Monday, 30 May 2011

The Most Important Team in the World - West Bromwich Albion

The debate about who the best team ever will forever rumble on and on in pubs and schools, on internet forums and radio show call-ins. At the moment the best team in the world is certainly Barcelona. But ever? What about Holland with Cruyff? Or perhaps Real Madrid's all conquering teams of the 1950s, Di Stefano and all? Perhaps Sacchi's Milan? Or even a curveball with The Crazy Gang of Wimbledon? All of these teams can stake their claims, list their achievements and pin their colours to the mast (and all that crap). There is only one team however, that can claim to have significantly shaped the last 30 years of world history and probably the next 30 too. That team is West Bromwich Albion.

The year was 1977 when the Baggies became the first British team to play in China, against a Chinese representative team. This might not seem to be all that remarkable, and you would be correct, but it was because of this tour that Deng Xiaoping was able to wrest control of the country from Hua Guofeng and begin his set of reforms aimed at bringing China economic prosperity and international security, eventually bringing China in from the diplomatic cold and setting China on course to be the world's biggest economy by 2020.

The course of events which brought about West Brom's four game tour of China in July 1977 began five years earlier when President Richard Nixon became the first serving US President to visit the People's Republic of China. It was a great symbol of the realisation of the Chinese government that they needed to begin opening up to the West once again, but that this needed to happen on Chinese terms. Previously the Opium Wars had led the Emperors of China to sign unequal treaties with the Western powers, which had humiliated China and shown how weak the old Dynasties were becoming. When the last dynasty, the Qing, fell, it was a natural reaction of the Chinese to expel foreigners who they blamed for most of their country's problems. Nixon's visit in 1972 then was an extremely potent sign that the Chinese dragon was beginning to stir.

However, due to the vagaries of the Chinese political system under Mao Zedong, it was not until his death in 1976 that the ball really began to start rolling with regard to opening up to the West. This was in part due to the old leader's failing health, as well as the power struggle that occurred in the years before and after his death. Hua Guofeng, "a political non-entity" as my lecturer so charmingly called him, became the leader of China as he held the three most powerful posts in the Politburo, including Chairman of the Party. He successfully ousted the notorious 'Gang of Four', who wanted to continue along Mao's ideological theory of constant revolution, a theory which had cost the lives of around 60 million (yes, 60 fucking million) of his own citizens. Hua's own idea for solving China's problems was more central planning along the lines of the Soviets. This dissatisfied many of the Party's members, as it was becoming increasingly clear that the Soviet model was a pretty useless one, so backed the economic reformist Deng Xiaoping as the way forward for China. Wang Juntao, the editor of Beijing Spring from 1978 to 1981 sums up the feeling towards Deng perfectly:
"Deng Xiaoping said, 'There should be rule of law, respect for human rights and economic development.' A lot of us saw him as our leader. We agreed with what he thought, he represented our interests. That's why we all admired him. We would have died defending him."
Fine words indeed, but the problem was that China did not have a precedent for changing leaders so easily. There never have been any elections or any way to change leader other than through violence. One football match would change all of that and pave the way for Deng to lead China into a new age of prosperity.

But the fact is, West Brom were rather reluctant opponents. This video - - gives a wonderful snapshot into the time the Baggies spent in China. It is revealed that West Brom only went on the tour in the first place because the England team couldn't make it. With the Chairman of West Brom, Bert Millichip, high up in the FA he volunteered his team to take on the tour. Ron Atkinson, manager of West Brom was none too pleased: "O it was a long trip. It was three weeks going on about ten years I think. And the boys were giving me almighty stick."

The problem was that the players weren't used to the strange way of living that the Chinese had and they had no inclination to try to appreciate it. Some of the players describe the situation: "A few of us took the opportunity to see as much as we could, because there wasn't a great deal other to do than that", states one. Another describes what they saw: "The whole cultural experience of the little villages, how everybody had to work. People had to wait to have kids. There was no colour in Peking. They had Chairman Mao suits in black, grey, dark green and dark blue." It was clearly a place the like of which they had never seen before, but an inability to get a drink and under-appreciation of Chinese culture (which to be fair had been pretty well destroyed by the Cultural Revolution - one of Mao's 'great' ideas) left the players itching to get out. Before they did so however, they left the country with two great legacy's; the first was taking part in the most important football match in history, and the second was John Trewick's quote on the Great Wall of China- "Once you've seen one wall, you've seen them all!" - in the greatest display of missing the point ever demonstrated by a human being.

The match had been organised because the Chinese government wanted to promote football as part of its programme of reconciliation with the West. However, they weren't used to Western customs inside a stadium, as the crowd was ordered to stay quiet throughout the match. Against this rather unsettling backdrop West Brom took on a Chinese representative team. Stephen Perry of the London Export Corporation from 1973 to 2009 describes what happened next:
"It was at the game in Beijing where midway through the second half, it was a little bit of a tepid game, I think West Brom were winning 2-1, suddenly there was this enormous roar. We all looked around. What had happened was that Deng Xiaoping was in a box behind us and had walked up to the front and waived at the crowd. And that was the amazing roar from the people. Spontaneous. Without any preparation at all. We didn't know we were part of history."
This amazing moment was the point at which the popular support Deng had over Hua could no longer be ignored. It took until 1978 to finally oust Hua from power, but this was the turning point after which there was no way back for Hua. Deng was able to carry his economic reforms in China and influence world politics due to China’s new found importance. An excellent documentary on China’s rise and Deng’s part in it can be found here - – it’s in nine parts but well worth some of your time.

Thanks for reading.

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