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Roots and culture: Chinese Football clubs and the New York Cosmos blueprint

I’ve worked on a number of magazine programmes. Because they’re designed to be picked up by as many TV stations as possible, budgets are quite tight with a producer and cameraman expected to go out and find a few stories which are then edited back at base. The economics requires every long distance trip to produce more than a single feature and a trip to China from Europe needs a minimum of three. This can call for a bit of creativity when it’s not a multi-sport programme and the choice is limited to football.

Back in 2011, I planned a shoot to Guangzhou. Evergrande, in their first season in the CSL, was obviously a story that needed telling. A profile of Zheng Zhi was an easy second choice especially as we had access to some decent archive material of his career. The third, though, was a bit of a head-scratcher until, in mid-July, the city acquired a second club.

Zheng Zhi – still kicking at 40

Guangzhou R&F is the fourth incarnation of one of the original 1994 Jia A pioneers. Back then, they were known as Shenyang Liuyao and were, frankly, a bit over-matched, going down after winning only one match all season. They eventually came back up and consolidated their position before moving to Changsha after the 2006 season when their Wulihe home was demolished. After four seasons in Hunan, they were bought out and moved to Shenzhen. However the new owner’s financial plan proved to be wholly imaginary and, by May, the club was heading towards bankruptcy. At the last minute, a Guangzhou real estate company, R&F, stepped in. As it turned out, this has been something of a happy union and, when this season does finally get under way, it will be the club’s ninth in the top flight.

The R&F faithful

The R&F story made me think about the fact that the club structure we take for granted in Europe has translated so poorly to China. Most Europeans, myself included, went to see our local club with family while we were still very young. A local club that has been there, in some cases, for well over a century. An institution the absence of which would lessen the community. Football is for the fans and, without them, what purpose does it serve?

I’m not sure the CFA has ever fully grasped this. It has always seemed the thought is that a proper club system is desirable, and every worthwhile football nation has one, but those in charge aren’t quite sure why.

Every close season, and more so this year with the coronavirus stoppage, there’s a high attrition rate among professional clubs. Maybe the owners suddenly discover how expensive football is (or discover the inside of a police cell). Perhaps the locals are uninterested by a bunch of strangers who have turned up in their midst. Perhaps they are interested but the owners prefer being somewhere else (even if there’s already a big local team, as Renhe or Shenxin found). Any club worthy of the name is surely solidly rooted in the local community and, with very few exceptions, this doesn’t occur in China. Twenty-three teams took part in that first professional season, and only eight direct descendants still exist today.

There were clubs in pre-1949 Shanghai and, who knows, given the opportunity they might have become the sort of organisation found in Hong Kong. South China may not be the force they were in the pre-satellite TV past, when five figure crowds came to big matches, but no-one doubts their importance to the sport there, and their current absence from the SAR’s Premier League is a big loss.

Fan Lv Fu Hua” – “Anti-Greenland, revive the flower” – Shanghai Shenhua fans successful fight to preserve their club name in 2014

The set-up I encountered in the Eighties consisted of a first division of (usually) sixteen; provincial or city selections, lots of military teams, the odd industry represented as well (Locomotive for the Railways). Matches were held at neutral venues, usually ones with good railway connections, where everyone would gather and play a few rounds for the edification of the locals. There were no home and away games and, if fans did happen to see their local team in action, it was more likely to be in a prestige friendly against foreign opposition. Even then, it didn’t matter that much. In the autumn of 1986, a couple of these matches were arranged in Shanghai, against the Australian national team and Zenit Leningrad. However, the local team was absent; they’d been sent to Thailand to represent the nation in the Queen’s Cup. Never fear, though. Shandong didn’t have a bad squad, and weren’t otherwise engaged, so into the breach they stepped. The Shanghai fans turned up anyway; after all the city wasn’t exactly full of counter-attractions.

This organisation by decree came to characterise the professional set-ups of the early Nineties. They were all basically formed by agreements between local sports authorities, who supplied the football bits, and sponsors who brought the cash. Some could surely have succeeded; Sichuan had average crowds of over 40,000 that first year and managed to squander all that enthusiasm in little over a decade.

Perhaps the real issue is that these club sides did not begin as part of the community. They were essentially prestige projects with no sense that the fans are to be cultivated. One reason for this might be that tickets sales, the most vital source of income for all but the biggest clubs elsewhere, don’t seem to figure heavily in the calculations. The fan base is therefore almost thought of as optional, which is perhaps why there seems so little problem in moving stadiums or even city. Certain clubs, like R&F, Renhe or Shenxin, have washed up in several locations. Liaoning, a club with an apparent fan base across the entire province, based themselves in several cities before people cottoned on that, instead of representing everywhere, they actually represented nowhere.

The best parallel I can think of is with the North American Soccer League which, in the 1970s, was briefly one of the world’s top competitions. Granted, the USA is quite comfortable with a franchise system but the effect of that new tournament was rather like the circus coming to town. Great enthusiasm at first and then, once it wears off, no sense of loyalty. Pele played for the New York Cosmos until 1977, the league folded just seven years later.

New York Cosmos – would not be out of place in today’s CSL

Some clubs get it. Shandong, Beijing and others have large fanbases developed over a long time. It’s to be hoped that other places might realise a club is for life, not just for a brief fling. Maybe, if we return in a decade or so, twenty or more cities might have developed the sort of stable club structure the league requires.

It didn’t have to be like this. The J-League appeared in 1993 with ten clubs formed from what had previously been company teams. There are now 56. Only one has disappeared and that was thanks to a merger which caused so much grief to the fan base they formed their own club, Yokohama FC, which is now in J1. That’s the passion club football should generate.

As for my three stories on that Guangzhou shoot, R&F beat Hunan in a match that gave me ample opportunity to film all sorts of lovely views of the Yuexiushan. They got promoted three months later. Evergrande were spectacular, sticking four goals past Tianjin Teda, while Zheng Zhi rather let things down by getting a red card in the previous game while I was still on the flight out. He was therefore suspended and, though he gave me a very good interview, my final edit was a bit lacking in B-roll. You can’t win them all.

Tom Lewis has worked in television for longer than he'd care to remember and, though his first love is football, has filmed all sorts of sports in over forty countries. He first saw the Chinese national team in 1979, arrived in Shanghai just in time to watch them clinch the 1983 National Games title and has been following the ups and, mostly, downs of football in the PRC ever since. Supports Sichuan Quanxing.

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