Written by Donald Ross, freelancer writer for WildEastFootball
Nineteen Chinese footballers embarked on a tour of New Zealand and Australia in 1975 as their country gradually broadened its international political and sporting outlook. The Chinese won only two games but the tour is remarkable for having happened at all.
The 1975 tour marked the start of China’s gradual re-engagement with the footballing world. Having withdrawn from FIFA in the late 1950s over the ‘Taiwan question’, China had been restricted to playing friendlies against a select group of countries. There was also a lot of work to do on the domestic front. All competitive football was stopped during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and the National Championships only restarted in 1973. Just two years later a Chinese squad was on its way to New Zealand and Australia.
Testing themselves against the Australians who’d played at the ’74 World Cup (see main image) would be a good way to see how they measured up, and potentially help China gain readmission to FIFA too. When pressed on the latter on arrival in Australia, the Chinese tour interpreter commented that “the restoration of China [to FIFA] has a historical trend which is irresistible.”
Sydney Morning Herald
Another reason to choose Australia and New Zealand for the tour was that both countries enjoyed relatively friendly relationships with China. The Rosny Children’s Choir from Australia performed in China in 1975 and the NZ table tennis team toured China in 1974. Football was not to be left out of the action. The Australian Soccer Federation’s (ASF) Annual Report noted that the Australian government had been encouraging cultural exchanges with China “for some time” and approached the ASF “seeking its cooperation in staging a series of soccer matches as part of the cultural exchange.” With the Government also providing a subsidy towards the tour, it was perhaps not a decision the ASF had much choice over. This was not the first time the Australian government had used sport as a political tool; Australia participated in 1967’s Friendly Nations Tournament in war-ton Vietnam.
It was not the Chinese A team that embarked on this ground breaking tour. The strongest team were given a rest after successfully qualifying for the 1976 AFC Asian Cup. This meant that the likes of Rong Zhixing, Chi Shangbin and Xiang Hengqing stayed in China. The touring party was far from a weak team though as the squad included many players from the army side, Bayi, that had won the National Championship the year before.
Three of the young players in the touring party had particularly notable future careers: Li Fusheng would be the national side’s first choice keeper until 1982; Liu Zhicai like Li would be part of the first Chinese tours to the USA, South America and Europe; and Yang Anli who would have a more sporadic international career but was still in the national team squads for the ’78 Asian Games and ’80 Asian Cup.
Li Fusheng, the Chinese legend goalkeeper
Before arriving in Australia, China had played a three game series in their week in New Zealand. China lost the first game 1-2, drew the second 2-2, and then went down 2-0 in Christchurch as New Zealand claimed the series. The All Whites would also come out on top in the tussle for qualification for the 1982 World Cup.
These weren’t China’s first footballing encounters with New Zealand though. In 1924, a Chinese Universities XI played 22 games in the country over three months. Composed of players from universities in East and South China (from Nanjing to Hong Kong), the students were welcomed to Wellington by a crowd at the dockside. The Evening Post reported that the students were greeted with “three cheers…followed by the singing of For They are Jolly Good Fellows” and later described them as “gentlemen both on and off the field.” The students reportedly drew a total crowd of 140,000 across their 22 games but could only manage four wins. Given that they arrived without football boots, this is perhaps not surprising.
Arriving in Australia
After finishing the series against New Zealand, China beat Fiji 4-1 – although it’s unclear if this was played in Fiji or New Zealand – before arriving in Australia. The Sydney Morning Herald’s correspondent gave a vivid description of the scene. “Resplendent in their Chairman Mao suits of blue serge and high button collars (some hidden by bulky overcoats), the team stepped off the plane from New Zealand sporting smiles to match the Sydney sunshine.”
The Chinese were treading in the footsteps of previous tours in Australia too. In 1923, 40,000 had turned out to watch Chinese university students, mainly from Hong Kong, play at Sydney’s Agricultural Showgrounds. Tour organiser Henry Millard praised the Chinese for the “highest traditions of sportsmanship…and carrying through their game with a determination typical of the highest John Bull traditions of a fight.” The Canberra Times reported that Nationalist Chinese teams did “reasonably well” against Australian State opposition in 1923, ’27 and ’41, and the 1-1 draw against Queensland in Brisbane in 1975 continued this.
The Chinese were greeted by the Rosny Children’s Choir when they arrived in Tasmania. Having previously visited China, the Choir “was well known to the visitors” who, according to the ASF, were consequently “very excited” when the Choir “welcomed them to Hobart with songs on their arrival.”
The locals were equally hospitable on the pitch. Goals from strikers Zhang Zongben and Cao Kaijun gave China a 2-1 win, the second of their tour.
The grueling schedule of seven games in 17 days coupled with extensive travel between and within New Zealand and Australia left little time for sightseeing or relaxing. The Chinese were footballers and they would play football before all else. Their final match was against Australia in Melbourne.
Australia were no strangers to hosting touring sides. They’d beaten Rangers 1-0 earlier in the year in what the ASF described as “one of the most exciting matches ever witnessed in Brisbane.” Perhaps tired out by this, they then suffered “one of the soundest [defeats] that has been meted out to an Australian team for many years” when Manchester United beat them 4-0 the following week.
Whist Chinese football was just getting itself organised again after the worst years of the Cultural Revolution, Australia had been playing in the ’74 World Cup in West Germany. This difference in experience meant that the Canberra Times expected the Australian team to “play one of its rare attacking games” against China. However, the expected scoring spree failed to materialise. Teenage substitute Duncan Cummings had a dream debut as he scored with his first touch but the press were not impressed with the rest of the Australians.
Melbourne paper The Age labelled Australia’s performance as “generally unimpressive”, whilst the ASF’s report describes “a poor spectacle.” It takes two sides to play football though and the “unknown and tentative Chinese” were “either too concerned or too polite to get involved in any serious challenges” according to the Sydney Morning Herlad. Again, The Age paints a similar picture. “China played unimaginative soccer, defending en-masse and counter attacking when it had the chance.” Given that this was China’s third game in six days they could be forgiven a little lethargy. However, there was still praise when “China showed the sportsmanship it is renowned for with seven of the tourists crowding around to assist [midfielder Agenor] Muniz when he was hurt in a tackle.”
Next stop Beijing
The tour, summed up as “a good public relations exercise” by the ASF, concluded with a trip to Canberra for an official reception at Parliament House. The ASF were assured that “an invitation for an Australian team to visit China will be issued in the near future.” The Chinese were as good as their word and a little over a year later Australia were playing in front of 80,000 at Gongti.