SHANGHAI -- The Chinese Football Association’s latest attempt to ingratiate itself with China’s often disgruntled soccer fans may have backfired -- after the CFA released a series of posters depicting its opponents for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, including a Hong Kong team that it described as being made up of people “with black skin, yellow skin and white skin.”

The images, in the form of posters, were released on Chinese social media. On its official WeChat account, the CFA said the posters were designed as a “polite reminder” to the national team’s players not to be complacent -- in the face of what is generally seen as weak opposition from Hong Kong, Bhutan, the Maldives and Qatar. 

However the CFA said that, in soccer, no-one could ever take victory for granted, and added that the players must take their opponents seriously: it said China must be sure to defend itself against a team with “as many layers” as Hong Kong.

China’s other opponents got similar treatment: Bhutan, who China play next week, was described as having a player who would “go back to piloting planes after the match”; Qatar was described as rich and having many naturalized players; while the CFA said the Maldives were very “proud of themselves,” since their coach had said they would beat China to finish second in the group.

The style of the posters, with the team’s opponents in kung-fu poses, is apparently designed to be humorous -- and combined with the use of social media, it seems to be part of the CFA’s attempt to reconnect with fans after being blamed for the men’s national team’s failures over many years -- and for a recent past littered with corruption and inflexible bureaucracy.

And the main point may be to avoid any repeat of China’s tradition of failure against teams from countries with far smaller populations: China was knocked out by Qatar in the qualifying round for the 1998 World Cup, lost to Costa Rica in 2002 when it did qualify for the finals -- and famously missed out on the 1986 World Cup after losing at home to Hong Kong, a result that sparked China’s first ever soccer riot, in Beijing.

The CFA said on its WeChat account that the comments about Hong Kong’s players were a sign of respect for the city’s cosmopolitan nature -- yet Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported that they were “unlikely to go down well with Hong Kong fans,” not least because Hong Kong has a squad featuring players born in Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria and England, as well as five born in China.

Some sociologists have argued that emphasis on skin color or ethnic difference is common in China -- a relatively homogeneous society -- and does not necessarily imply racism.

Football commentators on Shanghai’s television stations, for example, routinely seem to feel the need to comment on the skin color of black players in top European football leagues -- though they do not usually mention when a player is white.

But others see this as reflecting a tendency to stereotype -- some Chinese commentators have been known to imply that a player of Afro-Caribbean origin is likely to run particularly fast, for example -- and as potentially leading to casual racism. Similarly it is very common to hear people in China talking about “foreigners,” something that again may reflect simply an awareness of difference -- yet many find it irritating to be labeled in this way.

The CFA may get a better idea of how its attempts at humor have gone down when China hosts Hong Kong in the first of the teams’ two qualifying ties in early September.