I’m always surprised to find out that this site has fans and loyal readers, it makes what we’re trying to do here all the more important and interesting. It also has brought about a few interesting opportunities that I’d never have if I wasn’t blogging about Guoan on this site. One of the most unique was recently being asked by Sports Illustrated China to write a column about my thoughts on the season from the perspective of a Guoan fan, as a subscriber to the American edition from a young age, it was a surreal experience. I was given nothing more than a word count and so I ran with the idea. The Chinese version of the article can be seen here or in the latest issue of Sports Illustrated. Here’s the original English version of the article.
I get asked all the time about why I follow the Chinese Super League, the answer is simple, there’s nothing like the experience of a live football match. These days if you’re in Beijing, you are truly blessed with a wonderful team to watch and a great culture. The side’s now one of Beijing’s hottest tickets and packs in 30,000 with ease and at times this season has come close to 50,000.
I first really started watching Beijing Guoan in 2002, it was shortly after the “Black Whistles” scandal and the Chinese domestic league was in complete disarray. Attendance at Worker’s Stadium was at an all-time low, matches sometimes had less than 10,000 supporters, and you couldn’t find anyone who was willing to admit to being a Chinese Super League fan. I’d bike to Gongti and buy a ticket at the north gate from some very bored supporters a day or two before the match. On the day of the game, I’d wear my Guoan jersey around town and be looked at like a freak, first you rarely see Chinese wearing a soccer jersey when not playing or going to a game, second it was a Chinese Super League team at that, and finally being a foreigner wearing it made it all the stranger.
Since then, there have been drastic changes. The club almost won the title in 2008 leading to a ton of excitement when they returned to Gongti in 2009 and ultimately won the title that year. Despite a lack of success last year, excitement continued to build around Beijing and the team quickly became more accepted. This year has seen a further explosion of fans and a unique, growing supporters culture.
Back in March when I purchased my season ticket, I wasn’t expecting much from Beijing Guoan this year. They lost two national team midfielders, the young players didn’t seem ready for the big show, the already aging defense was a year older, they failed to find a good foreign central defender, and the club’s managerial search was a complete debacle ending with a choice nobody had heard of and who had never coached in Asia before. Optimistically, the club would have an outside shot at an Asian Champions League spot or a decent run in the CFA Cup, but more likely it would be a long season of mediocrity.
Hope started to crop up after an unlucky draw away at Guangzhou and then the string of 3-0 victories. After awhile, it looked like Guoan seriously were a title threat, but away matches killed the team throughout the year. There was a midseason high after crushing Shanghai at home and a lot of excitement going into the return match against Guangzhou, though when it ended in a draw, our title hopes were effectively over, then killed by a loss at Qingdao at the end of August. After that, there wasn’t much to be excited about, though the win over Henan felt like revenge and beating Tianjin on their home turf was sweet, all the more important as Guoan fans needed some joy in their lives after having been knocked out of the CFA Cup on penalties a few days earlier. In all, it was a great season, one that will see us competing in Asia next year, and there is a lot of hope going forward.
This year Guoan’s home form was excellent, only losing two matches, in part a testament to the wonderful fans who show up every other week. Guoan supporters have independently created a special atmosphere at Gongti that extends outside of the stadium on matchdays.
Unlike overseas, where soccer and beer go hand in hand, alcohol isn’t a big part of the fan culture in Beijing, though pre-match dining definitely is. When Guoan are at Gongti, it’s hard to find a restaurant around the stadium that isn’t packed with green clad fans. The walk up to the stadium is especially unique, with enterprising individuals selling their wares, ranging from shanzhai jerseys to unique t-shirts, scarves, and pretty much anything you can put a Guoan logo or a player’s face on, by the time you reach the north gate, it’s a sea of people. This rise in merchandise is just one of the reasons that, unlike in the bad old days, on weekends at popular spots for young people like Xidan, Nanluoguxiang, or Sanlitun you’re likely to see a couple of fans proudly wearing Guoan gear, even on non-matchdays. Inside the stadium, the wall of scarves you’ll see when the players first enter the pitch is a stirring thing and from kickoff to the end of the match, the fans are into it, cheering, screaming, swearing, and supporting their side.
