While Chinese football itself remains from the highest level, its fans are fantastic.
They turned out in force for the second leg of the 2019 Chinese Football Association (CFA) Cup final, which took place at the Hongkou Stadium in Shanghai. The hosts, Shanghai Greenland Shenhua, defeated Shandong Luneng 3-0 and won the trophy 3-1 on aggregate, qualifying them for the AFC Champions League.
Although their men’s senior team has yet to make a significant impact on the international stage, the passion that Chinese people have for football runs deep. For my first live professional match in China, the atmosphere was impressive as supporters sang and chanted both on their way to and then inside the 33,000-capacity venue.
The Hongkou Stadium was China’s first purpose-built football ground, opening in 1999 on the site of a previous multi-sport arena. In fact, to this day, very few Chinese football clubs have homes built mainly with football in mind, with most still featuring an athletics track.
Most of the fans making their way to stadium were wearing home team’s blue colours, and they were looking to the CFA Cup for redemption after a season in which their club almost suffered relegation from the Chinese Super League’s top tier.
Shenhua is the oldest football club in Shanghai, but they have been overshadowed in recent years by Shanghai SIPG (the club that Espanyol’s Wulei used to play for). They remain, however, Shanghai’s best-supported club: a symbol of the city which has helped to define its football culture as the best China.
Luneng, who had won the first leg through a penalty, are the main team in the capital of my province. They have a glamorous past, wealthy owners, and a massive number of loyal fans. Shenhua also won this tournament in 2017 to lift their second CFA Cup. The away team have five CSL titles to their name and also appeared in this final last year.
The fans of both sides were excited by the occasion and energetic in their support, which made for an amazing atmosphere. The home fans made a tifo in their section of the stadium, while their rivals sang loudly throughout.
Shenhua, seeking to overturn that 1-0 first-leg deficit, played quite passively in the first half, and both sets of supporters became increasingly anxious about their team’s failure to score the all-important first goal.
Things changed in the second half, however, and Shenhua’s Kim Shin-woo scored the opener in the 60th minute. This served to ramp up the atmosphere even further, as did some controversial calls by English referee Mark Clattenburg.
Shenhua’s fans were now in full voice, but they had to wait until the 81st minute to go ahead for the first time across the two legs as Italian international Stephan Shaarawy made it 2-0. Just two minutes later, Qian Jiegei put the outcome beyond doubt to make it 3-0 on the day and 3-1 overall.
Although there are many people who believe that the quality of Chinese professional football remains limited, this does not affect the enjoyment of watching a big match here. The atmosphere was incredible, and the stadium well equipped.
More importantly, Chinese fans are no less passionate or loyal than supporters in any other country, which bodes well for the future of the sport in China. Although there are many problems waited to be solved, it is not hard to be optimistic about the development of Chinese football.
An additional story…
Getting a ticket for this match was not easy. There was nothing on the official website of Shenhua about how to buy one. Local fans told me that they always go directly to the ticket office, but for a cup final that meant taking a risk of getting no ticket at all.
Luckily, I found a ticket dealer on Taobao, which is the most prominent Chinese shopping website, but collecting it on match day was another matter. Following the instructions received, I went to a Starbucks next to the stadium. There, I found five staff from the ticket dealer, with dozens of envelopes on the table.
This did not match the traditional impression of how such ticket dealers operate – not in such an open way. However, these people were so organised and seems to have plenty of tickets available – even for groups.