, the match was played at a neutral site, nearly three hours from Shanghai by car. Adding to the inconvenience, kick-off was at 6pm on a Monday. Yet a few thousand supporters still made the trek on May 10th to watch their beloved local side, Shenhua, battle the club from Hebei, a northern province. “It’s a kind of faith for us,” said A.G. Wan, a middle-aged businessman.

Cries of sha bi, a phrase not translatable in a family newspaper, rang out whenever the referee missed fouls that, for the fans, were plain to see. Cheers erupted when a Shenhua midfielder scored the equaliser with a perfectly struck last-minute penalty kick. The crowd’s passion would have been familiar to football fans anywhere. But the canvas on which it was painted—a league beset by financial chicanery and political meddling—was unmistakably Chinese.

China can seem like an economic juggernaut. Leaders set lofty targets and funnel money to favoured industries, a potent recipe when combined with talented, driven people. Football…