FOOT­BALL FA­NAT­ICS

For­eign fans of China Su­per League share who they sup­port and why the game is so pre­cious to them

Global Times – Metro Beijing - - FRONT PAGE - By Yin Lu

Learn­ing that Cameron Wil­son from Scot­land is a hard­core sup­porter of Shang­hai Green­land Shen­hua Foot­ball Club, the most com­mon ques­tion that Chi­nese peo­ple ask is, “Why do for­eign­ers

like to watch Chi­nese foot­ball?”

“If I just wanted to watch a team that won all the time, I’d fol­low Manch­ester United or some club like that, but that would be ut­terly bor­ing as I don’t have a per­sonal or emo­tional con­nec­tion with Manch­ester like I do with Shang­hai,” he said.

Ex­pats like Wil­son be­come sup­port­ers of lo­cal foot­ball clubs be­cause they want to find con­nec­tion to the lo­cal cul­ture through a shared in­ter­est. “It is a chance to so­cial­ize with your friends and also take pride in your team be­cause they are rep­re­sent­ing their lo­cal com­mu­nity,” he said.

Among the fans of this year’s China Su­per League (CSL), peo­ple can find a num­ber of for­eign faces.

While some peo­ple would say that Chi­nese foot­ball games are not that ap­peal­ing, which is usu­ally as­so­ci­ated with the Chi­nese na­tional team not do­ing very well in­ter­na­tion­ally, these for­eign fans would dis­agree. Their rea­sons range from the great pas­sion in­side a Chi­nese sta­dium and their love for tal­ented Chi­nese play­ers, to tak­ing pride in be­ing in a great com­mu­nity and the un­cer­tainty and en­ter­tain­ment of the league.

Pas­sion on the field

Wil­son’s pas­sion for foot­ball started in his child­hood. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from col­lege, Wil­son came to China and lived in Jiangyin, Jiangsu Prov­ince in 2000 and 2001, dur­ing which time he was keen to see a Chi­nese game. In June 2001, he went to a Shen­hua match. “I was blown away by the en­ergy of the fans and since then, I have fol­lowed Shen­hua closely,” he said.

Wil­son loves go­ing to the sta­dium and for him, noth­ing beats watch­ing foot­ball live. He has fol­lowed the team to other cities in the coun­try to watch them play.

“Peo­ple who truly love foot­ball do so for what it is, they don’t care so much about star play­ers or re­ally high-qual­ity ac­tion on the pitch,” he said.

“Maybe the stan­dard of foot­ball at CSL isn’t as good as the English Pre­mier League (EPL), but the at­mos­phere is much bet­ter.”

He ex­plained that the EPL at­mos­phere has be­come worse over the years. Not ev­ery­body can af­ford to watch the EPL games ev­ery week, and those who can do not care as much about the sport.

“But they (bankers and lawyers) usu­ally aren’t very pas­sion­ate about the team. They just go be­cause foot­ball is now seen as a pres­ti­gious leisure ac­tiv­ity in their so­cial cir­cles,” he said.

“In China, the ticket prices are cheap and the fans are younger and full of true pas­sion and en­ergy. I found the fans of Shen­hua to be very proud of their iden­tity as Shang­hainese, and I think this is a re­ally pos­i­tive thing.”

Bran­don Che­mers, from the US, agreed with Wil­son say­ing that the at­mos­phere in­side a Chi­nese foot­ball sta­dium is great. “Even the buildup as one walks to­ward the sta­dium is ex­cit­ing,” he said.

Che­mers no­ticed that foot­ball fans in China tend to be a more di­verse group of peo­ple than the rest of the world.

“Fans in the sup­porter sec­tions tend to be slightly younger in China than over­seas and there also tends to be more fe­male fans than you’d see else­where,” he said.

Sup­port­ing lo­cal foot­ball

Upon hear­ing that Che­mers is a Bei­jing Guoan fan, the Chi­nese peo­ple, es­pe­cially those who do not watch CSL, tend to think that he is crazy.

“Most Chi­nese don’t have a lot of re­spect for the do­mes­tic league and com­pletely ig­nore it. Even a lot of foot­ball fans in China pre­fer the Euro­pean leagues, so they don’t un­der­stand why a for­eigner would bother with the CSL,” Che­mers said.

He ex­plained that there is a move­ment of “sup­port­ing lo­cal foot­ball” among fans all over the world.

“What con­nec­tion does some­one in Bei­jing have to Manch­ester or Munich? But the Bei­jing Guoan is a team they can watch ev­ery week and go to the sta­dium and in­ter­act with the play­ers; it’s very dif­fer­ent,” he said.

Che­mers be­lieves sports and go­ing to lo­cal games are a great way to meet peo­ple and learn about dif­fer­ent cul­tures.

“Chi­nese fans can com­plain about the CSL. There are plenty of flaws. But if they don’t sup­port it, there is no way it can ever re­ally get built up. I’ve lived in Bei­jing for a long time and it’s a sec­ond home for me, so I want to sup­port the home team.”

Che­mers goes to ev­ery home game and tries to make it to a few of the away games each year.

Dur­ing this time, he has met and trav­eled with the most com­mit­ted fans. While the ma­jor­ity of those die-hard fans are Chi­nese, he no­tices that there are a grow­ing num­ber of for­eign­ers who watch the Bei­jing Guoan.

