Overpriced foreign imports will only go so far. To encourage fans you have to protect them.
It’s Friday 11th March 2016 and Shanghai SIPG is taking on local rivals Shanghai Shenhua. It’s derby day and as an expat, my motivation to attend is driven by curiosity.
Of course, the Chinese Super League (CSL) has gained a great deal more interest in the wake of the winter transfer window. The CSL spent more on players than the Premier League (England) and more than the Serie A (Italy), Bundesliga (Germany), La Liga (Spain) and Ligue 1 (France) combined. An influx of big foreign names for even bigger fees has raised awareness around the world, but I wanted to see how the atmosphere and build up to a derby game compared to England.
A few friends and I agreed to go along without necessarily supporting one team or the other. Less chance of being involved in a pointless fight like the video that did the rounds hours before kick-off. There were too many (one or more) cowardly kick and runs as well. Simply shameful and one of several incidents.
In the red corner, SIPG are led by former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson. He is ably supported by the best curtains in football, Ian Walker, as goalkeeper coach. In terms of foreign playing personnel, they’ve got Ghanaian Asamoah Gyan – who Sunderland fans should recall, Brazilian striker Elkeson – who was their only big off-season signing from reigning champions Guangzhou Evergrande (managed by former World Cup winner Luiz Felipe Scolari), and Argentinian playmaker Dario Conca – who moved to China via Guangzhou in 2011 to be one of the highest paid players in the world despite few in Europe knowing he existed.
In the blue corner, Shenhua have former Sevilla and Atletico Madrid manager, Gregorio Manzano in charge. In terms of familiar foreign players, they have ex-Chelsea, West Ham and Newcastle striker, Demba Ba. Another former Newcastle striker and all-round journeyman, Obafemi Martins – who recently joined from MLS side Seattle Sounders – and Colombian midfielder, Fredy Guarin – who joined from Inter Milan during the off-season – are also in the squad.
Nostalgic faces and ability knowledge based on old versions of Football Manager aside (Guarin used to be 20 at long shots and throwing), this was going to be a unique experience.
Shanghai encourages you to take advantage of their cheap and vast underground network. At around £0.40 for several stops and given it was a Friday night; this is generally the most preferred and practical option.
Despite it being 6:30 p.m. there was still little floor space in the carriages as I met up with one of my mates who was donning an SIPG scarf reassured by the fact that they are the home side. Essentially relying on numbers if needed.
We arrived at Shanghai Stadium where we arranged to meet the others by exit three. Awaiting us were hoards of touts desperately and loudly offering their tickets. Their eyes lit up at the sight of laowais (foreigners) who are reputedly too naïve and wealthy for their own good. Unfortunately for them, being stubbornly argumentative (I prefer the term ‘challenging’), not wealthy and married to a Shanghainese woman, I tend to be quite direct and ignore where I’m from during negotiations.
The perks of being a tall laowai in China means you’re a mobile landmark, thus making it easier to spot others or be spotted yourself. It just makes it harder to do anything wrong and get away with it. Not that I would…or have.
Hoping to avoid the touts and potential of being sold a chocolate teapot, we planned to first enquire at a ticket office.
Whilst one of my friends and I went in search of said office, we found ourselves doing a lap of honour around the stadium that like any circle, appeared to be endless. Failing to see an obvious ticket office and finally finding a person with adequate English, we discovered that it is located outside of the stadium grounds and likely to have been sold out. This was a surprise given it’s capacity is 56,000 and CSL games never seem to sell out.
Perhaps this game was bigger than I expected? Maybe she was lying and wanted me to buy hers instead? The outskirts of the stadium were flooded with people, most of which appeared to be selling tickets. So with 200 rmb (£20) per ticket being the common price quoted, we took the plunge and paid up. Foolish laowis.
Getting in with tickets
With fifteen minutes until the 7:35 p.m. kick-off, we thought the hard part was over. How wrong we were.
Not being the only ones trying to get in at this time, we found ourselves amongst a sea of faces, pressed against people on all sides. The security and officials were drip-feeding the fans via several narrow openings onto a staircase as wide as an Emile Heskey attempt at goal.
Carried by force as oppose to choice, the tickets were barely checked as we eventually found our way through. I noticed some rebellious locals vaulting over the side fences right in front of the ‘officers’ and ignoring their half-hearted cries that suggested professional pride was rapidly dwindling with each successful hopper.
Using my distinctly poor Mandarin, I pointed out that the process was “bad” and “crazy”. No doubt these sternly delivered adjectives caught the ears of those in charge!
I thought we were well on our way to getting into the ground just before the match started as I paused to take a photo of what we had just escaped. But waiting for us at the top of the stairs was a more stringent ticket check.
Again, the crowd – smaller due to what was going on at the bottom of the stairs, was funnelled into several gaps where tickets were being scanned. But the bodies were closer and words of discontent were increasingly vocal such was their understandable impatience at this point.
