From following the English Premier League to the Chinese Super League. This is a first hand account of one expat football fan’s experience following Shanghai SIPG.
It all started when I heard about a Shanghai SIPG supporters club that was offering season tickets for just 500 RMB, I couldn’t believe what great value it was to watch top level football in Shanghai. I had been to one Shanghai SIPG game and one Shanghai Shenhua game last season after I had first arrived in Shanghai. I enjoyed the experience at both stadiums. Shanghai Shenhua had the proper football stadium, bigger fan base and the longer history, albeit somewhat tainted after having their 2003 title stripped from them for being involved in match-fixing scandals.
Shanghai SIPG, meanwhile, were the relatively new kids on the block with a new found wealth and great ambitions to become future champions of China. Shanghai SIPG was founded in 2005 by former Chinese international, and Shenhua coach, Xu Genbao, who has a great reputation within Shanghai and his work with the youth team has developed many new players who have gone on to represent China at international level. It is something Shanghai SIPG fans are very proud of. I live quite close to Shanghai Stadium, home to Shanghai SIPG for now at least, so I chose to follow my local team.
When I lived in the UK I was a season ticket holder for eight years at Newcastle United and I loved the match day atmosphere, the camaraderie of fans, the excitement and emotions that you experience and the banter with rival fans. Although I can enjoy watching English Premier League games on the internet in China, I still miss the match day experience. Joining the Shanghai SIPG Bats Fan Club has given me a great insight into the Chinese football culture and it’s a great way to integrate more into Chinese society.
The season started with a bang as fierce local rivals Shanghai Shenhua visited the Shanghai Sports Stadium. I was surprised by how many Shenhua fans attended the game as I thought the police would try to keep fans separated, but Shenhua fans were scattered all around the ground, it was a 50:50 split, SIPG to Shenhua fans. This led to constant abuse being hurled from fans in red to the fans in blue, and vice-versa. The situation escalated on several occasions and after the final whistle there were a few small outbreaks within the stadium where rival fans were fighting in the stands and drinks were being thrown from upper tiers down onto groups of rival fans below. There was very little police presence within the stadium and the stewards were largely ineffective at maintain order. The trouble continued outside the stadium and the fans’ aggression shown towards each other was intense, something I wasn’t expecting.
It seems they are unable to have friendly banter on derby day. I’m sure at other times throughout the year there must be occasions when Shenhua fans and SIPG fans can sit down together and gently have a dig at each other without wanting to trade blows. I got the feeling that Shenhua fans have a deep hatred of their rivals, SIPG. As one of their famous banners states, they believe that ‘Only Shenhua Represents Shanghai’, but maybe the Shenhua fans are a little bit jealous that Shanghai’s new team is doing so well.
At a recent Asian Champions League game in Melbourne several Shenhua fans were spotted supporting Melbourne Victory, such is their hatred of SIPG. This seems quite extreme, especially when you consider that Shanghai SIPG has four or five Chinese players who also represent the Chinese national team. It goes against the typical patriotism that is normally shown by Chinese people. On the other hand, it shows that there are strong rivalries in Chinese football that are as great as any city rivals around the world, and this is a healthy ingredient in any successful football league.
After experiencing the Shanghai derby, I could feel and understand the great passion the local people have towards football. Talking to fellow fans before, during and after games I realized that many of them are big football fans. Many of them stayed awake until 5 o’clock in the morning to watch the recent European Championship games live on TV and they love to chat about it on social media and over dinner with friends. Football is a great way to communicate with people from other countries and from different cultures because it is a topic that almost everyone has an opinion on. There are always famous players from the English Premier League that people all around the world recognize and it just breaks the ice when it comes to mixing with locals in a foreign land.
