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Editor’s column: Hostile environment for Chinese football fans undermines everything

Wild East Football founding editor Cameron Wilson strides forth once again with his latest Chinese Super League-related witherings.

Hello there. How’s it going everyone? I’m on the road this week but the show goes on. Pretty interesting start to the season so far, two games in to the CSL but already only three teams with 100% records. Did you catch the Chinese Football Podcast this week? Don’t miss it. This week I’m turning my attention to the ACL, China security issues, and playing professional football games during the working day. There’s a lot of intricate connections between all of these things which reveal the huge potential for building football culture but also the complicated challenges facing this endeavor in China.

Pride of NE Asia

I was at the Asian Champions League match between Shanghai Shenhua and Suwon on Tuesday night. Having been to Hongkou Stadium more times than I can remember there are a lot of significant negatives which affect the match day experience I simply have grown used to and don’t think about much anymore. But seeing it was an ACL match, I think a reset button was pressed somewhere in my head. I think it was all the logos on restaurants and shops around the stadium being covered up in keeping with ACL marketing regulations which made me literally see the surroundings differently. But what has become clear is when it comes to building a widespread football culture, Chinese fans are still forced to eek out an existence on a barren and arid land. The simple fact is all manner of hostile forces conspire to prevent the proper cultivation and social transmission of a culture here. Mostly the tight security environment, and indifference towards fans’ feelings and a lack of understanding about the potential of their role.

China’s boosting the Asian Champions League, despite everything

I’ve made the argument before that China is missing a huge opportunity to lead Asian Football by turning the CSL into the EPL of Asia and be the league the best players from the continent want to play in, in front of big colourful crowds and heated atmospheres. To do that its clubs have to dominate the ACL. In this regard they are doing alright even if the new foreigner rules are undermining their strength in the competition – SIPG, Tianjin Quanjian and Guangzhou Evergrande are in a good position right now to make it to the knock-out rounds. However as we saw, Shanghai Shenhua are struggling to make it out of their group. Several factors on show during their defeat on Tuesday to Suwon illustrate some of the intriguing factors affecting the game in China in good ways and bad.

Firstly, there was an interesting social dynamic on display. The north terrace cappos were working way harder than normal to whip the crowd up into a frenzy. Shouting and imploring everyone every few minutes to stand and sing and make as much possible. This was in contrast to the earlier Shenhua ACL game against Sydney a couple of weeks ago where, although there was still a very good atmosphere there was not this huge extra exertion on the part of the fan leaders to generate more noise. And huge effort there was – a few who left after Suwon’s second goal late in the game were berated by the mega-phone wielding cappos for attempting to leave before the match was over. So why was the fans’ behaviour different between the ACL games versus Sydney and versus Suwon and why does it matter? Well, Chinese fans care a lot more about how they are perceived in east Asia by close rivals South Korea and Japan. They aren’t as bothered about Australia in this regard. It’s far from China both culturally and geographically. Same can’t be said of Suwon who had a relatively large number of supporters, a good couple of hundred or so and for Shenhua – well – do you remember the infamous “Only Shenhua rep Shanghai” banner? This shows how important it is for them to represent their city on a wider international stage. And the Shenhua fans especially care about this when it comes to Korean and Japanese teams. It’s not so much about opposing them, its more about face – Shenhua supporters are widely respected outside of China and they have a reputation to upkeep which is what they were doing. You could be forgiven for thinking this is all fans stuff and petty rivalry or whatever. But actually it tells us a lot and it is really important to understand what these sentiments mean because in many cases fan sentiments are reflective of the values of wider society to a significant extent, particularly in national contexts and this feeds back into football. And of course much of what I’m saying here applies to fans of other Chinese clubs too.

The ACL as a positive force for the whole continent

First thing to note is these fan behaviours show how much Chinese fans care about the Asian Champions League. The attendance figures bear this out but beyond the numbers we can see that fans act differently in some ACL games, as detailed above. So this means the Chinese fans have the potential to be a positive and transformative influence in Asian Football itself. They have the potential to be agents of change in the Asian game by making the ACL something really worth winning and something to help divert Asian fans attention away from the bright lights of European football. This also means that Chinese fans are acting as ambassadors for the Chinese game, and for Chinese football itself. By making all these special efforts for an Asian Champions League game, they are doing a great service not only to Chinese football but to Asian football as a whole. They have enormous potential to be a highly effective tool in China’s soft power armory. I don’t know how many times I have taken someone to a Chinese football game for the first time and they were blown away by the passion and authenticity of the fans. It makes people see China in a different light, it shows a big group of people who have grown organically from the bottom up over time, come together to expend huge amounts of time and money supporting something local which doesn’t give much in return. These kinds of individuals supporting the game in this way here are on the edge of Chinese society in many ways, they are individualistic and more independent than the mainstream. They are more charming, more engaging, more internationally-minded and they have the power to make people embrace China despite all the country’s faults.

