I close my eyes and I can picture it immediately. Receiving the ball with no teammates in the entire opposition half, he drives into the right channel before cutting in and beating one, two, three defenders and slamming the ball into the top corner on his weaker foot from just outside the area. The standing-room-only bar erupts and I’m gazing dumbly into the eyes of some of my best friends. There are less than 20 minutes left in the game and Obafemi Martins has just won the CFA cup final for Shanghai Shenhua; this mongrel, mismanaged side somehow coming out on top over their glossy nouveau-riche corporate neighbors to lift the trophy on enemy territory: the most implausibly glorious ending to the most shambolic of the seven seasons in which I have fallen hopelessly in mostly-unrequited love with this Shanghai institution.
So how did we get here? Like all good yarns, it starts with love at first sight – and the only place you can really fall in love with a football team is their stadium. I arrived in Shanghai after a few years in small provincial Chinese cities – years spent avidly playing seven-a-side and following the English game on TV, barely even aware that there was a domestic league happening in the country I was making my home. Don’t chalk this up entirely to foreign snobbishness either – as we’ve discussed a couple of times on the podcast, struggling to reach out to smaller cities across the country (‘smaller’ often meaning 1 million plus residents, of course) is a real issue for the professional game here. Anyway, a colleague who’d been going to Shenhua games for a while asked if I was interested in joining one night, and a lifelong commitment was born the moment I stumbled through the gates into Hongkou Football Stadium’s north terrace for the first game of 2011. The game itself was a forgettable 0-0 against Kashima, one of just two points Shenhua would pick up as they finished bottom of their group and slipped into mid-table domestically as an ongoing malaise began to seep into the club’s form. None of that mattered at that moment, however – what mattered was 20,000 people packing out a proper old-fashioned football stadium under floodlights, stands crowded right on top of the pitch, full of fans with their flags and their drums and their songs and the undeniable realization that right here, right now you were in the middle of something existentially important for a heck of a lot of people. I was sold, and from that day forward I was to become part of the Lanmo, the “Blue Devils” fangroup who pack the standing-room-only northern blocks of Hongkou.
One of the best lines I’ve ever heard about the matchday experience goes along the lines that the game doesn’t begin when the whistle blows, but when the fan leaves his house. Hongkou is one of those great inner-city cathedrals of sport which really brings this sentiment to life. There’s really only one way to arrive at Hongkou; sure, you can get there by bus or taxi or underground, you can even walk up there from the Bund in an hour or so; but the only way to arrive at Hongkou is on the elevated Line 3 of the metro, pulling away from the leafy western suburbs past the city’s old main train station and winding north-east into Hongkou district, with the stadium coming into view as the train rounds the corner. It’s a real matchday pilgrimage, and a trip which sees you picking up more and more blue-clad fans the closer along the route you get to the stadium, forming the “blue ocean” beloved in terrace chants as you congregate around the stadium for pre-game meetups. Back in the day there was no question of where to meet up – every Lanmo worth his or her salt congregated at the stadium’s own hotpot joint, Tan huoguo, for a good feed before the game and a rowdy debrief afterwards – and win, lose or draw this is where the visiting ultras would take pride of place at the tables with their hosts after the match. There were unforgettable nights with proud Dalian Shide fans whose storied club was being dismantled in front of them, through to drinking contests with Chongqing fans I can barely remember, and a night with the Evergrande lot which I’d certainly rather not be reminded of. With the demise of Tan, and the dual pressures of ever-tightening police regulations and encroaching urban gentrification redevelopments, pre-match and post-match options at Hongkou have become more dispersed over the years, but no less passionate or fun. That’s the thing with football fans – you can turn the screws on them just as hard as you like, and they’ll always find a way to pop back up somewhere else, an entirely futile game of whack-a-mole.
The friends you make through football fandom are a funny bunch. It’s a hoary old cliché but football really does throw you together with people whose social orbit you might never otherwise enter – whether it be the dyed-in-the-wool locals doing everything from airport baggage handling through to running businesses up to appearing to be full-time professional ultras, right down to the waifs and strays of our little international fan group, proudly embraced as part of the Lanmo. So keen to formalize our existence were the Lanmo higher-ups that they even gave us a name – the Shenhua Euro Crew. The problem with this, of course, was that a fair few of the boys came from Asia, the Americas or Britain and had an objection or two (this was in those innocent pre-Brexit days when making a joke about our islander mentality was no more than lighthearted fun). So the SEC became the Shenhua Element Crew – our name makes no sense, we don’t care – and our little matchday routines and travel plans were born. Making new friends in adulthood can be a surprisingly fraught experience for your average displaced British male – until yet again, football fandom comes into its own. You first get to know people as a one-dimensional caricature of themselves who you see once every week or two during the season to shout at some implausibly talented young men for a couple of hours, and before you know it you’re sharing sleeper trains and poky budget hotel rooms on away trips, and dissecting all your life’s problems at three in the morning.
