Walking out onto the pitch at Doha’s Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium on Monday, Ma Ning became only the second Chinese national to officiate a World Cup match.
The first time a Chinese referee took part in a men’s World Cup game was in 2002, when Lu Jun oversaw two matches. That was also the last – and only – time China appeared at a World Cup.
China crashed out of qualifiers for the Qatar tournament in February, on the eve of the country’s own sporting extravaganza, the Beijing Winter Olympics. This has left Chinese soccer fans watching another World Cup as neutrals, hoping their wait will not be as long as that of Wales or Canada, who returned to soccer’s premier showcase after absences of 64 and 36 years respectively.
But while disappointment has become familiar to many Chinese fans – such that most respond with dark humour, rather than anger, to their team’s works – this World Cup has left a particularly bitter taste in many people’s mouths because it is not only a reminder of how China is not participating in international soccer, but how the country itself is cut off from the rest of the world.
“What’s funny is that when watching the opening ceremony I was surprised that people didn’t wear masks at all, and then I was shocked by myself being surprised with such a thing,” said Kane Zhang, a 31-year-old Beijinger.
COVID-19 restrictions are ramping up once again across China, as colder temperatures and the more transmissible Omicron strain test existing controls. China is one of only a handful of countries not to have opened up this year, retaining travel controls and subjecting citizens to snap lockdowns when cases are detected.
That has led to growing unrest, such as in Henan province this week, where workers at Foxconn’s flagship iPhone plant were seen clashing with anti-epidemic workers. Smaller-scale anti-lockdown protests have also taken place in other parts of the country, and internet censors have struggled to control anger online.
Even for those seeking a distraction in the World Cup, COVID-19 controls can be inescapable. Mr. Zhang had hoped to book a hotel room to watch the opening match so he and his wife’s cheers and shouts wouldn’t disturb their neighbours, as kickoff was at midnight Beijing time.
“But we ended up not doing it. The hotel we wanted to go to required a 48-hour negative test report, something we didn’t have at that moment,” he said.
Just as well, as Mr. Zhang is now under home quarantine, along with hundreds of thousands of other Beijingers.
“I have a strong sense of contradiction,” he said. “Every morning when you check the phone, you see some people talking about the World Cup and some discussing the community lockdown.”
With the situation in Beijing rapidly deteriorating and people panic-buying food to stock up ahead of potential lockdowns, Mr. Zhang said that before being quarantined he had driven across the city to look for somewhere to buy vegetables.
“And the next day we saw that, on the other side of the world, no one wore masks and tens of thousands of people gathered in football stadiums.”
Amy Wen, a 26-year-old financial worker from Hangzhou, in eastern China, said she didn’t feel particularly bitter that her country was not represented at the World Cup.
“Football is a fair game. The Chinese men did not put in the effort that would have brought them to Qatar,” she said. “That’s why I’m not sorry – there’s nothing to be sad about.”
Epidemic controls, however, have left her feeling dejected. Ms. Wen said she had been a student in Russia when that country hosted the World Cup in 2018. Looking back through photos recently, “it seemed like a lifetime ago.”
“I went with my boyfriend in 2018 and said I would be there for the World Cup in 2022 as well,” she said. “No one knew it could somehow get this hard.”
“When the virus first came, the whole world was starting from the same place. But now, we are the only ones living in the gloom of late 2019.”
China’s COVID-19 controls have also cost the country the chance to host the next AFC Asian Cup, which was due to take place in July, 2023. Instead, hosting duties will fall to Qatar again, an unexpectedly quick return on the emirate’s heavy investment in stadiums and infrastructure ahead of the World Cup.
Some of those stadiums have been built by Chinese companies, and state media have been keen to play up the country’s involvement in the tournament off the pitch. In a video published by state broadcaster CGTN, a reporter gushed that “from large infrastructure to small commodities, ‘Made in China’ has become a highlight of this World Cup,” adding that China’s “participation in the World Cup has become wider and deeper “over the past four years.
The video said this is only likely to increase ahead of the next World Cup, in 2026, which will be co-hosted by Canada, the United States and Mexico. That tournament will also be the first to feature 48 teams rather than 32, which could improve China’s chances at qualifying.
“For sure we have more opportunities than before,” said Su Maozhen, a former national team player and member of China’s 2002 World Cup squad, in a recent interview on state TV. “But it is the same for other countries … so I think we will still face fierce competition.”
And it’s not clear that the problems that have so far hamstrung Chinese efforts to field a quality 11 will have been solved by 2026.
China has spent billions trying to become a soccer world power, building stadiums and academies and pumping money into the Chinese Super League, which went on a brief, eye-popping spending spree to snap up foreign talent. But several teams have since collapsed into bankruptcy, and COVID-19 controls have meant most games since 2020 have been played in empty stadiums.
With a file from Alexandra Li in Beijing.