Partizan Belgrade’s 1988/89 squad photo shows three rows of players blinking in the sunlight. The home grown Belgrade heroes are joined by players from places like Kragujevac, Priboj, and Novi Pazar. Standing in the middle of the back row though are two men from the other side of the world: Dalian born Jia Xiuquan and the Shanghainese Liu Haiguang. Already halfway through their stay in Yugoslavia, the Chinese national team captain and the star striker would wear Partizan’s famous black and white shirt 57 times between them.
Until 1987 no mainland Chinese had played in a professional European league. Cantonese youngster Xie Yuxin was the first to move to Europe when he went to Dutch club PEC Zwolle’82 on a training contract after being spotted in a youth friendly. Gu Guangming was already in Germany at this point, but wouldn’t sign for SV Darmstadt 98 until later that year. After breaking his leg the year before, Gu moved to study in Germany. Whilst there, the former Guangdong and national team winger was spotted by second tier club Darmstadt.
Whilst Gu’s career appeared to be over and Xie’s had barely begun when they moved to Europe, the same could not be said of Jia Xiuquan and Liu Haiguang. Dalian born centre back Jia was the national team captain and had been voted MVP at the 1984 Asian Cup. His teammate Liu Haiguang had also been involved in that tournament. Allowing the pair to play abroad was a controversial decision at the time and can’t have been easy for the CFA.
Nor was the move insignificant for Partizan Belgrade. Jia and Liu would become the first non-European born players to play for Partizan, and the first foreigners since the club’s early years in the 1940s. Although there was no transfer fee – the move was part of a cultural exchange agreement between China and Yugoslavia - Partizan were locked in a battle with city rivals Red Star for the 1988/89 Yugoslav First League and didn’t want the Chinese pair foisted on them for purely diplomatic reasons.
With Chinese football not exactly being well known, Partizan understandably wanted some reassurance over the calibre of the players they were signing. Luckily, China were playing in qualifiers for the 1988 Asian Cup in the February of that year. Partizan scouts arrived in the UAE to watch the pair in action. Jia led a defence that conceded only one goal in five games, whilst the Shanghainese Liu scored three at the other end. The scouts were impressed.
1988 was a leap year and it was on February 29th that Jia and Liu left Beijing for Belgrade. Breaking into one of the best sides in Yugoslavia in mid-season would not be easy. Whilst overshadowed by the Red Star side of this era, Jia and Liu’s teammates still included players such as long serving keeper Fahrudin Omerović and Yugoslav international defender Predrag Spasić, as well as the more attack minded Nebojša Vučićević and forward Slađan Šćepović.
On top of this were the culture shock and language barriers the pair had to contend with. Jia, for example, went from marshalling his defence in Mandarin to being ordered around in an entirely new language. In fact, there were so few Mandarin speakers in Belgrade that Jia and Liu had to go to the Chinese embassy to find fellow countrymen to talk to.
Despite this, Jia seems to have settled quickly and played 16 league games between March and December ’88. By contrast, Liu managed only six league games but did score three times. His scoring ratio was even more impressive in friendlies; 15 goals in just 12 games. One of his league goals also made history. When it hit the back of the next after just 45 seconds, it became the fastest goal in Yugoslavian league history.
The atmosphere would’ve taken some getting used to as well. Familiar with playing in multipurpose stadia in China, the look of their new home would’ve been reassuring to the pair. But the noise generated by the Partizan faithful at what was then then JNA (Yugoslav People's Army) Stadium would’ve been different to anything Jia and Liu had previously experienced. Although Chinese crowds were more vocal by the late 1980s than they’d been when the first Western sides toured China in the late 1970s, flares were not a common item on the terraces. Unlike at Partizan.
Jia Xiuquan and Liu Haiguang helped Partizan to a second place finish in the 1987/88 season, only one point behind city rivals Red Star. The pair had obviously made a good impression as they were rewarded with a contract extension.
One of the contract terms allowed Jia and Liu to return to the Chinese national team for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the first that the PRC’s football team had qualified for. With the Yugoslavian league season already underway, the pair flew to Seoul in September. They were joined by Partizan teammates Predrag Spasić, Dragoljub Brnović and Vladislav Đukić who were all in the Yugoslav squad.
