President Xi Jinping’s plan for a football revolution in China has hit an embarrassing divot after a high-profile friendly match in Beijing between Manchester United and Manchester City was called off because of the poor state of the pitch at the national stadium.
China’s tycoons have enthusiastically answered Mr Xi’s call to make China a force in the beautiful game, investing billions in top players, sports rights and leading clubs, including Manchester City, which is part-owned by a Chinese group.
The match between the bitter rivals of the English Premier League was called off on Monday afternoon, hours before tens of thousands of fans were due to attend the game, after days of heavy rain left the pitch in a patchy condition deemed unsafe for the players.
Chinese fans of both teams, which have huge followings in the world’s most populous nation, reacted angrily to the cancellation, with some blaming the authorities for failing to maintain the pitch at the Olympic stadium, while others attacked the clubs for not going ahead with the game.
“Don’t even mention the weather,” said Xu Jiang, a Chinese football journalist, on Weibo, the microblogging site. “How can you play in a venue like this? Even our national team didn’t choose it as the home stadium. There is a reason for that.”
Another fan, using the nickname Yi Kou Tong Sheng on Weibo, accused the teams of having “played with the emotions of Chinese people”.
“I have extreme contempt on [José] Mourinho,” he said of the Manchester United manager. “Go away as soon as you can, China does not welcome Manchester United.”
The cancellation is particularly embarrassing for Manchester City, which Mr Xi visited in October, posing for a selfie with Sergio Aguero, the Argentine striker, and David Cameron, then the UK prime minister. Less than two months later, Li Ruigang, a media tycoon who escorted Mr Xi on the UK trip, paid $ 400m to acquire a 13 per cent stake in Manchester City’s parent company.
The organisers of the friendly said they would give refunds to all the fans, who had paid Rmb400-2,800 ($ 60-$ 420) for a ticket to see the first Manchester derby to take place in China.
They said in a statement that the pitch was unsafe for some of the world’s most expensive players after Beijing suffered flooding last week during the heaviest rains for 60 years.
Ed Woodward, the vice-chairman of Manchester United, sought to deflect blame from the stadium authorities.
“It’s extremely disappointing not to be able to play the game in this amazing stadium but the recent torrential rain would have caused problems anywhere in the world and has left the pitch unplayable,” he said. “We know our fans in China will, like the players and staff, be saddened by the cancellation of the match but I am sure they appreciate that the player safety has to be the top priority.”
Additional reporting by Gloria Cheung
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