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Joel Griffiths: A Tale of Two Cities

Joel Griffiths spent three years in China’s capital as a hero, two of those spent playing alongside his brother making an Aussie power pair who were fan favorites.  This past offseason, he did the unthinkable to many Beijingers, he took his talents to the Bund.

It’s not unusual for players to change clubs, but there are certain divides that you don’t cross and in China, one of those divides runs north and south, between Shanghai and Beijing.  Joel Griffiths, a foreigner having only spent a few years in Beijing, crossed that divide and thought he could get away with it.  After all, Joel isn’t a native Beijinger, he isn’t even Chinese, and he’s nearing the end of his career, looking for one last major payday.

As a football fan, my brain tells me what the Griff did is perfectly okay, it’s what anybody would do in the same situation, screw loyalty, it’s about going to the highest bidder.  The reality is that football, especially fandom, has very little to do with brains, it’s all heart, and the heart has a hard time accepting the move.

Griffiths wasn’t always such a fan favorite.  In 2009, he had a difficult time adjusting to the Chinese league, dealing with multiple suspensions and only knocking in seven goals.  He was only in the capital on a loan deal and much of the offseason was spent on the “will he/won’t he” question as to whether the player and his club would reach a long term agreement with Guoan.

When he returned to the capital after the drawn out process, the fans didn’t blame him and were happy to keep him.  There is an attitude in China of cherishing all things foreign and degrading all things Chinese and it extends to footballers.  The locals are seen as lazy and lacking, whereas foreign players are seen as role models motivated to win.  Part of it has to do with drive, foreign players often play to win, giving 110% and leaving it all on the pitch, unfortunately not always a common trait amongst Chinese players.  This, along with his ability to score and his looks and blonde hair (which brought many female fans), made the Griff a cult hero in Beijing.

At the end of 2011, fissures were starting to form and fans started having to think about life after Griffiths.  For the last match in Beijing, he had over 30 Beijing friends who came out for the match.  It felt like a goodbye and with good reason, contract negotiations weren’t going well and his future was up in the air.  Much like after the 2009 season, it was to be another winter of “will he/won’t he”, this time played out eve more prominently in Chinese and Australian media, before he finally decided to leave.

There was nothing wrong with his leaving, but he chose to join Shanghai Shenhua and go from green to blue.  From the moment he first touched down in Shanghai and was given a hero’s welcome by the local fans, Beijing fans started to be angered.  In almost every interview, he was diplomatic and showed a level of discomfort with his new home.

After making his first league appearance for Shenhua, scoring the crucial equalizer, the Griff did a post-match interview where you could hear that he was still adjusting, though he made the statement “wo shi shanghai ren” (I’m a Shanghainese), and it’s those four words that stuck in the brain of Beijingers.

All last week leading up to Friday’s derby, television and weibo were lit up with talk of Joel.  Some “fans” said they hoped to see him score or that they’d give him a cheer when he came out, while others were vitriolic in their abuse and insisted that he should be tormented at every touch.  Fans showed up to greet the Shanghai bus at Thursday’s training session with a rap like banner “You say you’re a Blue man, but I say you’re a cash bitch”.

On game day, there were Beijing fans on both sides of the fence, though it seemed like the anti-Griff forces won out, included chants of “pantu” (traitor) coming from the north end.  Fans in an upper stand in the north end unfurled a pro-Griff banner that even said “Welcome Home Joel”, but after he stepped up and scored Shanghai’s first goal on a penalty, other fans in the north end went over and tore down the banner.

Griffiths will continue to be a controversial figure, but with two goals in two games and the pressure of Shanghai going after more acquisitions in June, he’s playing some excellent football.  Whether you love him or hate him for it really just depends where you live.

Brandon Chemers aka B. Cheng aka A Modern Lei Feng – is a name which may be familiar to many in the Chinese blogosphere. He currently serves as Editor-in-Chief for Wild East Football and is one of the lonely souls writing about Chinese football in English for the last 10 years. Chemers' credentials are second to none – his former blog focused not only on the fortunes of his beloved Beijing Guoan FC, but a multitude of other aspects of Beijing life. He’s deservedly built a reputation in the Chinese blogosphere as an insightful observer of not only Chinese football, but also the wider picture of life in modern China and its many layers. For WEF, beyond writing about Guoan, he often focuses on fan culture and the business of Chinese football.

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