But what’s the reality? Do the powers-that-be engage this fan culture to help develop the game and spread the good word? Unfortunately not. Chinese supporters exist very much despite, not because of, the way present day China is run. And in many ways things are not moving forward for football. The Chinese match day experience is significantly poorer than it was five or ten years ago. At Hongkou at least. A decade ago fans brought flags and drums in as they please. Flares and smoke bombs were mandatory and made for a fantastic and intense atmosphere. Now just about everything is banned. Drums are still allowed, but all flags must be pre-approved for potential controversial content. Many fans simply don’t bother now with banners or such like, making this extra effort to make the matchday experience more colourful and exciting for the whole stadium. There are also times, such as last season, when entire sections at Hongkou were banned from bringing any flags or drums because of incidents like throwing plastic bottles on the pitch. Of course that is a stupid action but collectively punishing a whole terrace is not only inherently unjust but also alienates the very people who are hands down the very best thing about Chinese football. The only new addition at Hongkou Stadium’s north terrace this year is a big new CCTV camera at the back which says it all.

Tuesday night’s game had a crowd of over 20,000 at Hongkou which is standard these days. But for really big matches, such as the Shanghai Derby last week, Chinese security policies again restrict things unnecessarily. “Hongkou stuffed to rafters for Derby” said the headlines. But it wasn’t. The crowd was something like 24,000 – some 9,000 seats short of capacity. All of these seats could have been sold, but thanks to a rather unnecessary local security rule, 12% of all seats put on sale must be kept empty. Note this figure does not include areas cordoned off for segregation. So basically Hongkou’s capacity is just 25,000 these past few years. It’s said that after a stampede on the Bund on New Year’s Eve a few years ago which claimed the lives of 36 people, the police got spooked and changed the rules regarding places where large numbers of people congregate. The crush on the Bund was a horrible tragedy, but Hongkou is a modern all-seater football stadium designed to hold a certain number of people safely and it just does not make any sense to limit capacity further than buffer areas to keep rival fans apart. It’s so unfortunate that more Shanghai fans can’t get to experience the magic of a derby in person. It’s also unfortunate that the derby is further held back by the fact SIPG are no longer given two tiers of the stadium for their supporters – following a row between the clubs both sides now just give the minimum allocation required as per the rules.

The artificial stadium limits become every more regrettable when you consider the fact that they only apply to Chinese domestic games in Shanghai – games last summer at Shanghai Stadium involving big European clubs on tour were not subject to the same limitations. So in actual fact that means its easier to watch the likes of Arsenal or Bayern Munich at Shanghai Stadium than it is to watch the Shanghai Derby because there are more tickets available. The loser is Chinese football which loses a huge atmosphere and great spectacle generated by a very big away support. Anyway these are just some instances in the last few weeks which show how fans are stopped from working their magic and being walking, talking, free adverts for Chinese football. It’s just a huge shame that whilst some teams are having a proper pop at the ACL, others aren’t – like Shenhua who have named a weakened side for all their ACL games so far, and other clubs in the tournament such as Kashiwa who lost to Kitchee this week. Each club has their individual reasons for doing so but it adds up to the ACL being undermined which is bad for everyone and in Shenhua’s case it’s unfortunate that their famously vociferous support clearly values the competition but the club management doesn’t – the writing was on the wall here as soon as Kim Kee-hee was released at the start of the year.

Professional football games being played during office hours – again

Strangely, despite not fielding as strong an ACL side as they could, Shenhua have brought forward their CSL match against Hebei CFFC by a day to March 30 so they have extra time to prepare for the ACL match in the following midweek. That would seem to be sensible, except the match will kick off at 5pm on a Friday evening when most people are still at work. The reason is ostensibly for local TV reasons as SIPG play at 7.35pm the same evening and the local sport channel can’t show both matches simultaneously. Regardless, this is all too common in Chinese football – matches being played in the afternoon during the working day which naturally prevents large numbers of fans from getting to the stadium. It’s particularly common during the early rounds of the CFA cup when smaller sides host CSL clubs. But I just can’t think of any reason whatsoever when its justified to move games to a time when most people are working. It’s simply not necessary and sends a message that fans are not wanted or welcome, and it also devalues the competitions and leagues as a whole. In a country trying to build up it’s football system, surely it would be better to try to encourage people by making it as easy as possible for fans to attend. Putting matches on in the middle of the working day just alienates the very people the game needs most and shows that despite all the plans and emphasis placed on reforming Chinese football, there’s still a ways to go in terms of elevating the game in the national consciousness.


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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