Guangzhou’s Yuexiushan Stadium has a long and storied history. As the birthplace of Cantonese football, and a venue for large-scale public events outside of sport, it has existed through some of the most tumultuous periods in Chinese history. The first of two articles, this piece looks at Yuexiushan’s early history, and that of the teams and players who graced the stadium during these years.
In 1950, the first communist government of Guangzhou decided that the city needed a larger venue than its sole existing stadium to hold both sporting and civic events. A patch of bare land on the southern slope of Yuexiu hill was chosen and Yuexiushan Stadium (‘Yuexiushan’) was born.
For a game as tribal as football, a stadium’s location is always important and for Yuexiushan, its location is part of its strength. Just inside the old city walls that once ran along Yuexiu hill to its north, overlooked by Zhenhai Tower (dating from the Ming dynasty) and Sun Yat-Sen’s memorial obelisk, a stone’s throw from the Sanyuan Taoist temple and Sun Yat-Sen’s Memorial Hall, Yuexiushan has always been part of an established community.
Some 17,000 people responded to provincial governor Ye Jianying’s call for volunteers and a plaque at the stadium records that Yuexiushan was built between March and July 1950. It was thus ready to host a sports meeting to celebrate the first anniversary of Guangzhou’s communist rule.
By 1953, a 400m running track ringed the football pitch and three years later the north and south grandstands built into the hillside took capacity up to 28,000. As the article’s heading picture and the one above show, the combination of features that make Yuexiushan such an attractive ground were already in place. The horseshoe shaped stands cut into the hillside and raised above the running track – allowing spectators to walk round the stadium at this level rather being forced to use dark, dank concourses – and the tower at the Eastern end are original design features. A 1956 resident of Guangzhou would instantly recognise 2016’s Yuexiushan, including its lack of corporate hospitality boxes.
The birth of the ‘southern school’
The first team to represent Guangzhou were the Central and Southern China Sports Institute formed in 1954. Today’s Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao trace their history back – through two disbandments, multiple ownership, name and kit changes – to this team. They won the 1956 second division but due to a league restructure were denied promotion and forced to repeat their league winning performance in 1958.
Players from Meizhou were added to this side to create the Guangdong provincial side for the inaugural National Games of China in 1959, in which Guangdong finished fifth. The short passing and technical skills that were to become a hallmark of future Guangdong sides had been shown on a truly national stage though; the style of the ‘southern school’ was born.
Other countries were then able to see this style as Yuexiushan hosted a number of friendlies between Guangdong and various international teams in 1959 and 1960. These games were particularly important as China withdrew from FIFA in 1959 in protest at Taiwan’s recognition, shutting off China from competitive international football. Playing at a packed Yuexiushan, Guangdong drew 3-3 with Algeria and 0-0 with the Sweden side who were World Cup runners up in 1958, beat Soviet side Tomsk 3-2 and demolished a Lebanese side 6-0 but lost 0-1 to Soviet champions Spartak Moscow.
On the domestic front, Guangdong lost the 1960 cup final to Tianjin and, despite the reestablishment of the Guangzhou city side, neither would have much success before football, like all walks of life, was shut down in 1966 because of the Cultural Revolution. Yuexiushan would not host a football match for several years and would instead hold less savoury activities. Players did not escape these and were “condemned for their attachment to the capitalist ideologies of competition and elitism, and publicly humiliated” with many – including a young Rong Zhixing who was branded a ‘backwards element’ (more of him later) – sent to the countryside for reform.
Despite the chaos of the time, Chen Hanlin restarted the Guangdong provincial side and in 1971 they played against Cuba at Yuexiushan. 20 year old Rong Zhixing came off the bench to make his debut and score the winner as Guangdong won 2-1. Guangdong would go onto beat Albania 2-0 at Yuexiushan the next year.
The national championship also restarted in 1972 but the same year brought tragedy at Yuexiushan before a game between Guangdong and Rangers from Hong Kong. A crush developed in one of the grandstands causing it to collapse with lives being lost. Major renovations would not be completed until 1977. This was the second disaster in Yuexiushan’s history, the first coming in November 1957 when a crush developed at a theatrical and fireworks display to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Russian October Revolution. This time 33 people were killed. Happier times both on the Yuexiushan pitch and throughout China were on the way though.
The glory years
With the changes in Chinese society following the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, Yuexiushan also witnessed a change in the fortunes of Cantonese football. Guangdong won the 1975 National Games and the 1979 champions, coming 3rd in the National Games that year. Guangdong’s prominent position was confirmed by a second place finish in the National Games in 1983 and victory in 1987.
China’s ‘reform and opening’ in the economic sphere was mirrored in the sporting environment as China re-entered FIFA and the IOC. This meant that competitive international tournament football was available to this generation of players, notably Guangdong’s Rong Zhixing. Playing centrally or as a left wing forward, Rong would become a core part of the Guangdong side and make over 300 appearances whilst also representing China 34. Rong earned the nickname ‘the Chinese Pele’ for his style of play. In recognition of his contribution towards the development of the game in China, Rong was granted the country’s first ever testimonial in February 1983, held not at Yuexiushan but the Guangdong Provincial Stadium.
Cantonese football and Yuexiushan played their own part in the ‘opening up’ of China as Yuexiushan hosted the first ever Guangdong-Hong Kong Cup match in early 1979. Although a domestic competition now, in its early days these were competitive home and away international matches against the best of the British colony’s talent. Guangdong scored after just four minutes of the opening game in 1979 and held on for a 1-0 win against Hong Kong; a lead they would build on a week later to win the inaugural cup.
International friendlies continued at Yuexiushan but there will be few fond memories of the 6-0 thumping dished out by West Brom on their 1978 tour of China (video for French speakers). Following a 1-0 win over the West German Olympic team in 1975, the West German’s returned in 1980 and extracted a measure of revenge, beating Guangdong 1-0 with a Pierre Littbarski goal 30 seconds from time. This Guangdong side drew praise for their technique and attacking play; other characteristics of the ‘southern style’. Along with Rong, other key players were fellow internationals Gu Guangming (who would follow Xie Yuxin to become the second Chinese to play professionally in Europe), Chen Xirong and Chi Minghua.
A regular presence in the stands in this era was a young Peng Weiguo who would go onto write his own name in Yuexiushan’s story by being crowned the ‘King of Yuexiushan’ for his performances with Guangzhou in the early 1990s. When not taken by his dad, the young Peng remembered being so desperate to watch his heroes play that he tried to climb over the wall or hop over the turnstiles to get into Yuexiushan.
Peng’s future side re-entered the national football system in 1980 by turning their youth side, coached by Luo Rongman who had played for Guangzhou and Guangdong in the 1950s, into a senior team. Guangdong would stay in the top tier but Guangzhou FC would bounce around between the top two divisions in the 1980s. With Guangdong again at the forefront of national reforms to industry, services and state companies, Guangzhou FC would become the first Chinese side to acquire sponsorship, resulting in them being renamed Guangzhou Baiyun FC for the 1985 season.
Yuexiushan had witnessed all of this whilst Tianhe Stadium was just being built. More on developments at Yuexiushan from the 1990s to the present day in the next article.
Source: All photos from the Guangzhou R&F website. Quote on the cultural revolution from David Goldblatt’s book The Ball is Round