Yuexiushan: The cradle of Cantonese football, part two
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 second of two articles, this piece looks at Yuexiushan’s more recent history, and that of the teams and players who graced the stadium during these years.
Yuexiushan had been Guangzhou’s premier football stadium since being built in 1950 but by the late 1980s it was showing its age and high profile matches began to be held at the newly built Tianhe stadium. Yuexiushan therefore didn’t host the touring Santos team in 1989, which meant it wasn’t the site of Guangdong’s 2-1 win – the only match that Santos (led by Socrates) lost on their nine game tour tour of China and Hong Kong. Two years later, Yuexiushan missed out on the chance to play host to a global audience as games in the Women’s World Cup, including the final, were held at Tianhe. The large scale public celebrations that Yuexiushan had previously hosted were also stopped but there was still plenty of high profile domestic football being played at Yuexiushan in the 1990s.
Playing in the top division, Guangzhou Apollo were unbeaten at Yuexiushan between 1991 and 1994 – a span of 21 games – which helped them to runners-up spots in the 1992 and 1994 seasons. During this period China’s economic reforms continued and football clubs were not far behind, reconstituting themselves as businesses and becoming openly professional with Guangzhou again at the forefront. This team drew crowds of almost 40,000 to Yuexiushan and, although talents such as diminutive striker Zhao Dayu and penalty specialist Mai Chao were attractions, the star was Peng Weiguo.
Guangzhou had been relegated in 1989 and Peng made his debut at 19 years old as part of a youthful side who immediately won promotion back to the top league. Peng’s performances in midfield for Guangzhou Apollo earned him the nickname ‘the king of Yuexiushan’ while Eran Zahavi, whom sections of the media have recently given the same nickname to, was still learning to tie his shoelaces. Internationally, Peng went onto make 53 appearances at the heart of the Chinese side.
The Guangdong provincial side – now also professional and known as Guangdong Hongyuan – played largely in Dongguan and also enjoyed success in this period; finishing second in the league in 1991 and 1993.
Following on from the move to professionalism and the introduction of foreign managers and coaches, the traditional ‘southern school’ style of play began to decline as players from outside the province started to play for both Guangzhou and Guangdong in greater numbers. Professionalism also led to numerous name changes and ground moves for existing teams and the establishment and disbandment of others as clubs oscillated between boom and bust.
One of these short lived clubs was Guangzhou Matsunichi who, thanks to their links with Guangzhou Apollo, also played at Yuexiushan in their first season. The first derby between the sides was at Yuexiushan in 1995 and saw Matsunichi upset their more established opponents, much as R&F would do to Evergrande 12 years later.
Cantonese football declined from this high point with a series of relegations to the second tier: Matsunichi in 1996 and again in 1999, Guangdong in 1997 and Guangzhou Apollo in 1998. Matsunichi never recovered and were disbanded at the end of the 2000 season. Likewise, Guangdong Hongyuan’s proud provincial heritage was lost when the team’s place in the second division was sold to Qingdao Hailifeng a year later. Guangzhou Apollo didn’t emerge unscathed either as they went through a variety of sponsors (and thus names) as well as managers (former players Mai Chao and Zhao Dayu having spells in the hot seat either side of ex-Guangdong player Chen Xirong) until Evergrande’s arrival ten years later. This nadir of Cantonese football coincided with Guangzhou Apollo’s withdrawal from Yuexiushan; the stadium was undergoing renovations when Guangzhou were relegated in 1998 and for the two subsequent seasons.
Yuexiushan was reopened in 2001 with a higher entrance tower containing better player facilities and improved, covered stands. As part of these changes, the capacity dropped from 38,000 to 26,000 as Yuexiushan went against a Chinese trend and increased the amount of personal space allocated to each spectator. Another refurbishment in 2005 saw the pitch widened and lengthened to bring it up to international standards, and a modern running track installed. Guangzhou’s hosting of the Asian Games in 2010 prompted yet another refurbishment; this time the floodlighting was improved and a large electronic scoreboard was added behind the goals at the West end in place of a further 1,000 seats. Yuexiushan would host nine matches, including a men’s and women’s semi final, in the Asian Games football tournament.
On the playing field, the early 2000s were no cause for celebration but this changed in 2007 and 2010 when promotion parties were held at Yuexiushan as Guangzhou (first as Pharmaceuticals and later as Evergrande) twice won the second division. Guangzhou had been demoted in the interim for match fixing a match at Yuexiushan against Shanxi Luhu in the 2006 season; the same investigation in early 2010 also punished Chengdu Blades for match fixing against Qingdao Hailifeng (who had bought out the Guangdong Province side in 2001). Yuexiushan therefore witnessed one of the darker moments in Chinese football but also the birth of the modern era. Following the disgrace of being demoted before the 2010 season started, Guangzhou needed a new sponsor and Xu Jiayin’s Evergrande Real Estate Group stepped in to spark the start of big spending in Chinese football.
The new era began with a nod to the past though as former Yuexiushan favourite Peng Weiguo was installed as manager before Lee Jang-Soo arrived. Preparations for the 2010 season then saw the China League 1 side spend big to lure internationals Gao Lin and Sun Xiang to Yuexiushan and break China’s transfer record to buy Muriqui. By the end of the season, Guangzhou Evergrande had both left League 1, by winning promotion, and Yuexiushan, as they moved to Tianhe for the 2011 season.
Yuexiushan wasn’t empty for long, though, as Guangzhou R&F of China League 1 moved in mid-way through 2011 having previously been located in Shenyang, Changsha and Shenzhen. R&F finished second in China League 1 that year and earned promotion to the CSL; Yuexiushan was in party mood for the second year in a row.
Guangzhou R&F started the 2012 CSL season at Yuexiushan in fantastic form and won seven in a row, including upsetting the odds in the Canton derby by beating Evergrande 2-0. Unfortunately this run came to an end with an enforced move to the University City Stadium as Yuexiushan’s bare concrete bleachers didn’t meet AFC guidelines. Fixed plastic seats were installed and R&F returned to Yuexiushan in 2013. They attempted to emulate rivals Evergrande in their spending on foreigners with Yakubu arriving in 2012 and Sven-Göran Eriksson taking over as manager midway through the 2013 season. Helped by Abderazzak Hamdallah’s incredible goal scoring ratio, R&F finished 3rd in 2014 and qualified for the Asian Champions League the following season.
With Cosmin Contra now at the helm after Sven jumped ship to Shanghai International Port Group, Yuexisuhan hosted four ACL games under the floodlights but R&F were again forced to play some games at University City due to refurbishments. They were back at Yuexiushan for the end of the 2015 season and all of 2016, including a Canton derby in the semi-finals of the CFA Cup against the renamed Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao Football Club.
Yuexiushan’s future remains tied to R&F as the club were granted 20 year use rights to the stadium in early 2016 and there are rumors of a further renovation. Despite the more modern University City Stadium and the Guangdong Olympic Stadium lacking regular tenants, R&F chose to make Yuexiushan their continued home because of the stadium’s historical, cultural and architectural importance, as well as its favourable location. In combination with R&F’s football academy in Meizhou, this demonstrates the R&F company’s commitment to football, hopefully meaning that generations of fans to come will be able to ‘go to the hill’ to watch a game.
Author: Donald Ross
Donald began following Guangzhou R&F having moved to China in the same year that R&F moved to Guangzhou. The club’s first foreign season ticket holder, Donald was able to watch three seasons at Yuexiushan before returning to the UK.