A year and half ago, an expat football squad arrived to a scene they never expected to confront on the pitch. The opposing team had made a strange choice, troublesome to many, offensive to others. Why would they name themselves after a dictator responsible for the deaths of millions? Are they insensitive or just uninformed? The article leaves the decision to you.
A TOUGH, UGLY MATCH
I’ll never forget the night I played football against Hitler. It was a wet and bitter winter night in Nancheng. As we were warming up, the Chinese opposition arrived. Our Australian defender pointed out the back of their jersey and asked, “Is that a Swastika?”
I couldn’t believe it, so we went for a jog around the pitch to take a closer look. As we passed the other team stretching, we saw on the back of their fluorescent green jerseys were the swastikas, and printed underneath was Hitler.
We were unsure if we should play the match. My team was made up of players that were Jewish, and others came from places like The Netherlands, England and France, all of whom had suffered at the hands of this team’s patron mascot. Some of our crew posed the question: if we played against them, were we saying what they were doing was OK. Others doubted whether they could control their emotions. My captain made the call, “Screw it! Let’s play them and destroy them.”
It was a tough, ugly match. Players on both sides flew into tackles and smashed into shoulder charges. Defenders kicked strikers off the pitch while strikers dragged their blades down the calves of defenders. Elbows were swung, legs were stamped. We swore and cursed each other in English and Chinese. Every few minutes a fight started and players had to be broken up.
When the final whistle came we had won. We celebrated in their faces while they clapped and jeered. Nobody shook hands and the two captains continued to argue long after the match had finished.
A year and a half later, on a warm spring afternoon, I am sat opposite the captain of Team Hitler in an office in Nancheng.
No No, works as a designer for children’s clothes in Houjie, a town just southwest of Dongguan’s modernizing banking district, where he moved after graduating from university in northern Guangdong’s Shaoguan City. He has a cravat tucked inside a blazer while his long fringe comes over his thick rimmed glasses. I have just asked him who his favorite footballer is and he speaks gently and listens politely while we share memories of the French striker Thierry Henry.
No No is far from the neo-Nazi I expected to meet. In fact, it turns out that the idea to call the team Hitler was not even his.
“More than half the team voted for Hitler,” recalls No No.
“At the beginning our team had a sponsor, but they cancelled the sponsorship. Everyone chipped in to sponsor the team so we had a dinner and let everyone vote for the new name.
One teammate proposed Hitler. I said it’s not appropriate, it’s too political. The others said it did not matter. This is China, not Europe. More than half the team voted for Hitler,” recalls No No.
The other name for the team that was suggested was the B-52s. Instead of being named after a dictator responsible for the deaths of millions of people they were very nearly named after a pop band responsible for the songs Rock Lobster and Love Shack.
TAKE A STEP BACK
I ask No No why they voted for Hitler. “As a football team, we want to win every match. We want our team to be powerful and we think the name gives our players confidence,” he explains.
When I ask about the name, No No is quick to defend his team, “We don’t want to be associated with any fighting or killing. We just admire Hitler’s ambition.”
For most Westerners, it seems impossible to be able to admire Hitler’s ambition without also thinking about what he did during World War II or the Holocaust. For some Chinese, however, they have been brought up to view leaders from their history in a compartmentalized way.
In River Town, a book by Peter Hessler about his time teaching in Sichuan, he observes how his students rationalize and justify their leaders. While discussing those men, the ones that charged the way to the Cultural Revolution, his students dismiss the blunders that lead to the death and poverty of so many Chinese citizens by balancing them with the achievements that laid groundwork for today’s burgeoning power. “As everyone knows, no gold is pure, no man is perfect,” one student wrote. “One flaw cannot obscure the splendor of the jade,” wrote another.
Later in the book, Hessler’s Chinese teacher applies the same logic when talking about Hitler. “Most of [Chinese] have two contrary ideas; that Hitler was a great leader, and that he was a crazy man who did terrible things. We have both of these ideas at once, you see.”
By defending their decision to name their team after Hitler, No No is making the same distinction.
DRILL THE BASICS
As we talk, I feel like No No does not really know or understand Hitler. When he talks about what Hitler did he refers to “Hitler and his battles,” when he talks about the victims of Hitler he says he “killed many British.” During the interview, No No never once mentions the Holocaust.
For some, it may be difficult to understand how someone cannot know about such things, but it is important to remember that history is geographical.
Instead of wearing a fluorescent green shirt with a giant swastika, they now wear a pink shirt with a small iron eagle.
Chinese may not know much about what happened in the Western theater of war, but how much do Westerners know about what happened in the Eastern theater. How many Americans know about the Rape of Nanking? How many Europeans have heard of Unit 731?
History is geographical. In school we are taught about our own country. A schoolboy in Dongguan does not learn about what happened in Germany during the war in the same way a schoolgirl in Manchester does not learn about what happened in China during the war.
The night my team played against Hitler, they had some Africans playing with them. It is telling that the Africans also did not understand why we were angry with the name of the team.
Last summer, Michael Owen, one of England’s top scorers and winner of the European player of the year, was at a televised press conference in Nancheng District. He poses for pictures and in one of those photos is No No wearing his Hitler jersey.
“Later he spoke to me and said it was not acceptable,” recalls No No.
“While I was taking my photo with Michael Owen an official from the local football association saw the shirt and asked my teammate about its meaning. Later he spoke to me and said it was not acceptable,” recalls No No.
They were told if they wished to remain part of the association then they would have to make changes. They agreed but the changes made were nothing more than token gestures. Instead of wearing a fluorescent green shirt with a giant swastika, they now wear a pink shirt with a small iron eagle. The team continued to be pronounced as Hitler in Chinese, but one of the characters is now writtrn differently.
In No No’s own words, “We wanted to keep the Hitler feeling.”
NONO, NO NAZI
They are not racists. Their team has members from Africa and No No has often had to defend his teammates from other teams. “One of our African players is stronger and bigger than most Chinese players. Sometimes he runs into another player and the other player gets injured. It is just an accident, but the Chinese overreact and blame our African player.” When No No speaks about Europeans he has nothing but respect for their style of play, “They play as a team. They are serious about winning and they give everything to win.”
For a team named after Hitler, they are surprisingly kind and caring. During another match in Nancheng, an opponent broke the leg of one of No No’s teammates in a malicious tackle. “The injured player was just a normal guy and his hospital bill was over ten thousand yuan. Considering our teammate’s economic situation each of us donated some money towards paying the hospital bill,” tells No No.
When I went into this interview I was prepared to argue with a neo-Nazi. Instead I met a fashion designer ignorant of who Adolf Hitler really was.
This made the interview more interesting, but also more complex. They do not believe in Nazism, but they promote those ideals by wearing their insignia and calling themselves Hitler. They have no intention to offend anyone, but when they do they are unable to understand why.
Even though No No is not a neo-Nazi, I feel the likelihood of him ever changing the name is just as low as if he were.
At the end of the interview we talk about that match a year and a half ago on the wet and bitter winter night. That night one of our regular players did not show up; an attacking midfielder from Israel with a short fuse. I tell No No that his team was lucky that player did not show up that night.
I say that maybe one day we can have a rematch. We talk about ways we can stop it from turning into another ugly match. I suggest they wear kits without any swastikas, iron eagles or their logo. No No replies with a straight face, “Well, maybe next time we play, just don’t bring your Jew friends.” It looks like there will be no rematch after all.
Read the article in Chinese