Thursday, March 22, 2012

Go on, Guo'an!

Last Friday night, I went to see Beijing Guo'an Football Club play their opening home game of the season against their most reviled opponents, Shanghai Shenhua. [The club's website has got much better in the last couple of years. It still doesn't have any English on it, alas; but it works reasonably well with Google Translate - I love that it labels the game venue as the "battlefield".]

The quality of the football was not that impressive on the whole (we make allowances for them not having much of a pre-season build-up, and then plunging straight into a frenetic early programme that sees them playing the opening games of the Asian Champions League alongside the domestic Chinese Super League; both teams were clearly short of match fitness and stamina), but it was a lively game; and - after an unfortunate wobble in the middle - it ended in the right result. Frankly, Shanghai were never really in the game, and if Guo'an's finishing had been more incisive, they might have come out winners by 7-0 or 8-0. As it was, goals just either side of half-time had put the home side comfortably in front, but they promptly let the visitors get back on terms by gifting them a brace within a few minutes of each other (a dumb handball on the edge of the area, quickly followed by an even dumber square pass at the back that let in the Shanghai strikers behind the defence). Fortunately, Guo'an were not too dismayed by this misfortune, and were soon steaming forward again, and could have, should have bagged three or four more goals before they finally managed to nab the clincher 10 minutes from the end. (Too much drama for one evening! It did almost feel scripted, like a professional wrestling bout. Hopefully, those days are over: there was a huge match-fixing scandal here a few years ago.)

It was a much needed win for Beijing, after they'd stumbled to a 1-2 away defeat to last season's K-League runners-up Ulsan Hyundai in their Champions League opener, and then went down 1-3 to newly promoted Guangzhou R&F in their first CSL game. This result should have given them a big lift; although a 1-1 Champions League draw against Brisbane Roar the following Monday was another disappointment. Let's hope they can get three more points from this Sunday's away game at Hangzhou, to boost them into the top third of the table.

Fans show some love for new coach, the Portuguese Jaime Pacheco 
(despite a shaky start to the season)

The traditional bad blood between China's two biggest cities is exacerbated at the moment by the fact that Australian striker Joel Griffiths, Guo'an's leading scorer for the past three seasons, traitorously declined to accept a new contract with us and departed for the hated rivals on a free transfer over the winter (we console ourselves that, at 32, he's probably past his best). He was joined up front by the notoriously selfish and ill-tempered Frenchman Nicolas Anelka (also 32, but probably still capable of shattering the scoring records at this level of football, if he can be bothered...), who is China's most expensive football import to date. Shanghai Shenhua, 75% owned by online gaming billionaire Zhu Jun, is looking set to emulate the unlovely example of Chelsea and Manchester City in the UK by seeking to secure a title with a massive spending binge. Both forwards scored (Griffiths converting the dumb penalty, and Anelka taking advantage of the even dumber back-pass), but otherwise looked fairly lacklustre. Anelka, though, had a few scary moments: he definitely has a bit more composure on the ball and more of a nose for goal than we're used to seeing in Chinese football; our defenders were a tad intimidated by him, and doubtless most other defenders in this league will be as well. It will be interesting to see if he will take this season seriously, or just go harumphing off in search of another huge signing-on fee.

My football-mad Austrian chum Andreas Laimboeck, Director of the Live the Language Mandarin school, is running a Guo'an supporters' club for his students this year, and managed to assemble a group a couple of dozen strong for the Shanghai game. He assures me that next Friday's clash against Tianjin will be even more of a grudge match (it's only 80 miles or so down the road, so it counts as a local derby)... but I'm not sure if I can take that much excitement again quite so soon. It's an unfortunate quirk of scheduling that two of the most important - or at any rate the most emotive - games for Beijing fans are coming back-to-back, right at the start of the season.

