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Part of the wash-up from China’s six-nil drubbing from Wales in the 2018 China Cup in Nanning, Guangxi was the sight of many Chinese players having bandages up and down their arms to cover their tattoos.
It turned out that such an edict came from the Chinese Football Association, with the under-23 team wrapped up in games against Syria, as well as the national team in games against Wales and the Czech Republic.
Chinese netizens were predictably furious about such an approach. They strongly argue that having tattoos does not change the way a player performs on the pitch. Such a view appears to be well-founded, given the national team’s insipid performances against Wales and the Czech Republic.
I agree with the Chinese netizens on this topic — that is, in fact, the exact issue. As an Australian, I have seen Tim Cahill score numerous goals for Australia, as well as for Millwall, Everton, the New York Red Bulls, Shanghai Shenhua, Hangzhou Greentown and Melbourne City. Nobody complained about the sleeve tattoo he has that reflects his American-Samoan heritage.
Where are the complaints about heavily tattooed international footballers like David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovi, Neymar or Sergio Ramos from the Chinese soccer governing bodies? Those complaints do not exist because they cannot control them, and they know that young people are attracted to these players.
While the essential problematic belief is that tattoos may hint at a troubled past or may encourage bad behavior, there is no proof of either. While it may have been the case before that people with tattoos were gangsters and people who operated in the grey areas of the law, it is not always the case today.
I understand the position of Jia Xiuquan and his dislike of dyed hair or tattoos. However, if he is picking the team based on that, then there are much bigger problems at hand. China’s problems in the soccer realm run much deeper than players deciding to stain their skin with ink permanently.
If the CFA was serious about improving the quality of its national team, then more players would be heading overseas for international experience. It’s no wonder that Japan, South Korea, Iran, and Australia have consistently qualified for World Cups as their players are regularly playing in foreign leagues, gaining valuable experience about foreign playing styles in the process. The CFA and Chinese players need to understand that soccer is a full-time job, one that requires dedication and commitment. Getting a tattoo done does not inhibit a player’s ability to put a ball in the top corner of a net.
If the CFA wants the players to stay in the country, they should force all the clubs, both professional and amateur, to introduce real development systems. It is only with real academic systems, like those seen in Europe and parts of East Asia, that China can start to become a true force in world soccer.
(The author is an Australian working as an English editor in Shenzhen.)