A highlight of the season so far has been Shanghai SIPG’s Champions League Last-16 victory over Japanese rivals Tokyo FC. After a 2-1 loss in the away leg, Shanghai needed to win the second leg to progress to the next round. The atmosphere was great and a crowd of over 30,000 fans cheered the team on as SIPG dominated the game without scoring that vital goal. As the clock reached the 90th minute, Shanghai SIPG’s Chinese star, Wu Lei, scored a critical last-gasp goal that would send SIPG through to the next round on the away goal rule. When that goal went in, everybody went crazy. The coaches and substitutes ran onto the pitch to celebrate with the team and in the crowd it was mayhem as fans embraced each other and jumped around like monkeys.
It was the first time I had experienced this feeling in China. In daily life, I feel many Chinese people are very conservative and don’t express their emotions in public very often, perhaps because of their fear of losing face, but it was great to see people let their true feelings be shown and the out-pouring of emotion was quite moving. Chatting with other jubilant fans after the game was great and I really felt a sense of belonging after sharing this experience with other like-minded fans.
I believe it is this sensation that draws many fans to watch live football in any country. Another big draw is that watching football is a good way to get things off your chest. You can sing, shout and scream all you want for 90 minutes and in some ways it’s a kind of stress relief. In modern China, the typical young person’s life is quite stressful with the combination of low wages, high demands from employers, rising living costs, marriage pressures from parent’s and the impending duty to take care of their parent’s in later life. Football is a way for people to relax and forget about their worries for a couple of hours and enjoy some emotional freedom.
I met another British guy who also has a season ticket at Shanghai SIPG and we regularly meet up at the pub before games and enjoy a couple of drinks, something that is a big part of British football, but not so much in China. In the restaurants around the stadium you will see groups of fans having meals together and socializing but alcohol consumption is not a big part of the pre-match build-up. Alcohol is not sold in the stadium but it is possible to take beer in with you, as long as it is in an opened cup.
The supporters club is a great initiative that generates a great atmosphere on match days and it is something I think clubs in England could learn from. In 2009, Newcastle United created a designated “singing section” in St James’ Park and it really helped the atmosphere on match days. However, later that season fans began to protest against the owners of the club and the protest chants originated from the singing section. This created a negative atmosphere and the club scrapped the singing area as a result. Since then the atmosphere is often non-existent, fans sitting in silence and just complaining about misplaced passes and a perceived lack of effort from certain players. I have heard similar stories from other stadiums in England.
At Shanghai SIPG, the fans club puts a lot of effort in to creating a good match-day atmosphere. There are giant flags being waved, drums to set the beat and group leaders with megaphones to coordinate the singing. Sometimes it feels a bit fake when fans are encouraged to sing like this, compared to in England where fans singing is more spontaneous and heart-felt. That said, many fans here are new to the game and are still learning about what is good and bad football. The fans enthusiasm and passion can only help the players to raise their game and keep going until the last minute, it is a very positive atmosphere. As a foreigner attending Chinese league games, it’s a great way to learn some unusual Chinese phrases and you will get acquainted with the Chinese national anthem, which is played at the beginning of every Chinese Super League game.
Another thing that impresses me about Shanghai SIPG is that there appears to be a lot of involvement between the club and the fans. I often see fellow fans sharing their photos on social media when they have met the players. The fans speak highly of the players and manager for giving time to chat with them, sign autographs and take photos. The club has also organized a mini football league for the different fan groups and they play weekly. This is a great idea that I think every professional football team should do. I hope the club will invest more into grass roots football in China as this is still an area that is lacking, but with Xi Jinping’s clear support of football I’m sure this is an area that will improve in the near future. If the Chinese national team is to improve then they need to increase the opportunities for children to learn football skills from a young age.
For any football fans living in cities around China that have a football team in the Chinese Super League or any of the lower divisions, I would highly recommend attending at least one game, you might be surprised at the quality of football on show. Tickets are usually available around the stadiums on match days for around 50 to 200 Yuan depending on the opponents. If you are interested in a season ticket, which may represent even better value and will allow you to join the supporters club and meet new friends, then ask in the club shop in the month leading up to the start of the season for availability.
Photos: Shanghai SIPG Bat Fans Club