Between inflated transfer fees, relentless top-down engineering and the acutely politicised nature of the sport in the country, China and the Chinese Super League offer little for Football traditionalists. Yet an inquisitive Football enthusiast can still chance upon an oasis of culture even in this expansive wilderness.
There are two ways to approach the Yuexiu Shan Stadium. The first mandates a climb up from the Sun Yat Sen Memorial metro station located to the southwest of the ground. The second I discovered entirely serendipitously. The stadium cuts into the side of the hilly Yuexiu Park from whence it takes its name. Little over a couple square kilometres in size, Yuexiu Park is a humble collection of narrow paths strung across a defiant peak that big-city developers would probably love to demolish. This small but thick patch of greenery provides a pleasant albeit brief respite from the constant audial assault that permanent residents of Guangzhou are accustomed to, and just as you are enjoying the sight of squirrels darting about across your path, the tree canopy breaks to reveal a startling lattice of bright blue steel girders.
There have to be few odder grounds currently in use in professional Football. The Yuexiu Shan is essentially an oval that was carved out of the side of the hill in the 1920’s. Its three steep, banked walls have been smoothed over to create a sleek and functional bowl. The stand behind the west goal is particularly vertiginous, with four teeth of seating either side of a central digital screen over which crests the park’s vegetation. The west curve merges smoothly with the sheltered yet steep north and south stands, both of which skirt the facility until reaching the corner flags at the other end of the pitch. Here the otherwise perfect bowl is interrupted quite suddenly.
The structure that occupies this space is probably most easily described as a tower, but this description is ultimately unsatisfying. This is partly because the building is wider than it is tall, and partly because it resembles three original edifices conjoined clunkily by protruding shoulders. The two wings and central body (6 and 8 storeys high respectively) of this building share a blank, caramel coloured façade punctuated by black window frames above three large archways on the ground floor. These arches form the stadium’s conventional entrance used by the public, the players, match officials, media personal, the armed soldiers and whoever else you expect to find at a Chinese professional Football match. The tower is completed by crimson, curling hip rooves built in a typically sinic albeit anachronistic style. Beyond this building is a concrete plateau that serves as a suitable meeting point for fans and a stairwell perpendicular to the tower archways that passes through a charming brick gateway to the city below.
The absence of a fourth section of seating is reminiscent of the Estadio Municipal de Vallecas, home of cult Spanish club Rayo Vallecano. Yet where Estadio Vallecas emanates the hard, gritty quality of the Madrid neighbourhood whose name it bears, the Yuexiu Shan, nestled between a verdant hillside and a curious edifice housing its offices and player facilities, possesses a beauty that eludes much of Guangzhou. The site was completely still as I peeked through the branches of Yuexiu Park on my unscheduled visit. Feeling like such a good photo opportunity would be difficult to find on match day, I jogged down and doubled back to arrive at the entrance tower. A security guard initially protested, but after having grasped that all I wanted were some photographs, he accompanied me into the stadium to ensure I got my photos without venturing onto the pitch.
It is not just its unorthodox shape that makes the Yuexiu Shan Stadium one of China’s most noteworthy sports venues. The ground’s unique history plays a part in its appeal. First used for sports events in 1926, the Yuexiu Shan has hosted around 400 international matches (often against teams representing countries that were allied to or at least cordial with the Mao’s China), and the “Big Bowl” was even the go-to home ground for teams representing Guangdong – the province that has traditionally served as China’s gateway to foreign customs, ideas, practices and fashions. The ground took its current format in 1950. 14,000 citizens are said to have participated in the stadium renovation project that is reminiscent of 1.FC Union’s spectacular Stadion an der Alten Försterei. One pictures a crew of cheery Guangzhou residents readily pulling their sleeves up for the sake of their burning passion for Football, but I have my doubts regarding the extent to which the participation of these alleged 14,000 people was voluntary. After all, this was the year that directly followed the end of the Chinese Civil War and the triumph of Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party.
The CCP’s ambivalent relationship with Football (certainly compared to the way that other totalitarian regimes of the 20th century viewed the sport) and every other cultural pursuit changed soon after. The vicious Cultural Revolution that began in 1966 (a nationwide event that was truly abhorrent to all morally and emotionally sound people) outlawed active participation in all cultural practices that were deemed “foreign” – including Football. Academics and writers were among the most brutally punished in this ghastly era of modern Chinese history (we at FBTG do our best to stay politically neutral, but we are not willing to pretend that there was any positive side to the Cultural Revolution). As a consequence, it’s inherently difficult to research the evolution of Chinese Football from the late 60’s and 70’s purely because nobody was playing Football and even fewer people were keeping records of organised matches. It was not until the post-Mao era of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when club Football became a popular (and legal) past time again in the country. In 1993, the Yuexiu Shan finally got a long-term tenant.
The legendary Guangzhou FC called the 18,000 capacity ground home for almost two decades – restoring much of the sacred ground’s glory and prestige in that time. The succcesses of the club inevitably attracted investors, and in 2011 the directors of the newly-minted Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao FC quickly found the Yuxeiu Shan Stadium too small for their ambitions. The reds packed up and left in 2011 after the successful construction of the cavernous Tianhe Stadium, but the spiritual home of Cantonese Football did not remain vacant for too long. R&F Properties (a rival of the Evergrande corporation) completed the purchase of a previously nomadic Chinese Football club that had previously based its operations in Shenyang, Changsha and Shenzhen. R&F Properties was decisive, opportunistic and daring. The newly available Yuexiu Shan Stadium in a city close to but far larger than Shenzhen with a population known to have a taste for Football was an unmissable opportunity. The immediate renaming of the club to “Guangzhou R&F FC” naturally followed the acquisition and relocation of the second division outfit that achieved promotion to the Chinese Super League on the first ask. Since then, the Blue Lions have competed in the top division of domestic league Football every season, finishing as high as third in 2014.
The most recent weird chapter in the Yuexiu Shan Stadium’s remarkable story comes courtesy of the Guangzhou R&F board of directors in collaboration with stadium owners the Guangzhou Sports Bureau. Club management became suspicious following a string of poor R&F performances and requested a stadium makeover in order to rid the Yuexiu Shan of whatever mal omens were present. The GSB agreed and proceeded to coat the tribunes and terraces with a revolting mix of green and gold. Low and behold, the club saw an immediate upturn in results, which confirmed to the men at the top that their decision to redecorate as the right one.
Now, one can interpret this story as an amusing but refreshing example of emotional investment and genuine care in a Football franchise in a country not widely known for valuing human capital when it comes to high-level decision making. Alternatively, one can see this as a case of antiquated superstition and unenlightened tommyrot on a corporate level in the most important country of our lifetimes. Take your pick.