We left the first game in Guangzhou before the final whistle, missing the second goal. This is the price to pay for two games in one evening, I suppose. From the Tianhe Stadium, we dashed across town to get to the magnificent Yuexiu Mountain Stadium, home of Guangzhou R&F.
And what a stadium. Our ventures the day before had culminated in reaching the stadium whilst empty. Walking through the hilly Yuexiu park, this giant sky-blue thing emerges from the trees in full splendour. Aside from the romantic location, what makes the Yuexiu Stadium really awe-inspiring is the fact that it only has 3 stands. Where the fourth would be, behind the south end goal, the enormous clubhouse sits, archways and brickwork closing off the stadium in unique style. Both purposeful and unapologetically individual, the Yuexiu Stadium may possibly be one of the best I personally have ever seen.
Thursday’s calm was replaced by Friday’s fervour. Scrambling around in the dark minutes before kick-off, not only did we find a ticket, but also a handful of white people wearing team colours. 10 white people together is an odd thing in itself in China, so we nosied in to have a chat. These were the Fuligans, an expat group living in Guangzhou who socialise around Guangzhou R&F, all having season tickets. Mostly British with a few other nationalities mixed in, we shared a beer and they brought me into the stadium and took me into the block where the louder fans stood, to watch the game with a bit of atmosphere, instead of going to my assigned seat high up.
The following 90 minutes showed everything you and I need to know about Chinese Football fans right now.
The Ultra Block of Guangzhou R&F was a clearly defined section of the West tribune. Youths stood in the lower rows, several with giant flags, a couple with drums and two slightly older and bigger lads with megaphones. All to be expected. But directly in front of the Ultra Block was the main walkway around the ground. All other fans taking their seats at their own pace simply walked in front of the Ultras unchallenged, in front of the Capo, who was using the walkway as his space to lead the crowd. This would be completely inconceivable in Europe. “Normal fans” would never be permitted to invade the Ultra Block, let alone walk openly between the Capo and the Ultras.
And if a foreigner with a camera were to openly walk around taking photos before choosing to stand among them at his first ever home game at the club? I would’ve been given a royal kicking-in in Poland, Italy or Russia. It shows a major lack of respect for all they have done to earn the title “Ultra”. But, if this annoyed the R&F Ultras and Capo, they didn’t show it. I was by no means the only person doing this by the way. We once again had the compulsory Chinese national anthem, a CSL stalwart. Then at kick-off, the R&F Ultras threw confetti into the air and the chanting begun. Not that the expat contingency in the Ultra Block were able to contribute much to the actual Cantonese chanting. Many were far more interested in hurling abuse at Carlos Tevez, currently playing for Shanghai Shenhua, the day’s opponents.
And what of the travelling support? A modest amount, banked in the curved tribune behind the goal, but with no barrier restricting our access to them. You could’ve walked right over from the home fans to the away fans, no problem. The R&F Capo and a handful of others made obscene gestures toward the guest block and sang a couple of chants at them, presumably derogatory ones. But if they had really meant it and had wanted to kick off, there would have been nothing to stop them. Lads, don’t talk the talk if you ain’t got the trousers to actually go over and show the visiting boys who is has the biggest bollocks. It’s embarrassing.
What was more obscene and questionable was the amount of people walking in during the second half wearing Guangzhou Evergrande colours who had obviously just come from the other game (as we had). Hordes of locals wearing the cross-town rivals’ colours were free to walk in front of the R&F Ultras, completely unchallenged. No reaction whatsoever. Could you imagine the reaction if that were to happen in Europe for example? You would deck the offender, no question.
Post game was celebrated with hours wasted away drinking with the Fuligans outside a Chinese equivalent of a Spätkauf down the road from the ground. “Why do you guys follow R&F and not Evergrande?”. They told me the lower expectation makes it a less serious and more enjoyable experience as a fan. R&F, a far younger team than Evergrande, are not perennial title contenders. “The atmosphere is just better”. Secretly I think a lot of them like the fact that R&F is less well known, more ambiguous. More “hipster” (God I hate that word). Our conclusion of the fan experience here is quite clear.
With China only opening its doors slowly to the outside world and media, the Chinese do not get chances to observe the Football culture of Europeans et al in person. What they do see is from the tv screen and social media. They are copying the elements of Football fan culture that they can see most clearly; large custom flags, a Capo and bouncing in unison. What they cannot see (and copy) are the values of Football fanatics. Hierarchy, aggression, respect, tradition, bravery. This part of Football culture is missing right now in China.
They are paying lip service to the tribalism and aggression of being a fanatic. It’s just acting; the R&F Ultras are in no way going to attack or be violent toward opposing fans. They had easy opportunity to do so in this game. But they still maintain the chanting and booing and general antagonism. It makes the whole thing an illegitimate affair, a hollow atmosphere. If a European team with a big hooligan following were to come to play in China, the locals would get rushed. Completely. Does this one game experience represent the entire of China? We believe so.
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