While it’s great going to home matches and being amongst 30,000+ of your closest friends, there’s nothing like going to an away match where you’re lucky if your numbers are in the triple digits. There is always a whiff of danger involved in going to an away match, you never know when the home fans will be especially hostile or the security will be lacking, but the joy of it outweighs the potential danger. Being in the “lion’s den” surrounded by thousands of other fans cheering at you and hoping for your team’s demise as you do your best to shout over them can be exhilarating. Going on the road gives you the chance to really get to know fellow fans as there’s often nothing to do but chat during the long hours in a car, on a train or a bus. Further, you can often make a weekend of it and see more of the country.
It’s hard to feel things are fair if you’re a Guoan fan who has traveled to an away match. Worker’s Stadium is by far the safest venue in China for away fans. An experienced, massive security contingent guarantees that visiting fans to Gongti will enjoy their time without having to worry about any threat from home supporters.
The problem is conditions at Gongti are the exception to the rule and when Guoan fans go on the road, they never know what to expect. This season there were some good times like a trip to Dalian, where their “Ultras” made sure the Guoan supporters were safe before and after the match and then took them to dinner and beers. Guoan’s away match at Qingdao was also a memorable one. Beijing lost the match, but it was hard to feel too badly after leaving the stadium and making a 10-minute walk to the beach. An impromptu game of beach soccer quickly had us forgetting the match result and laughing again.
Unfortunately, there were also away trips like the one to Zhengzhou. A large number of Guoan fans made the trip expecting a great experience, though the result was that they were locked in a stand of Hanghai Stadium with no water and no toilet for 6 hours. It didn’t help that at one point, locals made us feel welcomed by throwing garbage cans filled with bodily fluids onto the stand. The momentary happiness when we were finally allowed to leave at 2 am, nine hours after entering the stadium, was quickly quelled when we saw one of the buses destroyed by Henan hooligans. All’s well that ends well, later in the season when Henan came to Gongti, the players seemed to be playing extra hard and ended up earning a 3-0 win, with more than one player dedicating the match to the fans.
The Henan incident brings up the fact that this was the “Season of Weibo”, a unique new experience for soccer fans across the country. During our time locked inside the stadium, fans communicated with friends, family and fellow fans through the online service. While reading updates from Xu Liang and Zhang Yonghai about them also being locked in the stadium and attempts to bring us water added to my own indignation and anger as I sat locked in the stand and thirsty. It also led me to like and respect these two players even more.
Weibo offers fans a new way to chat about their team, receive news and rumors, and most of all communicate directly with the players. While many players wasted this new technology by posting boring updates about what they were eating or doing (i.e. “I’m on my way to practice”, “I’m at the airport looking forward to the match”), some used it to express their unedited thoughts, things that fans would otherwise never hear. The unique thing about weibo is that it can be a conversation and a few players used it to respond to their fans (or in some cases detractors).
Xu Liang was one of the more outspoken players throughout the season and was at the center of an early season weibo controversy when an unrelated message he sent was misconstrued as being a criticism of teammates. Other Guoan players, and in some cases their wives, got involved as well. Other than the Zhengzhou weibo posts, I deeply remember a post by Xu Yunlong complaining about the horrible refereeing in Guoan’s match away at Liaoning. I was heading to the Shenyang train station so I could return to Beijing when I was saw it, on that crowded bus it was comforting to see Xu shared the same frustration I had as a fan.
This has been a great season to be a Guoan fan and I’m hoping for even better things next year. It’s exciting times for soccer fans in the capital, Jamie Pacheco has proven he’s an excellent manager and the squad is full of young talent. As a fan, I’m most looking forward to the Asian Champions League next year and an international away trip!
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