Chinese Super League players cannot see their families because of coronavirus but they must still learn about President Xi Jinping’s love of football while cooped up in safety “bubbles”.
Underlining how the ruling Communist Party seeps into all corners of Chinese life, even bio-secure ones, teams have been pictured earnestly taking in the ideology of their leader.
All 16 CSL teams, including players and staff, have been living in two sealed-off hotels, one in Suzhou and the other in Dalian, for the past five weeks to thwart the coronavirus.
They are not allowed to leave except for training and matches, and cannot mix with the outside world.
To kill time, players can play video games and billiards, do karaoke or visit an on-site library.
But there have recently also been “thematic party-day learning and education activities” for domestic players, backroom staff and referees who are Communist Party members, or aspire to be.
More than a dozen players and staff from former champions Shanghai SIPG were pictured last week seated at a table, pens and paper at the ready.
Hung prominently at the front of the room is the Communist Party’s red flag with a yellow hammer and sickle.
SIPG’s overseas players, such as the Brazilians Oscar and Hulk, and former West Ham striker Marko Arnautovic, were not present.
The club’s Chinese international goalkeeper Yan Junling “led everyone to study together”, said the CSL.
“Under the leadership of party member Yan Junling, everyone learned the spirit of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s speech together.
“All party members jointly stated: We must remember the party’s trust in us to… realise the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and meet new challenges with power and youthful spirit.”
Players have also watched propaganda films. Members of CSL side Henan Jianye, with masks covering their faces to protect against the virus, saw one called “Xi Jinping’s Football Love”.
“While the Chinese Super League is in full swing, grassroots party-building work in Dalian and Suzhou has not relaxed,” the league said.
Players will not be able to leave their hotel cocoons until the first phase of the coronavirus-delayed season finishes at the end of September — a stint that totals about 10 weeks.
There are signs that some are suffering in the claustrophobic environment.
One player told Soccer News: “When I think about being walled in for the next one-and-a-half months, my head is spinning, so I don’t dare think too much.”
Propaganda initiatives are not isolated in Chinese football: in 2018, top young players were packed off to military camps for drills and Marxist-style “thought education”.