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Football in Foshan and why it matters

Over seven million people live in Foshan. They have no professional football team to support. They used to though, on three separate occasions in fact. But their team was taken away from them each time. Looking at how football in Foshan got to this point helps illustrate some of the issues facing the game across China.

Unless you’re familiar with Guangdong province, martial arts or ceramics production, you could be forgiven for not having heard of Foshan. There are certainly few footballing reasons to have done so.

Part of the much larger Pearl River Delta urban area, Foshan is a prosperous city and its population has ballooned since reform and opening. However, until 1989 this population didn’t have a local team to support. The sparse distribution of official government sanctioned teams in the pre-professional era meant that in Foshan, as in the majority of other towns and cities across China, the locals did not have an opportunity to watch meaningful competitive football.

Foshan finally gets a team…

All this changed in 1989. By then football was moving towards professionalism and teams were beginning to attract sponsors. In Foshan, 30 local companies raised 5,000,000 RMB to found a club. The city government issued residence permits to players from outside Foshan so they could legally move to the city. A team was born.

Foshan entered the Chinese third tier, the lowest national level, and immediately won promotion to the Jia B. Even though they lost 4-0 to a touring Santos team, football fans in Foshan now had a team to support. The team hovered around the lower reaches of the league in the next few seasons but in 1993 – when a professional league was trialled – Foshan were put into the eight team top tier.

This seems to have been an accident of geography. All the matches in the experimental league took place in Guangdong with the future Shanghai Shenhua temporarily transplanted to Dongguan for example. Despite being thumped by Beijing Guoan twice, Foshan did beat the team that would become China’s best in the early days of professionalism, Dalian Wanda (who briefly called Foshan’s Sanshui district home). Foshan eventually finished 6th, above the future Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao, then of historic Yuexiushan.

… experiences the good times…

Unsurprisingly Foshan were put back into the second tier when professionalism started in full in 1994. Playing in the New Plaza Stadium in the city centre, Foshan narrowly missed out on immediate promotion. Renamed Foshan Fosti after a local motorbike manufacturer in 1996, the side drew crowds of 10,000 and even signed foreign players.

In the days before private cars became widely available, fans travelled by bus and motorbike from the outskirts of the city to watch their team. Friends went to watch games together. Fathers took their sons. Demand for tickets was such that touts could charge 50RMB for 20RMB tickets. Foshan Fosti were a good team, consistently challenged for promotion, and had Guangdong derbies with Guangzhou and Shenzhen teams. In short, things were what would be considered normal in many parts of the world. However modest, these were the glory days of Foshan football.

… before the bad…

All was not as it seemed however. With Fosti’s continued habit of narrowly missing promotion, questions were asked about the motives of the club. Did they want promotion or would it be too expensive? Were they deliberately trying to lose crucial games? Did they bottle it? Were they simply not good enough? Whatever the answer, the problem is that there was a question to be answered in the first place. The arrival of professionalism signalled the start of ‘wild east football’ in China. Match fixing allegations mean Foshan Fosti fit right into this.

Suspicions about Fosti, and proved match fixing charges against other Chinese clubs in later years not only affected the integrity of the league, but also the players and fans. Why would an ambitious player play for a team with no interest in promotion as Cleiton Silva (formerly of Shanghai Shenxin) said recently?

The impacts on fans are more damaging and longer lasting. Even if deliberate wrongdoing is not proved, how can you support a team you don’t believe in? In fact, why bother to watch them all? A point vividly made by Harbin fans in 2015. Whilst scandals are not unique to China, they occurred at a more vulnerable time in professional football’s development in China, and the stain they left damaged its growth prospects.

… and then loses its team

Whatever the rumours, running Foshan Fosti was more costly than it was worth. With no local investors ready to save the team – local drinks company Jianlibao were too busy sponsoring the national side – time was almost up for Fosti. After finishing 8th in 1997, their worst ranking in the professional era, Fosti were sold and moved to Xiamen. Just like that. Foshan was again without a team. Xiamen would be too by the late 2000s as the club went bust and dissolved. With the CFA’s transfer tax set to indirectly reveal just how few, if any, current clubs make a profit, the question of sustainability has not gone away over the intervening years.

Nor have some of the scars left by Foshan Fosti’s brief existence. Fans had begun to develop an emotional bond with Fosti that was suddenly shattered. Chinese clubs moving city/province or just seeking to exist has happened many times over the years as another element of ‘wild east football.’ In fact, of the 11 teams that played against Fosti in the Jia B in 1997, seven no longer exist and one of the others now plays over 2,500km away from where it was founded so cannot be called the same team anymore (Guangzhou R&F for those wondering). Rules against this have now been put in place but for many the damage has already been done. Just look at Dalian Shide fans. Or those of Shaanxi Chanba, Yunnan Hongta, Gansu Tianma or any of the other defunct other teams that pop up on Baidu when you search for Foshan Fosti.

