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Urawa – Shenhua alliance shows football has no borders

Japanese club Urawa Reds face Shanghai SIPG today in an Asian Champions League tie that brings together two groups of fans who have a remarkable attitude to Sino-Japanese relations. Hostility and bitterness towards Japan remains common in China many decades after the horrors of Japanese occupation in the second world war, with nationalistic sentiments against “little Japan” easy to find in the country.

Films about the war of resistance against Japan are shown almost every evening on Chinese TV. News stations never miss an opportunity to castigate Japanese politicians for any perceived slights against China. Various monuments and museums, such as the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, serve as physical reminders of wounds that are yet to heal. It’s no surprise that emotions boil over from time to time, as they did in 2012, when riots broke out in major Chinese cities about an ongoing territorial dispute over the Diaoyu Islands, which are claimed by both countries.

There are a reasonable number of Japanese people living and working in larger Chinese cities but, on the whole, it’s rare for Chinese and Japanese to socialise much outside of a business context. How odd is it then, that not only are a group of Chinese fans going to the game to support a Japanese team against a Chinese one, but that they have a special relationship with Urawa Reds that stretches back a decade?

It started in 2007, when Urawa Reds fans travelled in big numbers to China to watch their team play Shanghai Shenhua in the Asian Champions League. Bizarrely, the match was played on a Wednesday afternoon, when most fans would be at work – it is not unusual for matches that have the potential for conflict to be inconveniently scheduled in China.

However, that didn’t stop 1,500 Urawa fans from making the 2.5-hour flight from Japan across the East China sea. The scoreline was 0-0 that day, but the real action took place later that night, when the Blue Devils, Shanghai Shenhua’s best known and longest established ultra group, were so impressed by the number of Urawa fans who made the trip and the intensity of their support that they decided to seek them out.

Shenhua v Urawa at Yuanshen Stadium in Pudong back in 2007

“The Blue Devils somehow found out which hotel the Urawa fans were staying at and got a message to them that they wanted to meet,” recalls Xiao Ming, a Shanghai Shenhua supporter who spent seven years studying and working in Tokyo and is fluent in Japanese. “At first the Japanese lads thought it was really strange that some Chinese fans had contacted them, so they came prepared for a fight. But they ended up drinking with them until the sun came up.”

The encounter was the beginning of a remarkable relationship. Unfortunately for Shenhua, their participation in the ACL has been limited to just one appearance in the past six years – the calamitous group-stage knock-out at home to Brisbane Roar last month in which Carlos Tevez made his debut. But Urawa’s participation in the competition has been more regular and their ultras stop off in Shanghai when they come to China.

And, if it’s been too long since the last time, the Japanese contingent simply take a holiday to Shanghai, as they did in May 2014, when a group of around 20 fans met at a restaurant in central Shanghai in a rowdy and drunken encounter where football and alcohol bridged the cultural and linguistic gaps. Given the anti-Japanese attitudes in China, the sight of a bunch of Chinese and Japanese football fans getting together to drink and have a good time is bizarre. Rival fans having a laugh together may seem normal to some, but not a China v Japan context.

Football has been a flashpoint for China and Japan in the past – the 2004 Asian Cup final in Beijing between the two countries ended in a riot outside the stadium. Japanese fans had to be escorted from the ground by police for their own safety. In this light, football seems an unlikely bridge between the two old foes but shared interests and cultural links are overcoming division.

“Chinese and Japanese people can socialise together no problem, because Japan has been influenced by Chinese culture to a large extent,” says Xiao Ming. “Both have similar values, which is why the Blue Devils could get along with the Urawa fans so quickly in the beginning.”

Amid the animosity, it’s sometimes easy to forget how much the countries have in common – a closely linked written language, Confucian values and a collectivist culture are just some of the crossover points. There are, of course, some things that are completely different. China’s approach to public decorum, where loud and boisterous behaviour is the norm, contrasts with Japan’s more typical quiet orderliness. However, this has also been key to the Shenhua-Urawa relationship.

“In Japan, you just can’t sit in the restaurant after the match and shout and chant your team’s name crazily,” says Xiao Ming. “It’s just not how things are done there. But, in China, this isn’t really an issue. Before, the Urawa lads didn’t know much about Chinese football culture, so when they saw the Blue Devils going nuts, they thought it was great, and because we are ultras, maybe compared with other fans our connection with the game is deeper so we understand each other.”

Shenhua fans are known for their partizan zeal and were recently voted China’s “worst behaved fans” in a media poll. This is partly because of their reputation for gatecrashing rival clubs’ ACL matches – something that has infuriated other supporters throughout the country.

In 2015, a small group of Shenhua fans in Japan made obscene gestures to Beijing Guoan fans in their match against Urawa Reds. The reaction was predictably vitriolic. The supporters were called “traitors” and “Japanese dogs” by fans throughout China who were apoplectic with rage that their fellow countrymen would support a Japanese club against another Chinese one.

The action was off the pitch…

This concept is absolutely contrary to mainstream Chinese thinking but, in some ways, it is refreshing to see some Chinese fans think more independently and be more like supporters elsewhere in the world. “Do Manchester United fans support Manchester City in the Champions League against Bayern?” asks Xiao Ming rhetorically.

Last year, Shenhua fans continued their contrarian ways by displaying a large banner that read “Only Shenhua Rep Shanghai” during the ACL match between their city rivals, Shanghai SIPG, and Melbourne Victory. A media storm blew up again and Shenhua officials issued statements disapproving of their fans’ behaviour. To the typical Chinese mindset, particularly those in officialdom, this was a highly awkward and embarrassing matter that touched the raw nerve of national togetherness.

Nevertheless, Shenhua fans continued their shenanigans in the next round, when the same flag somehow found its way to Japan for SIPG’s tie against Gamba Osaka. This time SIPG supporters were close enough to Shenhua’s flagbearer to intervene and the peculiar sight of two sets of Shanghainese football fans fighting each other at a football match in Japan ensued.

Sections of the Chinese media questioned the patriotism of the Shenhua fans, but this is nothing new. Shanghai has long been accused of lacking national sentiment, looking down on the rest of China and being overly enamoured with foreign ideas. Conversely, there is considerable resentment in Shanghai towards Beijing over the decline of the local dialect, Shanghainese, in favour of standard Chinese or mandarin, a tongue that originates in Beijing. People from Shanghai frequently complain that, because children in the city are now educated in mandarin and only hear the standard language of China on TV and in public announcements, fewer and fewer of them are speaking the dialect.

This strong regional identity and internationalism sets Shanghai apart and makes it a progressive city, says Xiao Ming. “In Shanghai we have a lot of foreign people living beside us so we come into contact with things from Europe or even the world quickly. Our open-mindedness is the most important thing to understand in all of this – take a look at Hongkou Stadium and you can see – we are way ahead of most other fans in the rest of China.”

That said, the current climate is as sensitive as ever, so fans will be low-key in their support of Urawa for fear of causing a scene. Last year someone wearing Shenhua colours held a second world war-era Japan flag aloft in the away end at the Shanghai SIPG v Gamba Osaka game in the ACL. Shenhua issued a statement condemning it as a highly offensive gesture, claiming the flagbearer was not a genuine fan but someone trying to discredit the club.

But, regardless of what happens in the stands or the pitch between Urawa and Shanghai SIPG, Shenhua’s Blue Devils will be putting into action their unique take on Sino-Japanese diplomacy afterwards over a shared love of football, a common dislike of the evening’s opponents and a gallon of beer.

This article also appeared on The Guardian Sports Network.

Title picture courtesy of Andrew White.

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.

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