Going into Saturday night’s match, I’d known that Shijaizhuang Yongchang had impressive attendance figures and was one of the best home sides in the CSL, what I didn’t realize was the incredible, active home support the side received. It blew me away at what they’ve created in such a short time, but there are also reasons to be proceed with caution.
Looking out across the crowd of 38,000 on Saturday night (the official announced attendance of 26,000 was laughably lowballing it) it was amazing to see a total sea of blue. It’s commonplace in China to see large swaths of fans wearing their team colors, but it seemed like the entire stadium came out in blue, with very few exceptions, even in the expensive seats. Also, while we often complain about the stands left empty for “security” purposes, it was a welcome surprise to see fans in practically every seat, with a small exception of a few hundred seats next to the away end.
As for the fans, they were out in full voice, with around five of the stadium’s stands taken over by large groups that were very actively supporting their side. With a few exceptions, I’ve been to pretty much every CSL ground over the past few seasons and none have matched the level of support from all over the ground that Shijiazhuang delivered. Also, for those touchy types, other than the occasional “caipan sb” (ie f*ck the ref!) chants, there wasn’t a single chant against Guoan players or the fans, something I don’t think I’ve experienced anywhere else in China. I won’t mention the lights going out or the late equalizer, all I have to say was that it was a shock and an encouragement, it was truly an amazing atmosphere.
Yongchang is currently in its third year in Shijiazhuang after originating in Fujian and its attendance average so far this season skyrocketed over its previous two years in that city, from nearly 12,000 in their promotion season (the year before they were at 10k) to 25,000 so far in 2015. There are a few factors that need to be considered, including the club’s success this season and the novelty factor. The side has yet to lose at home this season and currently sits in fifth place in the league, further this is the first time that Hebei Province as a whole has had a top flight side. Having seen the passion over the weekend, I don’t think these are issues that will change the picture significantly, but there is that possibility.
Something else to be concerned about is the possibility that next season they will move into a new ground outside the city. The Hebei Olympic Center is expected to be completed at the end of 2015 and the centerpiece of the complex is a 60,000 seat stadium. The location is in a new development zone of the city, located around 20 km north of the city and the club’s current home venue. A potential move after the success the club is seeing this season could be a mistake and shouldn’t be taken lightly.
The growing levels of support is inspiring and if it continues, Shijiazhuang could become one of China’s top football cities, however a potential mistake like changing grounds could ruin the progress made. Yongchang needs to consider the opinions of its fans and think about how to seed the growth, instead of making unilateral decisions that could set things back. For the time being, if you have the chance, get to Shijiazhuang and check out a match.