Football Diplomacy

Translation By: 
Tanja Wessels, Alice Kok
Illustration Rui Rasquinho
Sporting Clube De Portugal to return to China 40 years after their first trip
Sporting Clube de Portugal will tour China for the 40th anniversary of the Portuguese team's original visit to the country in 1978, having been the first Portuguese team to do so.
After a long break, Macau will once again have a “big” international football team playing on its local pitch. Sporting Clube de Portugal will tour China to mark the 40th anniversary of the Portuguese team’s first visit to the country on July 25, 1978.
The commemorative program will run from March to November of this year and will include three football matches, with Sporting’s main team playing in Beijing, Shanghai and Macau.
“Throughout the years, Sporting has commemorated the date, but never on this scale,” says José Ribeiro, the head of the communication department of Sporting Clube de Portugal.
“This time the management of Sporting understood that it was the right time to put this on the agenda and remind Sporting fans of the importance this trip had. There is an attempt here, not to replicate, but to undertake a similar trip.”
Speaking via telephone to our sister publication PONTO FIINAL newspaper, José Ribeiro confirmed that there will be three matches in Asia in Macau, Beijing and Shanghai during a 10-day tour, although the opposing teams have not yet been decided, nor have concrete dates been set.
There are, however, dates for the inaugurations of the travelling exhibition that will accompany the entourage, on June 10 in Beijing, June 29 in Shanghai, and July 1 in Macau.
“They are photographic documents of that time, as well as some items that at the time came with Sporting from China,” Ribeiro explains.
Asked about the players that will be present in China, Ribeiro does not provide names, highlighting that some players will have commitments with the respective selections due to preparations for the World Cup in Russia.
However, he did assure that “a professional team” will participte in the tour.
Although there is still nothing yet confirmed in this regard, the team’s presence in the territory may also provide interaction on the pitch between the athletes of Sporting Clube de Portugal and its local affiliated team, Sporting Clube de Macau, according to Ribeiro.
“These details have not yet been decided, but I believe that from Sporting’s side they are open to this.”
The announcement of the Sporting Clube de Portugal tour to China came after an official invitation from the ambassador of the People’s Republic of China, Cai Run, during the presentation of the programme of the 40th anniversary of the Portuguese team’s visit to the Asian country.
The kick-off of the commemorative program recently took place in the Artur Agostinho auditorium of Estádio José Alvalade. Also present on the occasion were some of the individuals that made the trip in 1978, such as Manuel Fernandes and Augusto Inacio, former stars of the club.
“We never allowed the door that opened in 1978 to close. This is how we engage with people who share the same human and sporting ideals as our club. We returned from that trip richer and we intend to demonstrate what we brought,” said Carlos Vieira, vice president of Sporting Clube de Portugal, in statements to César Santos at Jornal Sporting. Vieira added that the team will not play against amateur teams “because the reality of the Chinese League has gained another dimension.”
For his part, Cai Run praised the original visit by the club, crucial, in his opinion, to the good relationship between the two nations.
“It was an historic and unprecedented visit. It not only promoted collaboration and exchange in the field of football, but also mutual understanding and friendship among peoples, in addition, of course, to the diplomatic relationship between China and Portugal, declared a year later [in 1979]”, he added.
The story dates back to June 25, 1978, when Sporting Clube de Portugal took part in a tour of China in a party led by then-Club President João Rocha. Just two days after winning the Portuguese Cup against FC Porto, Sporting set off for the East, visiting Beijing, Kunming and Macau. PONTO FINAL recovered part of the story in the pages of Gazeta Macaense, which at the time highlighted the performance of the Portuguese team on Asian soil.
On June 29, 1978, the first meeting between Sporting and the Chinese team took place, with the “lions” leading and winning 2-0 at the Workers’ Stadium in Beijing in front of approximately 100,000 spectators. The team included names such as Manuel Fernandes and Augusto Inácio, old team heroes that later came to guide the senior soccer team.
Sporting played a second match in Beijing, according to Gazeta Macaense, against a Chinese team. With around 80 thousand spectators in the stands, the game ended with no goals. A trip to Kunming followed, where the “lions” defeated a local team 2-0, before later travelling to Macau.
The arrival of the Portuguese team to the territory gained more coverage in the Gazeta Macaense, which tells how the delegation was received by local entities linked to the sport with a “hug of friendship”. At the time, the team stayed at Hotel Sintra. The press conference had “a good number of representatives of the local press,” both Portuguese and Chinese, according to the publication.
The then-president of Sporting Clube de Portugal expressed his satisfaction at the opportunity to have fraternized “with admirable people” on Chinese soil, viewing the trip to China as a success. “The success was perfect and left in China a name that no other team has managed to defeat. The results were satisfactory, although this was not the purpose or what mattered most,” Rocha was quoted as saying in the July 8, 1978 issue of Gazeta Macaense.
Sporting ended the historic tour with a game against a team from Macau, winning 5-1. According to Gazeta Macaense, the match was played on an afternoon of “scorching temperatures” in which the “lions” triumphed without much opposition from the local team. Featured in that match was Manuel Fernandes, who rattled the opposition three times. On behalf of the locals, it was up to Leong On to take the lead in a match that was watched by approximately four thousand spectators.
Sporting Clube de Macau has already been contacted by Sporting Clube de Portugal regarding the team’s visit to China and the territory, in particular a visit that will have a “special meaning” for the local club.
“I am very pleased to see Sporting organizing this event,” says Leonel Borges, president of Sporting Clube de Macau. “It makes sense as there is more and more interest in football in China, and to top it all off by Sporting, which has an academy that is famous and has produced extraordinary players. I think it makes perfect sense.”
With the local academy having only started a few months ago, the arrival of a delegation from Portugal may also provide other opportunities, he says.
“Certainly we will present the academy to the Sporting Clube de Portugal entourage, and it would be excellent if we could count on at least closer collaboration in the near future, taking advantage of the knowledge and experience of Sporting Clube de Portugal,” he notes.
As Sporting Macau is one of the branches of Sporting Clube de Portugal “there is no need to sign protocols,” adds Leonel Borges, although the president is willing to “formalise collaboration” if the opportunity is provided.
“I believe it will not be possible to receive funds from Portugal, but there are other forms of support that would be interesting. Given our panorama of football in Macau, it would be extremely useful if we could count on more substantial support in terms of training, players and technical teams,” he adds.
Regarding the match to be played in Macau, Borges considers that it would be “extremely interesting” if the opponent had a “reasonably competitive level”, referring, for example, a team like Guangzhou Evergrande. A duel with the Macau team could also be a good possibility, according to the president. Regarding the local Sporting team, Borges would like to arrange some interaction between the two teams “even if it is just a joint training”.
The president of Sporting Clube de Macau says he has “very high” expectations, not only regarding the club’s arrival in the territory, but also regarding the tour in China.
“Sporting Clube de Portugal is betting on something for the future, which comes under the pretext of celebrating the 40 years, and as a Sporting fan, being able to see the main team always gives me immense pleasure,” he concludes.