A few weeks ago the Chinese national youth football team arrived in London to play some matches against the capital’s clubs as part of a historic, groundbreaking, goodwill visit ahead of the Olympic Games. A chance for our two nations to foment sporting respect for one another, despite our profound political differences. Sort of like Nixon’s visit to Peking in 1972, except with the top referee Dermot Gallagher in attendance, rather than Henry Kissinger.
I dare say you can imagine what happened, in case you haven’t already heard. Seven members of the Chinese team were sent home after a terrific, spectacular mass brawl during the, um, friendly game against QPR. It was wonderful stuff — you can watch it all on the internet. There were oriental kung-fu kicks and good old British haymakers, wrestling throws and neck-high karate chops. Fittingly, it was a very democratic brawl — everyone got involved, including the spectators and the trainers. One Chinese player, Zheng Tao, was rendered unconscious for five minutes and taken to hospital with a fractured jaw. It was, by some margin, the most entertaining football game I have ever seen. I can’t remember the score and it doesn’t really matter because Mr Gallagher was forced to abandon the game (and, indeed, leg it to the changing-rooms with great rapidity). There’s not much doubt, however, that QPR won the fight. Easily. Always thought China’s martial reputation was grossly exaggerated; now we have proof.
And that, it seems, is the thing which most irks the Chinese. The disgrace which shrouds the Chinese players is not so much a result of their having been involved in an unseemly brawl, but that they lost the unseemly brawl. And to QPR, who, as any fule kno, are one of our country’s better-natured and gentler football teams. If John Chinaman can’t beat QPR in a scrap, then by my reckoning Taiwan is safe as houses and we could probably retake Hong Kong in half an hour.
Bizarre though it might seem, this whole episode is having profound political ramifications in China — and particularly for the country’s agricultural policy. Mr Zhang Xinshi, from the Chinese Academy of Science, expressed his shame at the performance of the Chinese players during a meeting of the nation’s agricultural forum.
‘We all saw the recent fight in England,’ he said, ‘and they were beaten to a pulp.’ And he added: ‘Sounds tragic? But if you are as strong as a buffalo, how can they beat you up? Therefore, I don’t think we should persist with the Chinese grain-eating tradition. Our football can’t reach a higher level — we are only good at skilful sports. You can’t just say we aren’t used to eating beef and milk and leave it at that.’
Zhang’s disquiet gets to the very heart of China’s desire to embrace Western modernity — and a crucial problem for the Chinese people. Embracing Western modernity apparently means embracing, among other things, milk. For the last ten years the Chinese government has been attempting to foist milk upon their reluctant citizens, believing that milk is as much a part of a modern go-ahead nation as free-market capitalism. Milk is healthy; it is the stuff of life. It helps young bones to grow. And so there have been closely monitored fortified milk programmes in schools across the People’s Republic. And the danger of not drinking a glass of milk every day is made all too apparent when the national football team gets its collective head kicked in by a famously wimpy side from the lower reaches of the English championship.
The problem for the Chinese is not simply that they don’t like milk, but that they actually can’t stomach the stuff. It’s not simply a case of a cultural aversion; it’s a genuine physical aversion. An estimated 95 per cent of Chinese adults are intolerant of the natural milk sugar, lactose (as are, incidentally, plenty of other races across the world). They lack the lactose enzyme which in most Westerners (and especially north Europeans) breaks the stuff down. The enzyme is there in Chinese kids until they are about three years old and then it seemingly withers and dies. Northern European adults, meanwhile, have been able to tolerate milk for only about 7,000 years or so; it took aeons for our lactose tolerance to develop. The Chinese are hoping that tolerance might be effected in a few years. That, truly, would be a great leap forward of improbable proportions.
But still, you have to admire their fervour and determination, even if they occasionally get it wrong. Chinese consumption of milk and milk products has doubled in the last ten years but theirs has been a singular, idiosyncratic approach. Attempting to cash in on the craze, for example, a chef called Yang Jun, from Hunan province, has opened a restaurant specialising in milk-based dishes — but I’m not convinced that the menu would be entirely to your palette. Mr Jun does not get the milk he uses from a cow, or a goat or a sheep. He gets it from his missus. His two signature dishes are fish head and breast milk hotpot and sliced lotus root salad tossed in breast milk. I have a terrible vision of Mrs Jun sitting despondently in the kitchen with her mammary glands wired up to some awful contraption, while her hubby scurries around busily with the pots and pans.
Still, one wishes the Chinese well in their attempts to breed a new super-race of burly milk’n’beef athletes who will not be intimidated by a bunch of softies from west London. The rest of us, meanwhile, might quietly muse that an eternal verity has been confirmed yet again: sport is rarely successful as a form of diplomacy. For every heartwarming example of English soldiers climbing out of their trenches for a game of football with their German opponents, there are ten cases where such initiatives have gone badly awry and war, or something like it, has been declared as a result. The World Cup qualifying football match between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969, for example, led to riots, followed by a 100-hour military battle, the details of which have still not been settled. (El Salvador won the game, incidentally.)
The problem, however, is that the mandarins of sporting organisations continue to believe that the reverse is true, that mutual respect will be engendered by two sides competing nobly in a sporting arena. They do not seem to understand that sport exacerbates existing hatreds between nations, and can even, on a good day, create new ones. In a sporting contest between two countries, the fans embrace a Manichaean dichotomy between good (their side) and evil (the opponents) — no matter how otherwise innocuous bilateral relations might be. When England plays the Czech Republic or Slovakia or Belgium, Poland or France, the English fans root around for the most wounding comments they can find. It is almost always, ‘If it wasn’t for the English, you’d be Krauts.’ And the poor Belgians are afforded an extra derisory chant: ‘You’re French and you know you are.’
A couple of years ago, someone had the bright idea that such mutual respect might be engendered if the Iranian national football team were to play an English club. The team they chose was, yes — Millwall. Now, believe me, I love Millwall. It’s the team I’ve supported since I was seven years old and I still attend every home game, and even travel away from time to time. But the prospect of this game filled me with enormous foreboding and I rang the club and begged them not to let it take place. Already, on the supporters’ message boards, people were sorting out what songs they would be singing to engender mutual respect between Iranians and British people. There was one to be sung in the direction of Iran’s female supporters: ‘Get your face out for the lads.’ Then there was the more general, ‘You’re Shiite and you know you are.’ And the gleeful, geopolitically astute, ‘You’re next and you know you are.’ I thought all this stuff very funny, but it also occurred to me that it was impossible for the match to take place without some horrendous incident which would set back British–Iranian relations to the time of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s first years of office.
I don’t suppose it was any of my doing, but someone somewhere saw sense and the match between Iran and Millwall was mercifully cancelled. Instead the various authorities scouted around for a fixture for the Iranians which would be less likely to prove problematic, where the spirit of sporting generosity would prevail. And they found one in west London. Instead of Millwall, Iran played — QPR.