China’s Under-20 team stormed off the pitch in the first in a series of friendlies against German fourth-division clubs as pro-Tibet activists demonstrated in Mainz.
The Under-20 side is in Germany to play 16 friendlies against lower league clubs in an experiment, which runs until May, aimed at advancing the Asian superpower’s chances at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, but which has courted controversy.
On their debut in Germany on Saturday, the Chinese juniors lost 3-0 to TSV Schott Mainz, watched by a 400-strong crowd plus five camera teams and 25 reporters.
However, the game was halted for 25 minutes as the Chinese refused to continue after a group of six spectators hung out Tibetan flags.
China's U20s first game in Germany (vs. Schott Mainz) has been interrupted.
Tibetan fans in the crowd have unveiled their flag.
The Chinese players have refused to play on.
— DW Sports (@dw_sports) November 18, 2017
With the match being televised live in China, the juniors only agreed to continue after the protestors from ‘Tibet-Initiative Germany’ — four Tibetan refugees and two Germans — took down the flags.
“We want to draw attention to the unlawful and violent occupation of Tibet and the suppression of fundamental human rights,” one of the activists told the German Press Agency.
The incident left both the German FA and their Chinese visitors red-faced.
“We cannot ban the protests, there is the right to freedom of expression here and certain rules apply,” said Ronny Zimmermann, vice-president of the German Football Association (DFB), which has organised the matches.
“As a guest, you should be able to handle it calmly and stand above such actions.”
“However, we also want to be good hosts and as a result we are not happy with this incident.
“We condemn the use of football as a deliberate provocation against our guests.”
German police did not intervene as the demonstration was peaceful and Schott’s manager Till Pleuger was perplexed by the behaviour of the Chinese.
“We see it as apolitical. Just as the Chinese are allowed to hang their flags, others are also allowed to do the same,” Pleuger told SID, an AFP subsidiary.
Sun Jihai, the head coach of China’s Under-20 team, avoided commenting on his team’s reaction to the flag scandal.
“The team came to Germany to improve their football and to gain experience,” he said.
“I expected football to be talked about, but now it is about something else.
“For me, this was a friendly match and I hope it will just be about football here and nothing else.”
The German FA want to speak to the Chinese delegation to hopefully avoid similar embarrassing scenes before the next match against FSV Frankfurt on Saturday.
“We will now look for a conversation with the Chinese delegation on this topic and recommend they handle such incidents more calmly,” said Zimmermann.
The experiment came about after Angela Merkel’s German government signed a five-year football partnership agreement with China’s vice-premier Liu Yandong last November.
The Chinese juniors will play teams in Germany’s fourth-tier Regionalliga Suedwest (south-west regional league).
Three teams have refused to face the Chinese after their fans protested, but the other 16 clubs in the 19-strong league will each be paid 15,000 euros ($17,634) for playing the junior team.
It is the first time a junior national team will play a series of games against clubs in the German league pyramid.