On a surprisingly clear Beijing evening, over 56,000 fans flocked to the Bird’s Nest Stadium to witness Brazil defeat biggest rivals Argentina 2-0. Though billed with grandiose title Superclásico de las Américas, the match was, basically, an international friendly being played thousands of kilometres away from both the countries represented, and the European locales where most of their players are based.
It is the kind of fixture which leaves club managers shuddering at the prospect of bleary-eyed players returning unprepared for the next league game and “traditionalists” rolling their eyes while knowingly muttering about “cynical money making exercises” and how this kind of thing is “killing the game”. However, it is also the kind of fixture which gives fans an incredibly rare opportunity to see two international heavyweights and some of the world’s top players in action.
Enthralled with the prospect of seeing one of the World’s great rivalries played out in front of me, I travelled over five hours from Wuhan to Beijing while still unsure whether this kind of game is actually worth the effort for either the teams competing or fans in attendance. On this occasion it certainly was, but only because of the right set of circumstances.
In the build up to the game, the biggest story was by far the sinister cloud of pollution which welcomed Lionel Messi and co. to Beijing. It hovered over both sides’ pre-match preparations like a proverbial, and literal, bad smell. At its lung-busting worse, it was twenty times above the World Health Organisations recommended limit of maximum exposure and penned the entire Brazilian contingent into their hotel for 22-hours a day, while leading Head Coach Dunga to complain that he was going to have to “make plenty of substitutions so that the players will not be affected…”
However, while I’m sure the pollution may have had some short-term effects on the players, the hyperbolic nature of some of the reporting was well demonstrated by Brazilian defender David Luiz: “Short-term you don’t notice it much, but we hope that this pollution can change, because the Chinese people don’t deserve to live like this”, he said with the sort of measured, rational sense of perspective his teammates wished he’d shown when they found themselves a couple of goals down to Germany a few months ago.
As it turned out, the fuss was for nothing as a football-loving wind blew through Beijing on Saturday afternoon, clearing the air, and bringing great relief to the many fans that had travelled from distant ends of the country to be at the match. I have no idea what percentage of the crowd they constituted, but I knew of at least six people from a very small sample who made the long trip from Wuhan and I can only imagined that this kind of journey would have been replicated many times over.
It must also be remembered that the Saturday of the game was declared to be a working day by the government in order to make up for the precious production hours lost during the National Day holiday (this, despite the fact that they could have announced the make up day 100 years in advance as they always know that it will run from October 1st until 7th and, thanks to the wonder of calendars, they always know what days of the week they will fall on). This meant that those non-Beijingers who wanted to attend the game would have needed a very understanding boss to do so.
This may have been one factor in the stadium having over 20,000 empty seats for the game, but another must surely have been the price of tickets. The cheapest, priced at 199 RMB, got you a seat high up behind the goal that would only be desirable if you had an especial interest in the inner-workings of the big screen; an averagely priced ticket, which saw you into the middle of the field, but still in danger of getting altitude sickness, cost between 699 and 899 RMB; while the most expensive, setting you back a whopping 2,999 RMB, got you fairly close to the action – but not that close considering that the stadium was designed for the likes of Usain Bolt and Liu Xiang rather than Neymar or Angel Di Maria.
Fortunately, most in attendance would have left feeling thy got there money’s worth as the two sides played out a highly competitive and mostly entertaining contest. Apart from a Messi’s below-par performance, capped by a missed penalty, fans had little to be disappointed about. Most of the big stars played the majority of the game, Neymar impressed with some silky skills, Angel Di Maria covered a lot of ground, Kaka got a short run out and, despite Dunga’s earlier threats, there was no excessive glut of substitutions to ruin the flow of the game.
For the majority of the contest, there was little to distinguish this from a competitive fixture and the fact that it wasn’t only became apparent in the final twenty minutes when Argentina, already two goals behind, stopped chasing the game in a way they might not have done during the World Cup qualifiers or Copa America. Brazil seemed legitimately delighted to have won the game and the smiles that could be seen as they lifted the “trophy” surely had less to do with the excessively pointy monstrosity filling a 2014 World Cup shaped hole in their trophy cabinet, and more to do with the fact that they had just beaten their historic foe.
“It could be played in Alaska, but the rivalry with Argentina is always the same”. David Luiz said after the match. “Our responsibility is the same, we need to win, always. We produced a great game, with intelligence, and managed to win. This is not a friendly game.” It is this which explains the essence of why both playing and attending this game was well worthwhile.
For Brazil and Argentina, the game provided a legitimate test for both players and manager. As Brazilian based journalist Tim Vickery says, this is “silly season” for South American teams during which they go almost a year without competitive fixtures between the World up and Copa America. As the top European and African teams are busy with their own continental qualification programmes, the South Americans have a choice of either staying in the Americas to play each other or going to Asia. As they already play each other so many times at home during their extended World up qualifying process, the latter seems like a more interesting and, of course, lucrative option.
But, if Brazil and Argentina want to come and play in Beijing, why should they not just play against the Chinese National Team? There are two good reasons for this. The first, is that as the subsequent maulings of Japan (0-4 against Brazil) and Hong Kong (0-7 against Argentina) have shown, there is a reasonable chance the game might be the kind of one-sided, uncompetitive affair that does neither side any favours. Brazil put eight past China last time they met and this kind of game would not teach Dunga anything about his squad. More importantly, it would damage China’s fragile confidence ahead of next January’s Asian Cup. Alain Perrin will have learnt much more about his side during their 2-1 win over Paraguay on Tuesday then he would from watching them being on the wrong end of a Messi hat-trick or a four goal haul from Neymar.
The other sense in which that kind of home game would do China little good is that there would be real danger that the majority of home fans would actually be in favour of their South American opponents. A friend of mine who attended China’s game against Holland last year estimated that around 70% of Chinese fans were supporting the Dutch. With Messi or Neymar on the field that number could potentially be higher. The issue of why local fans would cheer for a more star-studded opposition instead of their own team is a weighty one for another time, but if they are to be given the chance to support their heroes from further afield, it shouldn’t be to the detriment of their own national team.
Of course, that is not to say that any two South American teams playing in China would give fans the kind of experience they enjoyed at the Bird’s Nest this Saturday. I doubt a similarly priced clash between Paraguay and Bolivia would shift 56 tickets, let alone 56,000. Likewise, it is unlikely that a less heavily contested game would have the same result. As well as missing the likes of Messi, a game between Peru and Brazil would lack the necessary spark to be played at the same level as Brazil-Argentina. The key is that the Superclásico de las Américas had the right combination of rivalry and star-power to not only bring fans into the game, but give them value for money once they get there. That’s a rarity for a friendly, especially one played on neutral territory, but it’s one that 56,000 football fans were delighted was achieved. And whatever, the rights and wrongs of scheduling a game like the Superclásico de las Américas in China, for one at least one night in Beijing, that’s all that really mattered.
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