Jia and Liu started all three of China’s games but couldn’t help China get out of their group. They lost to West Germany and Sweden, before drawing with Tunisia in their final game. Their Yugoslav clubmates didn’t have it much better as they also went out at the group stage. They were all going back to Belgrade sooner than they’d hoped.
26th October 1987. Liu Haiguang scores as a Jia Xiuquan led China beat Japan 2-0 in Tokyo to qualify for the Seoul Olympics. Exactly a year later on 26th October 1988, Liu and Jia were on the bench for Partizan Belgrade’s second round first leg UEFA Cup tie against Roma. After 46 minutes, Jia came off the bench and onto the pitch to become the first Chinese to play in European continental competition. In front of a raucous home crowd, Partizan won 4-2.
However, neither Jia nor Liu were in the squad for the return leg at the Stadio Olympico. Roma won that game 2-0 and went through on away goals. Partizan’s European adventure was over for that year. The Chinese pair’s stay in Belgrade was shortly to come to an end too.
Partizan’s league form in the ‘88/89 season was disappointing, ending in a sixth place finish. They did have the not inconsiderable consolation of winning the Yugoslav Cup though. Both Jia and Liu appeared in the early rounds of this but missed the final as they were back in China by then. In fact, when Partizan hammered Velež Mostar 6-1 in the final on May 10th, Jia and Liu were playing for China in a 2-2 friendly draw with Japan.
Partizan had allowed the pair to return early to China in January 1989. This doesn’t mean the Belgrade club didn’t value their Chinese players though. On the contrary, they valued them so highly that they didn’t release them to play in the Asian Cup in December 1988. With World Cup qualifiers on the horizon in 1989 and games in Asia taking place on a different schedule to those in Europe, the CFA wanted to avoid the possibility of something similar happening. This country before club viewpoint perhaps also helps to explain why Jia and Liu’s experience did not prompt a sudden influx of other Chinese internationals to European leagues.
So it was that after experiencing a very different footballing environment – both on and off the pitch - the pair were playing for China in warm-up friendlies against Yunnan Province by the end of January 1989. A far cry from the JNA Stadium.
Jia Xiuquan and Liu Haiguang’s time in Belgrade was far from the end of footballing links between China and Yugoslavia (and its successor states). Since the early days of professional football in China, players from the former Yugoslavian countries have been among the most numerous imports. Long serving players include Aleksandar Živković, formerly of Shandong and Shenzhen, the forward Miodrag Pantelić and Beijing Guoan icon Darko Matić. Managers from that part of the world have also enjoyed success in China.
Most famously, ex-Partizan player Bora Milutinović took China to the 2002 World Cup. Domestically, Yugoslavian managers almost had a monopoly on winning the Chinese league between 1999 and 2008. First was ex-Partizan striker Slobodan Santrač with Shandong Luneng, then Milorad Kosanović won the next three league titles towards the end of all conquering Dalian Shide’s domestic success, Vladimir Petrović did the league and cup double in 2005 with Dalian, before former Partizan player and manager Ljubiša Tumbaković won the Chinese Super League twice in three years with Shandong.
During their stay in Belgrade, Jia and Liu didn’t play in the ‘eternal derby’ against Red Star in the league. They can’t have been unaware of Red Star’s midfield maestro who was fast becoming a club legend though. Almost 30 years later, Jia Xiuquan and the Yugoslav would finally get the chance to lock horns, this time as managers in the CSL. Zhengzhou’s Hanghai Stadium was the location for Jia’s Henan Jianye team to face Dragan Stojković’s Guangzhou R&F.
It’s perhaps overly romantic to think that the relatively high number of players and managers from the former Yugoslavian countries in China is entirely unconnected with what happened in Belgrade in 1988. The most remarkable thing about this story though is that is happened at all. That two men who’d been unknown in 1987 were able to pull on Partizan’s famous black and white shirt so many times in 1988.
You can read more from Donald at wildeastfootball.net. Thanks to Aleksandar Pavlovic for the image.