Desperately trying to avoid my ticket being dropped in the crowd, I got mine scanned (anticipating it to be a fake after all that trouble) and was good to go. One of my friends got carried by the crowd and was unable to get his ticket back. On the sound advice (it wasn’t) of another friend, he decided to start running. Twenty metres later, he realised that it probably wouldn’t do him much good, handing himself back to the disgruntled and overstaffed ticket inspectors. He got his ticket back and we scampered off to find the gate where at least one of us was due to enter, as typically, we weren’t all due to be next to each other.
We arrived at a gate where the green of the pitch could be seen. The game had kicked off by now while hundreds, possibly thousands of supporters were yet to get in.
Asking the stewards at the gate where we should go, they pointed us in a vague direction. We then asked another who suggested we should climb some more concrete stairs. But that resulted in us being sent back down to another gate. Clear as mud.
Walking briskly through with conviction, we finally found ourselves inside the stadium.
Previous experiences suggested seat numbers meant as much as a National Record of Achievement folder. Diddly squat. So led by my assertive and part-time fugitive companion, we headed down the stairs to the front row and across until we came up against a barrier. We then managed to squeeze ourselves on the four seats before noticing that the stand contained a mixture of SIPG and Shenhua supporters.
Atmosphere inside the ground
The Shenhua Ultras were isolated in one group of seats to our right, while the home advantage was clear with blocks of red opposite and behind one of the goals.
There was plenty of noise – sometimes in reaction to something that really didn’t merit it – with little to no sign of tribal allegiances boiling over the verbal abusive chants you’d witness at any ground.
You could tell it was a derby game due to the passionate support, which was reportedly at over 46,000.
An early goal by Colombian, Giovanni Moreno, of Shenhua got the Ultras going. Then minutes later, Ba won a penalty, which he subsequently put wide much to the delight of the home fans.
The most regular chant I could decipher required the opponent’s name to be reduced to two syllables followed by “sha bi” (stupid pussy). Like chanting ping-pong, this went back and forth between the rival supporters with SIPG referred to by their Chinese name, Shang gang.
I can only imagine how such a chant would go down with English supporters. Broadcasters such as Robbie Savage trying to drown it out with the sort of commentary that ends up being equally offensive.
SIPG were able to equalise before the end of an entertaining first half with Cai Huikang heading in the rebound. The second half however, was a drab affair full of potentially good openings let down by a lack of quality in decision-making and/or ability, which is often the case in the CSL.
With a couple minutes plus injury time to play, we decided to make a dash for the exits in anticipation of the inevitable rush for the metro. We didn’t leave early enough.
Getting out of the stadium
Having jogged our way out of the stadium to the theme tune from Chariots of Fire (in my head but stadiums should seriously consider this) and towards exit three where we originally met, we noticed many others had the same idea. But I doubt they had a better soundtrack.
In rounding the stadium, we saw a large number of riot police in formation preparing for something that probably never materialised.
Welcomed by a never-ending ocean of heads, we found ourselves submerged within a minute. Fortunately for us, we were entering from the path closest to the exit so we cut out a great deal of the claustrophobic chaos.
Lining the barriers were what appeared to be military related officials in their mid-20s. They were exerting a great deal of energy to hold back the swarm of people. An officer of some description was yelling along with a few others from the top of the short staircase leading to the exit. I don’t know what he was saying, but logic would suggest something along the lines of, “Don’t fall over. Don’t push. Be patient. Small groups at a time. Stop pushing. No.”
A couple of minutes passed and suddenly your arms were in a fixed position. No control over where or when you moved. Purely focusing on not tripping over because worryingly, I couldn’t see a way of getting back up. The exit remained a few metres away for several more minutes.
Eventually, I got through in disbelief and with an aching sternum. It was difficult not to think about the awful events at Hillsborough where 96 football fans tragically lost their lives in 1989, or even the New Year’s Eve crush in Shanghai, which saw 36 people die last year. Any potential of repetition has to be avoided and cannot be ignored.
There must have been a better way of dealing with something that was quite clearly going to happen. Whether it is closing off this particular station for 45 minutes after the game and encouraging supporters to walk to the next nearest stations or restricting where fans can exit from, I don’t know. But I’m not qualified to suggest a foolproof idea yet I am certain there must be an improved solution to what we experienced, particularly as there didn’t seem to be a lack of personnel.
Once we got into the station, there was no queue or abnormally large crowds of people. They had all been kept outside, dangerously packed against one another.
My experience has definitely put me off going to another derby at Shanghai Stadium, but I will try a different fixture at Shenhua’s Hongkou Stadium in April.
Chinese football appears to be on the up, but if the fan experience (buying of tickets, entering and leaving of a stadium) doesn’t improve, then it will forever be chasing the other leagues, regardless of how much money is spent on foreign imports.