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True Blue: A night with Shanghai’s football hardcore

Wild scenes of celebration, drunken tomfoolery, and a stampede of autograph hunters scrambling over tables and chairs were highlights of the evening as major stars from the world of Chinese football attended a fans event in the city on Saturday night.

Your correspondent was there to witness the rowdy goings-on, after unwittingly finding himself among the guests of honour at the Chinese New Year party of Shanghai Shenhua FC’s biggest supporters group, the Blue Devils.

The Xiang Cheng hotpot restaurant on Kai Xuan Lu looked like just another Shanghai eatery on the outside but inside, it was a different story. The ambience was normal to begin with. But, alcohol flowed freely to help the thirsty Ultras wash down their hotpot. Inevitably, random football songs began breaking out at tables across the hall of some 300 fans or so, as pint glass after empty pint glass were slammed down on tables amid a swashbuckling atmosphere. Much to his surprise, a slightly embarrassed Editor was introduced to the crowd as a foreign supporter, and ordered to take a bow, before being comprehensively upstaged as two Chinese national team superstars emerged from a side room, to take the stage amid raucous cheering.

Former Aachen striker and pin-up boy Xie Hui then brought the house down, taking the mic and announcing “I’ll speak Shanghainese, OK?” to roars of laughter and approval from the Blue Devil massive.

Next up was one-time Evertonian and current Shenhua defender Li Wei Feng, nicknamed Da Tou (bighead) due to his aerial prowess. He briefly addressed the cheering crowd, and was then followed by his current team’s manager, Wu Jing Gui. With the crowd now whipped up into a state of alcohol-fuelled excitement, the ever-popular Shenhua manager’s appearance prompted loud chants of “Shenhua, Champions, Shenhua, Champions” as he struggled to be heard.

Also appearing was new Brazilian signing, Ronny Carlos da Silva, who joins the Shanghai side on a year’s loan from Portuguese top division outfit Pacos Ferreira. Despite having yet to kick a ball for his new club, he was given a hero’s welcome by the expectant fans.

Proceedings then descended into a free-for-all, as fans mobbed the stars in search of autograph and picture opportunities. Having been the target for numerous gan bei’s, your correspondent couldn’t help but get caught up in all the excitement, and in a mildly inebriated state, and with the help of a translator, asked a bemused Wu Jing Gui what he thought Shenhua’s chances for this season were. He said that he hoped to “move up a level” on last year’s second placed finish, and thanked his Scottish inquisitor for his interest, as Chinese news source Sina reported.

Chinese football may be widely criticised for poor standards and a domestic league lacking credibility due to a scandal-ridden past, but the players are still heroes to the fans. Girls squealed as they crowded around to have their picture taken with Xie Hui, whilst the restaurant staff stopped work to look on, all smiles and somewhat star-struck. The excitement was infectious.

Your correspondent also caught up with Xiao Ba, who previously appeared on the pages of Shanghaiist, as the city’s “first football hooligan” — he was jailed after setting off a flare at Hongkou Stadium, following a crackdown on such behaviour. The Shenhua ultra was at pains to express his disgust at what he said were the “no fun” police. Indeed, it seems odd that, particularly at this time of year, when the entire city is about to have millions of fireworks launched in all directions simultaneously for Chinese New Year, that it’s forbidden to set off a sole distress flare in a football stadium.

Amid the boisterous atmosphere, Xiao Ba was also keen to contradict the Chinese stereotype of the hen-pecked Shanghai man who can’t handle his booze. The Nanhui native told us, “We Blue Devils aren’t the same. Never mind ‘how many bottles?’ I once drank for 14 hours straight.” Ah … takes us back to the day of my last university exam, which finished at 12 noon, right next to the union bar which was just opening …

You have to love the universal language of football. Aided by numerous pints of tasty German beer, it was impossible not to feel a genuine affinity with this band of football-crazy Shanghainese.


This post was originally published on Shanghaiist.

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.

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