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They play football differently in upcountry China


As the floodlights glared down at the pitch and the players kicked-off, the volume in the stands intensified as rival fans offered a mixture of derision and support to their players, and each other. This could have been a football match anywhere – England, Spain, Brazil – but it wasn’t. This scene took place in the city of Dalian, in the North-East of China. Actually, having moved away from the central Physical Stadium, Shide FC now play in the suburb of Jinzhou, 5 minutes walk from the apartments I inhabited during my 8 month stint as an English teacher.

I’ll admit to being a huge football fan, having been to many a match in England, and also one on a glorious night in Barcelona. I had little idea of what to expect from a game in the Asian Champions League, but I must confess my hopes weren’t high. I’d been looking to go to a game since I arrived, and as luck would have it tonight was the night the Japanese came to town in the form of Gamba Osaka FC. It would seem hooliganism and football violence is not merely a preserve of the English, as my morning had been spent re-assuring my manager that I’d be back in my flat come the first signs of the trouble she seemed to think was guaranteed. As it turned out, she needn’t have worried, as whilst there was certainly an atmosphere, and one with an edge to it, the fans remained good-natured throughout.

So, having persuaded a fellow teacher to join me for the match, we jumped in a taxi (I had spent the afternoon over the other side of the city) and headed for the match. If only it were that simple, but things in China never are. I’ll be honest, my Mandarin skills are limited to this day, let alone after only being in the country a few weeks, and my companion Tony fared little better. Like the irresponsible fool I am, I’d lost the piece of paper with my address written on in Chinese, so we resorted to the age-old tactic of speaking in very loud, slow English. It didn’t work. But we didn’t get jobs as resourceful, inventive teachers for nothing. Actually, maybe we did, but that wasn’t going to stop us now. We tried miming football, but our acting appeared to be as bad as our playing skills. Luckily we were saved by one of the most famous men on the planet. Step forward Mr. David Beckham. He wasn’t actually there obviously, but the mention of his name seemed to cross cultural boundaries and we were soon speeding off as rain hammered into the windscreen.

We arrived at the stadium less than five minutes before kick-off, and picked up some tickets from an English-speaking tout. Not forgetting our newspapers to keep the dirt and dust off our backsides, we ran up the stairs to our seats. Despite the fact that it was a tired-looking construction I found the stadium a quietly impressive sight. The floodlights shone high above the bowl, illuminating the roof as a continuous blue wave, whilst the crowd stood proudly waving flags and banners. Over one side the hardcore of Dalian support were beginning a routine I got to know well over the next few months, as they formed a hopping mass waving their shirts over their heads, exposing their bare chests and chanting as I zipped my jacket tighter against the falling temperatures. At the opposite end of the stadium the few Japanese who were brave enough to travel into the cold of Northern China played their part to the full, complete with drums and their own topless army. It made quite a backdrop. There were no more than 20,000 in attendance, but as the teams emerged onto the sodden pitch the noise grew deafening, and the drums beat louder and louder. It may be because of the way the Chinese are portrayed in the West, but I really wasn’t expecting the kind of atmosphere or raw passion I saw that night. Every tackle or shot was cheered to the rafters, yet it remained relatively friendly, a welcome relief after my managers warnings.

The standard of football in China is low, as there is little grass-roots investment despite the huge interest amongst the nation’s youth. Dalian Shide had previously dominated the domestic league but have recently fallen on harder times amid accusations of corruption. The fans however remain thirsty for success, and despite being the underdogs, they roared their team on. They refused to let the noise levels drop, sometimes singing in English. Whilst I don’t think they knew what they were singing, it did mean we could join in the odd rendition, something that seemed to endear us to the home fans.

As a Western face anywhere outside of Shanghai or Beijing, you are something of a spectacle. You’re also considered fair game for shouting at, poking, touching, photographing and anything else people may wish to do. In this case, as the heads turned upon our arrival, we were welcomed and handed a couple of small flags but generally left to our own devices. That was until mid-way through the first half. The action on the pitch had calmed down so attention in the nearby crowd turned to us. After using our Chinese to the full and informing the locals we were teachers from England, conversation began to wane, so we were quickly led to the front by a young girl with Chinese flags painted on her cheeks. She manoeuvred us into position behind a banner, instructed us to smile and took a photo. We were slightly worried about what exactly this banner said, as we’d heard of teachers deported for speaking of the ‘Three T’s’ (Tiananmen, Taiwan, Tibet), but smiled and gave the obligatory peace sign anyway. This seemed to signal us as fair game for the Chinese as they proceeded to jabber excitedly and point towards the large drums beating away at the heart of the crowd. Needless to say, it was only a couple of minutes before we found ourselves, drumsticks in hand, trying to keep up with the lead drummer. The man I’d displaced seemed less than enamoured with my playing, and as my musical skills left much to be desired I quickly handed over my responsibilities. I like to think my tuneless drum bashing played a small part in inspiring those 11 men representing my adopted city. I guess I’ll never know but I will say this; not two minutes after my musical career ended, Shide took a 1-0 lead! It was hardly a classic as the ball was shinned in from 2 yards out, but as the saying goes – they all count. This turn of events sent the crowd wild, as men appeared from seemingly nowhere rushing along the front of the stands, giant flags flowing behind them. The cries of ‘Shide, Shide’ rang out into the night and attention turned to taunting the Japanese.

Half-time came and went, as we tried to find ourselves some alcoholic liquid refreshment but to no avail. Armed with two Cokes, we returned for the second half. The action was very much in the same vein as had gone before, with the Japanese dominating the game, but thanks to the treacherous conditions Dalian snatched another goal to leave them handily placed in their Champions League group. Or so I’m told, I have to say I never actually got round to studying the group table, although I can tell you they blew whatever good position they found themselves in by partaking in a shambolic defeat against Chonbuk Motors of Korea.

As the final whistle went, the crowd responded with huge cheers and cushions flew onto the pitch, a tradition in this part of town. After a few minutes of finger waving and shouting towards the Japanese fans, the stadium began to empty. The singing and chanting continued outside the ground as the home phones were delighted, not only to have won, but to have beaten the Japanese too. They also appeared very happy that we were there to witness it, as the random shouting of ‘Hello!’, ‘Beck-a-ham’ and ‘Where are you from?’ seemed to attest.

That was my first experience of football in China, and I can tell you it was a thoroughly enjoyable one. The passion of the fans matched anything I’ve seen before, but they managed to remain good-natured with it, and while the result may have helped this, it’s surely something that other countries could learn from.

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