That’s the beauty of falling into being part of a football fan group – it smashes those social bubbles you might otherwise fall into. Ex-pat Shanghai life so easily becomes a series of late Friday nights with colleagues in bars close to the office, fancy brunch dates, holidays always spent traveling home or to southeast Asia for some sun, and otherwise never leaving Jing’an or the French concession. And instead here you are congregating up in northern Shanghai every other week, taking the metro over an hour into the sticks during rush-hour to train with the Lanmo’s fan team, heading to hidden dive bars in Pudong to watch away games with other likeminded souls, and watching your annual leave and travel funds get spent visiting the North Korean border on a boat with a crate of cheap beers and nine other guys wearing the same blue T-shirt as you.
If football brings people together, then away trips seal the deal. Shenhua fans travel far and wide, and the SEC sends people to most cities in the league. From the other great cathedrals of the sport here with Gongti in Beijing and Tianhe in Guangzhou through to some of the less-traveled outposts of the league, an obligatory SEC flag picture has been taken there. We thought we were hardcore in taking a ten-strong group all the way to the aforementioned North Korean border to watch Shenhua play the now-relegated Yanbian Funde – in fairness, for some of us who went to Beijing, this was back-to-back away games traveling almost 2,500 miles to watch our team get beaten an 2-1 and 2-0 – only to find out about the fans who’d taken a week-long road-trip the whole way from Shanghai to Yanji and back. Even their round-trip mileage pales in comparison to the Shenhua fans who spent the 2016 AFC Champions League campaign making friends with home fans and trolling the visiting team from the other side of the city with the now-infamaous “Only Shenhua rep Shanghai” banner, of course. All the Shenhua fans I’d spent so much of the past few years with were a big part of why I was just so emotionally dumbfounded and stunned when Martins’ shot arced past Yan Junling and rippled that Shanghai Stadium net – not only did I have no idea what it felt like to actually see my team win something, but it was an outpouring of the pride in all these guys and girls with who I have a shared tribalism and our memories of the pre-games, the post-games, the away days and all the goals we witnessed together.
And the goals – oh what goals. A scissor kick of beautiful brutality from a man who once held up a hairdresser’s salon. A steely-eyed Syrian sitting on his haunches and waiting for five minutes while the entire Wuhan side self-imploded in rage behind him, ready to coolly slot an injury-time penalty home in front of the terrace. Demba Ba battering home hat-tricks made from equal parts balletic grace and heavyweight brutality. A bandy-legged Colombian scoring from an impossible angle to seal a three-goal comeback win against Jiangsu. Shanghai’s own Cao Yunding forever cutting inside and letting fly, knee-knacked Avraam Papadopoulos’ super slow-motion header to earn an unlikely comeback point against the champions down in Guangzhou, and the semi-retired Jiang Kun with an even more treacle-like turn-and-pea-roller move at the far end of the stadium to seal another Hongkou derby win. Not to mention, of course, Gio Moreno’s one-man goal-of-the-decade show-reel – of how many other players could there be genuine debate about which of his match-turning overhead kicks you prefer? The only man I have ever seen beat a goalkeeper with a rabona hook round the back of his standing leg while falling on his backside, of course.
It wasn’t always perfect, of course. In fact, far from it – as a title-challenging side was asset-stripped and slipped into mid-table, attendances dwindled during the fallow years around 2013-14, but then the arrival of plucky upstarts Shanghai East Asia – and their rapid corporate makeover into the swaggering, big-spending Shanghai International Port Group – had a remarkable effect. For all the complaints of boardroom corruption, ownership issues, the fire-sales of national team players, the short-sighted transfer policy and embarrassing missteps with short-term dalliances with a series of half-baked managerial appointments and overseas signings, deep-rooted Shenhua loyalty started coming out of the woodwork across the city in response to this new threat. It’s as if all those old Shanghai neighbourhoods were saying sure, we can criticize our team and everything we know is wrong with them, but they’re still ours. And with those remarkable fan protests to reverse new owner Greenland’s clumsy attempt to rebrand the club – a rare example of people pulling together here to stand up to money and power and winning – Shenhua fans started advertising this pride in their identity in a way I’d never seen before. Year-by-year you’d start seeing more Shenhua car stickers here, a few more people wearing club jackets casually around the city there, club scarves in winter – and more and more total strangers to exchange a call of 申花是冠军 with when you’d spot one another out and about. Shenhua shi guanjun – “Shenhua are champions” – always felt like the weirdest mark of faith, this counter-factual masonic ritual with which the true believers would console one another every time we met. Until of course, against all odds, that night in November when they actually became cup winners again. The novelty and irony of shenhua shi guanjun actually being true still hasn’t quite worn off.
There is an almost perfect symmetry as I leave Shanghai for non-football reasons, and turn in my season ticket with a heavy heart. My first game was the start of that AFC Champions League group with Kashima, Suwon and Sydney FC – the last time Shenhua made it into the competition proper. Assuming Suwon navigate their qualification play-offs, this is the exact same group Shenhua will return to the competition in this coming year. I will of course continue to follow the club from afar, and as fortune has it I’ll get to see at least one match in person this year – on April 12th, Shenhua visit Sydney, my latest adopted home. I’ll be there with the rest of the Shenhua fans. In the away end. At home again.