China’s not a sports loving country. In the US or much of Europe, even if you aren’t a sports fan, you know a bit about how the local side is doing that year, you’ll see it on the news, in the papers, and it will definitely be a topic in the office. Here in China, that’s just not the case, dedicated sports fans who’d seem normal elsewhere are looked upon as freaks. Well, I’m letting my freak flag fly.
I love Worker’s Stadium on a matchday, it’s such a unique setting, such a unique neighborhood. It’s not like Highbury, where if you blink you may miss the football stadium, but the area encompasses every possible income and includes a real cross section of the Beijing population. There are always people hanging around Gongti, typically in the form of old men playing cards or mah jong along Gongti North Road, but you also have those that use this “enclosed space” as a running track or exercise area. On matchdays, they’re all out in force adding to the surreal feeling of it all, 40,000 people will descend on this area in a couple hours, the police and “yellow cows” are setting up and yet these old guys are living in their own little bubble.
On matchday afternoons (or increasingly in Beijing, evenings), a sea of green starts descending on Gongti 2-3 hours before match time, as people start flowing in from the subway lines to the east and west of the stadium. The KFC just east of the stadium serves as a meeting spot and quickly gets overrun by people. Others hit up the Jingkelong next door for snacks and water before the match. Though the stadium is right in the midst of Beijing’s most popular bar area, few fans stop off in the bars, though there’s always a decent contingent of westerners who head to the Den for prematch beverages. At this time, the merchandise sellers also start coming out, people pulling up their cars in front of the stadium and popping open the trunk or carrying bags full of Guoan gear on the back of their bike, setting up their little “shop” on the sidewalks around the stadium.
There’s an excitement in the air, you keep passing by people in green and giving them the look, you’re both in the same club, one that the tourists around the Village and Yashow have no clue about, and it adds to the tense butterflies in your stomach about how your beloved Men in Green will do that day.
Maybe you grab a drink at the Den or a snack at the KFC, pick up a newspaper for halftime at the newsstand outside the KFC, or look to see if there are any new offerings from the souvenier sellers along Gongti North. While the Guoan players are tucked away inside their rooms along the southwest part of the stadium, you know the away team will pull into the west gate about an hour before the match and maybe you head there to “greet” them before going through security.
Once you’re inside the security, if you’re like me (ie fat), maybe you stop off at Stadium Dog for a hot dog and a beer as you peruse the latest sports news in the paper you bought. Or you meet up with other Guoan friends before you head inside to your seats.
You settle into your seat and watch warmups, see who Pacheco has in the starting lineup (hopefully it won’t be like the days of Hong Yuanshuo when every game would be an unwelcomed surprise) and see if you recognize any of the people sitting around you. You stand up with your scarf when the players come out onto the pitch, sing the national anthem, and scream your head off for the next 90 minutes or so.
After the match, you hopefully leave the stadium on a high, seeing your beloved Guoan secure 3 more points and head off into the night. A block over at Sanlitun, the country’s most famous bar street, nobody even knows there’s a football match going on, but you’re a member of a 40,000 plus club, and you take that joy with you as you return to “normalcy” with your other friends over a beer at Sanlitun.
Cheers, drink up, here’s to another Guoan victory.