Should Foshan or any other city have a local team promoted into the professional leagues or an existing club moved there from elsewhere, it would be understandable if fans were reluctant to get too deeply involved lest their team be taken away from them again. Far safer to watch the European leagues on TV. Sure, the vast majority of fans will never get to watch their team live, but at least they know their European club will last a lifetime.

Farwell New Plaza Stadium

The final ignominy for those who remembered Foshan Fosti came in 2007. Without a regular tenant, the barely twenty year old New Plaza Stadium was torn down. Thousands still go there on a Saturday afternoon but now to shop, not to support their team. How many of them know that the trendy Lingnan Tiandi development sits on ground that hosted five games in the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991?

Demolishing city centre stadiums is not unique to China. Tearing down stadiums only twenty years after they were built might be though. Wulihe Stadium in Shenyang, opened by the same Santos team who toured Foshan in 1989, was also demolished in 2007.

Foshan gets another team…and then loses it

However, just like in Shenyang, a new stadium had been built in Foshan and a new team were in town that year.

Guangdong Sunray Cave started life in 2007 at Nanhai District Stadium in Foshan (now also demolished). A year later, the third tier side moved to Foshan’s new 36,000 seater Century Lotus Stadium. Naming a team after a province rather than a city – even if Sunray were attempting to link with the past glories of the defunct provincial side – signalled an unwanted flexibility over location amongst the owners. Sure enough, Sunray Cave won promotion in 2008 but moved out of Foshan. If not its team in the way that Fosti were, Foshan again had a team playing there ripped away.

Déjà vu all over again

Hope surged in 2013 as the nomadic Sunray Cave returned to Foshan for the final games of the season. They were still in the second tier but a win on the final day would’ve taken them into the CSL. Instead, they lost 1-0 to Chongqing FC who were relegated despite the win and promptly disbanded. So far, so similar to predecessors Foshan Fosti. There was no hint of match fixing in this game though, unless Sunray’s forwards were good enough to hit the post on demand. It was just one of the sorrows that accompany the joys of being a football fan. Foshan fans were soon left without both as Sunray returned to Guangzhou before disbanding a year later. Sound familiar?

Back to the beginning

The Century Lotus Stadium now sits empty, more often used as a music venue than a sporting one. In this respect it is no different to the stadia gathering dust in many cities across China. It is out of sight on the edge of the city and the prospect of professional football returning to Foshan appears to be out of mind for the majority.

This doesn’t mean there is no passion for football though. On the contrary 5, 7 and 11-a-side pitches are crammed into the most unlikely locations: an old warehouse behind a produce market, above car showrooms and wholesale markets, on open air rooftops, hidden in the midst of urban villages, and on edge of town sites next to ringroads.

Who reps Foshan?

Whilst you can play football in Foshan, you can’t support a Foshan team. As in other places without a team, this absence drives football fans elsewhere. Many people from Foshan make the short trip to Guangzhou to support CSL sides Evergrande and R&F. It’s not the same though. People from Foshan can watch live football but they must support a Guangzhou team. They must stand on the terraces and proclaim their love for ‘Guangzhou dui’ and not ‘Foshan dui.’ In countries worldwide, football clubs are an important part of local identity as they represent both fans and the wider city. Who reps Foshan? No one.

Foshan is far from alone in this in China but is actually relatively lucky in being so close to Guangzhou. Fans in neighbouring provinces Guangxi and Fujian, for example, don’t have any clubs in the top three tiers to support this season. That’s 83 million people without a professional team to follow.

For those and the tens of millions of other Chinese in this position, where is the incentive to follow domestic football? Why should any of Shanxi’s 37 million residents care who wins the CSL when they don’t even have a team to support in China League 1 or China League 2? They have no stake in the league. If they are forced to watch football on TV or online, why shouldn’t they watch higher quality action from Europe rather supporting a team in a Chinese city they have no connection to? But, and here is the problem, if the domestic league has only a limited following, how can it and the national team fulfil their potential?

Football culture

Football culture is hard to define but its absence is often cited as a reason for China’s relative underperformance at national level compared to its population size. Whilst no doubt an important factor, a more interesting question is why China lacks a football culture. The Foshan example provides some of the answers.

Foshan may be larger and more prosperous than many Chinese cities but in footballing terms it is very similar to the majority of them. The impacts of never having a team, not being able to believe in the team you have, and/or losing a team you once had are common to towns and cities right across the country. Taken together, they provide some of the reasons behind China’s slow development of a football culture.

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.

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