I could yet be tempted, though... I'd forgotten how exhilarating live football can be! Even if the quality of play isn't that wonderful, it's the atmosphere of the event that makes it special; and Guo'an are now drawing some big and extremely vociferous crowds (everyone stands throughout; and shouts almost continuously; and vuvuzelas have become very popular since the last World Cup). I hadn't been to a game here since before the Olympics. And, in my early years in Beijing, Guo'an games were relatively poorly attended. In the last few years, they've started pulling in some HUGE crowds. For the really big games like Shanghai and Tianjin they're managing to completely sell out the stadium, which was unheard of until quite recently (Gongti, the Workers Stadium, has an official capacity of 66,000). Unfortunately, this means that the piao fanzi (touts, scalpers) are having a field day; tickets are becoming hard to get hold of through regular channels, and - for "sold out" games - are changing hands for two or three times their face value (even on Taobao, the online shopping forum that usually produces the best bargains to be had on anything).

I think I'll definitely go to another game or two at some point this year... but perhaps not until the climax of the season. Since this is likely to be my last year in Beijing, I would like to see my 'home side' claim the championship again. (They've only managed it once in the eight previous seasons of the Super League, in 2009.)

Three final plugs...

Plug 1:  There's a new sports shop recently opened on Gulou Dongdajie, a couple of hundred yards west from the north end of Nanluoguxiang. I doubt if it's an officially licensed supporters' shop, and its Guo'an kit might well be shanzhai; but it seems to be very good quality (much better than most of the stuff the street vendors are hawking around the Stadium on match days), and is less than half of the price of the official Gongti store.

Plug 2:  The best place to follow Guo'an news in English is the football blog Wild East Football.

Plug 3:  If you fancy going to a game with a big group of laowai, drop Andreas a line and he'll try and get you tickets so you can join up with his Live the Language students. I think he's hoping to go to every game this season. 

And two footnotes...

Footnote 1:  There's a rundown of team news for all the clubs in the Chinese Super League at the start of the new season on the Time Out Beijing website here, and lots of information about the current Guo'an squad on Wikipedia here.

Footnote 2:  I'm curious as to why Guo'an games have developed such a big fan following lately. The Wikipedia page on the history of the CSL shows that their average attendance was a paltry 10,864 in 2004, the first year of the new league, and only 14,641 in 2008. Last year it had soared to 40,397; and this year looks set to be even higher - at least if we can mount a decent title challenge. Winning the championship in 2009 was obviously a big boost. I suspect the opening up of so many new subway lines in the last few years, making the city centre more accessible to the distant suburbs, has made a contribution too. I also wonder about the impact of the period of exile, when Guo'an was banished to Fengtai, a district far to the south-west of the city, for a couple of years while the Workers Stadium was undergoing renovations for use as an Olympic football venue. I think the return to their traditional home must have been a great relief to the original fan base (who may not have been able to get out to Fengtai very often), and probably lifted attendance in the first few months of the '09 season. However, I wonder if Guo'an didn't build up a new body of supporters in Fengtai, who now trek into the city to watch them. And whatever happened to Beijing Bird? There used to be a second Beijing football team, but I haven't heard anything of them in some years now, and I suspect they've been wound up (couldn't find anything about them in a brief Google search just now; obviously a job for Baidu!); it's possible that Guo'an has inherited their supporters as well. To go from 10,000 supporters to 40,000 in six or seven years is pretty remarkable, even in everything gets bigger very quickly all the time China.


Froog said...

When researching this piece yesterday, I discovered that the page on Guo'an on my mate Andreas' language school website was the third-ranked Google return for searches on "Guo'an fan club". By clicking on the link half a dozen times, I managed to bump it up to No. 1!

Andreas is very pleased.

Froog said...

I had been hoping to get the No. 5 shirt of dependable Bosnian midfield hard man Darko Matić. But named shirts are a rarity even in the official club shop at the Workers Stadium, and very expensive.

Man of the Match on Friday was our 22-year-old Korean Chinese midfielder Piao Cheng, No. 39. If he keeps playing like that, I imagine most fans will be wearing his shirt number this season.

bcheng said...

There's a shop across from the Cervantes Institute on Gongti South that does customizing, though its almost as much as a shanzhai jersey.

The team you are thinking of is Liaoning Whowin (at the time they were called Liaoning Bird), they moved down to Beijing briefly in 2002 or 2003 or so and ended up changing their name to Beijing Sanyuan, then returning to Liaoning at the end of the season.

Froog said...

Thanks for that, shifu. It's an honour to have you drop by.

(For non-Beijing-ren: B Cheng is one of Guo'an's best known fans, and one of the main men behind the Wild East Football blog I recommended in the post.)