Foreign fans of China Super League share who they support and why the game is so precious to them
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.”
American Brandon Chemers supports Beijing Guoan at Workers’ Stadium.
Foreign fans of local Chinese football clubs find the atmosphere in the stadium to be full of energy and excitement.