How did I imagine Chinese football fans? The truth is that I expected them to be passive. I have no idea why. I'd never been to China in my life, let alone a Chinese football match. Maybe because it's a nascent league perceived as being desperate to establish itself after starting 100 years too late. Possibly, I thought (though not with much depth), the fans wouldn't really know how to support their team. You know, because they don't have a century of tradition behind them, and all that bollocks.
|United in blue - Shanghai |
Shenhua fans (pic: TQF)
European football's default position on any league beyond its ken is that it must be second-rate. Our perception of the Chinese Super League has largely been as follows: its owners are just chucking huge money after aging stars, in the manner of Major League Soccer since the Beckham Rule, and the North American Soccer League of the 1970s. Japan and Australia have been down that route too. We condescendingly wave a knowing goodbye to star players who fly East to bow out for one last pay-off in a sub-standard league.
Lazy narratives are borne of a lack of curiosity. Both apathy and a lack of interest almost caused me to stay away from Shanghai Shenhua against Hebei at the tail-end of March. Yet if I'm in a newcity and there's a game on, the event becomes like a bug bite in the middle of my back. I hope it goes away so I can avoid having to twist around to scratch it, but in the end I have no choice. As a football writer, I have to go. Sorry, love - it's work (otherwise known in my family as 'work').
In the US, the soccer community loves nothing more than a journalist dropping in from Europe (usually England), watching one MLS game, then jetting off home to gleefully hack out a hatchet job essentially saying, 'Ha ha, the Yanks can't do football! And they call it soccer!' I was aware of this when going to the CSL as a casual visitor. I was determined that, if I spent the evening bored among disinterested fans, then I would not write a single word. No one would even know I'd been there.
After the game, I met up with my all-female party, ensconced in a mah-jong game next door to the stadium. After I'd been sitting there for half an hour, one of them finally looked up and said, "Oh, how was the football?"
|"Glory, Glory." With no added vitriol (pic: TQF)|
Where to start? When I came out of the ground, the lovely 33,000 Hongkou Stadium where Germany lifted the 2007 Women's World Cup, I was almost bouncing with the desire to tell them all about it. Then, watching them immersed in mah-jong, I curbed my urge to evangelise, reminding myself that none of them gave a fuck about what I'd just seen. So my answer was, "Yes, it was good. Great game. Lots of goals. Excellent atmosphere..."
"Great. Do you mind if we play another round?"
So, of course it was correct not to tell a barely interested audience what was really on my mind. That Chinese fans, judging by what I'd just seen, know better than any in the world how to follow their team. That they had just restored my faith in football. Nay, the human race!
"Really?" you're asking now. Really. Honestly. The evening was a blueprint for devotional support:
1. Noisy reception for the emerging players. Both ends packed out, as were several side sections, and almost every fan was wearing the home team's blue.
2. During the first half, not much went right for Shanghai. Former Colombian international Giovanni Moreno waved his arms a lot in frustration at his team-mates. Former Newcastle and Inter striker Obafemi Martins made one thrilling run down the left wing, but two players swung at and missed his cross, right in front of goal. The home fans threw up their hands, there was a massive "Ooh!" around the ground, then everyone looked at each other and smiled. So close. But no boos. No one screamed at the players who'd screwed up.
3. Just after half-time, Hebei took the lead. No one swore at the defence, the goalkeeper or the referee. Martins equalised and, after the initial jubilation, pretty much all 21,000 fans (aside from the few hundred away followers) sang as one in celebration with only the briefest of prompts from the tannoy. Hebei promptly took the lead again, but the Shanghai fans ignored that incidental setback and kept on singing.
4. Martins ended up scoring a hat-trick as the home team won 4-2. There were goals, noise and joy in abundance. Moreno, who has been playing in Shanghai for six years, was superb, despite throwing a moody every time something went wrong. The fans backed their team the way that any fan should back their team - absent of the hate, vitriolic hostility, and the apparently pre-written entitlement to success that currently disfigures so much of European support at the highest level.
|Tuesday night Kashima |
clash in the AFC (pic: TQF)
I enjoyed it so much that four days later I went back for the Asian Champions League group game against Kashima Antlers. The bloke next to me stood up throughout the game and bellowed witticisms that had the fans around me laughing like drains. I wished that my understanding of Mandarin encompassed more than the word for 'thank you'. Final score: 2-2. Shanghai were out, but it was another cracking night of intensive, attacking football.
"What's the standard like compared with European football?" That was the question I hated most in the US when discussing MLS with visitors. It's neither measurable nor relevant. "What are the fans like compared with European fans?" That one I can answer. At their collective best on the night in question, the Shanghai Shenhua supporters illustrated a simple sporting truth: footballers are there to be cheered, and football's there to be enjoyed.
The Quiet Fan will be published by Unbound in August 2018. You can still pre-order a copy and get your name in the book for as little as £10.