“I’ve seen it in the re­quests I get from peo­ple for in­for­ma­tion on how to get tick­ets for Bei­jing Guoan matches as well as see­ing a lot more for­eign faces at Gongti (Work­ers’ Sta­dium) these days.”

Al­though Hei­longjiang Lava Spring is only

in League Two and not in CSL, for Bri­ton Adam Ri­dler it is still the best team of all.

Ri­dler, a 28-year-old teacher, came to China seven years ago and has lived in Harbin, Hei­longjiang Prov­ince ever since. His en­thu­si­asm is shared among many other sup­port­ers of the team, well known for their vo­cal and con­sis­tent sup­port, which ac­cord­ing to Ri­dler, re­ally sets the team apart. “We reg­u­larly get around 10,000 sup­port­ers per game, which is pretty im­pres­sive for a League Two team,” he said.

While Ri­dler ad­mits that the stan­dard of play is not as good as one could ex­pect to see in Europe, it never both­ered him.

“I think it’s im­por­tant to sup­port your lo­cal side, whether that hap­pens to be a Pre­mier League giant or a small Chi­nese League Two team,” he said. “Foot­ball is a pas­sion, and one that I’m not sure I could live with­out.”

Cheer­ing for CSL clubs

Wil­son thinks that Shen­hua has un­der- achieved this sea­son, with most of the prob­lems be­ing self-in­flicted such as chang­ing coaches mul­ti­ple times and not de­ploy­ing the play­ers wisely. But he said he won’t quit the team no mat­ter what the re­sults are.

How­ever, when cheer­ing for their lo­cal clubs in CSL, ex­pats from the same city might find them­selves sup­port­ing dif­fer­ent teams.

Be­tween the two ri­val teams in Shang­hai, Shang­hai Shen­hua and Shang­hai SIPG, Amer­i­can Jeff Beres­ford-Howe, who has been liv­ing in Shang­hai for three years, fell in love with SIPG from the start.

“SIPG is the younger one and is more thought­fully man­aged and more fo­cused on the sport,” he said. “And they spend their money on good play­ers.”

Un­like the ex­pat fans, Dan Jas­nowski, a soft­ware en­gi­neer from Spain who now lives in the US, has never been to China. Still, he is a fan of Guangzhou Ever­grande, six-time CSL cham­pi­ons.

Jas­nowski could still re­call vividly on Oc­to­ber 27, 2012, when he was watch­ing Ever­grande play­ing Liaon­ing Whowin (now Liaon­ing Kaixin) in the mid­dle of the night. When striker Gao Lin scored the 90th-minute win­ning goal to clinch the 2012 CSL, he was so happy that he started scream­ing. “It was 5 am for me, but I did not care! Gao Lin has been my fa­vorite player ever since,” he said.

“Once you start grow­ing at­tached to a team, it’s just like watch­ing any other league, only more ex­cit­ing. In the top leagues, you usu­ally know who is go­ing to win. In China, it’s a bit more com­pli­cated.”

Jas­nowski likes the un­cer­tainty of CSL, but he is con­fi­dent that this sea­son Ever­grande is on track to win the league again, which makes him happy and on the edge of his seat, ex­pect­ing the up­com­ing matches.

Build­ing a com­mu­nity

Ac­cord­ing to Beres­ford-Howe, the CSL games can be “very cre­ative, dy­namic and re­ally en­ter­tain­ing.”

“A lot of Chi­nese fans have a neg­a­tive im­pres­sion of Chi­nese foot­ball. But I think the im­pres­sion is out­dated. The CSL is now much bet­ter than it was,” he said. “Ev­ery time I take a for­eign friend to watch a game, they are sur­prised by how ex­cit­ing and fun it is.”

One of the things that he es­pe­cially likes about the man­age­ment of Chi­nese foot­ball is that sea­son tick­ets are sold to a num­ber of en­thu­si­as­tic fans. They are put right by the field and cre­ate great at­mos­phere for the game, he said.

Wil­son runs a small ex­pat Shen­hua fan­club and he es­ti­mates that in Shang­hai’s ex­pat com­mu­nity, Shen­hua has hun­dreds of reg­u­lar fans and dozens hard-core fans. In a WeChat group of around 80 mem­bers, who are mostly for­eign fans of Chi­nese foot­ball across the coun­try, Wil­son told Met­ro­pol­i­tan that there are pas­sion­ate dis­agree­ments, dis­cus­sions about “why our clubs al­ways make the same mis­takes over and over again” and also the fu­ture of Chi­nese foot­ball.

As the for­eign fan base of Chi­nese foot­ball grew, Wil­son started Wild East Foot­ball in 2007. It is a web­site in English to share news and crit­i­cism on Chi­nese foot­ball, which helps for­eign fans and me­dia to bet­ter un­der­stand the dif­fer­ent dy­nam­ics.

“I think for­eign­ers want to be part of their com­mu­nity and sup­port a team along­side lo­cal peo­ple; it is a way to feel close to China even if you can’t un­der­stand the cul­ture and lan­guage re­ally well,” he said. “Foot­ball is a great way to over­come the bar­ri­ers and ob­sta­cles be­tween us.”

Photo: Cour­tesy of Bran­don Che­mers

Amer­i­can Bran­don Che­mers sup­ports Bei­jing Guoan at Work­ers’ Sta­dium.

Photo: Cour­tesy of Cameron Wil­son

For­eign fans of lo­cal Chi­nese foot­ball clubs find the at­mos­phere in the sta­dium to be full of en­ergy and ex­cite­ment.

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