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An American in China

By Pablo Miralles



Former Chelsea star Didier Drogba (L) and team-mate Nicolas Anelka (2R) with their Shanghai Shenhua teammates walk off the pitch after beating Liaoning Whowin 3-0 in the Chinese Super League (CSL) match in Shanghai on September 15, 2012
Former Chelsea star Didier Drogba (L) and team-mate Nicolas Anelka (2R) with their Shanghai Shenhua teammates walk off the pitch after beating Liaoning Whowin 3-0 in the Chinese Super League (CSL) match in Shanghai on September 15, 2012

45 minutes before kick-off at the Yuanshen Sports Centre Stadium in Pudong, Shanghai and I’m excited to see my first Chinese Super League (CSL) game, to cheer on my ‘local’ team Shanghai Shenxin.

At first I cannot find the ticketing area.  I accidentally walk into a restaurant with a ground level view of the pitch. But I’m quickly shown the door, I don’t have a reservation. By luck I stumble across the pill box surrounded by men

I approach the ticket booth. “One, please.” I say in my best-practiced Mandarin. ‘Fifty’, replied the lady in prefect English. I smiled, pulled out a ¥100 RMB note, instantly a man just to my right let’s out a loud laugh. He starts to yell something in Chinese, which is answered dismissively by the lady in the booth. Another man behind the first joins in. This goes on for a bit before yet another soccer fan grabs my arm and explains to me, in pantomime and broken English, that the booth is out of change and there is a long line of people waiting for someone to give something other than a ¥100 RMB bill. I smile and move to the back of this other line. Now, it just so happens that I had read in a recent International Herald Tribune  about China’s refusal to print anything bigger than a ¥100 RMB (about $16 USD) and how that causes problems with people making big purchases in a land where people do not generally have credit cards. I just didn’t expect it to keep me out of a soccer match. After waiting for a few minutes I gave up and started to walk around the stadium, a minute later a scalper approached and offered me a ticket for ¥50. I am not usually someone who buys from scalpers, too many horror stories of counterfeit, but I said what the hell it looked legit and it’s only $8.

A few minutes later I am sitting at the half line in a quarter-filled 16,000 seat stadium.

I’d done my research. I knew that the other team, Shandong Luneng Taishen was from Ji'nan, 530 miles north (about LA to San Francisco). The team in Dutch orange was not only top of the table, but also one of the only clubs who have never been relegated since the beginning of the modern professional league in 1994 and their three CSL crowns (2006, 2008 & 2010) is second to none.

My team, Shanghai Shenxin, is a club in seemingly perpetual transition and confusion. The team’s crest on the CSL website is the old red and black one that bears the name of their last home city, Nanchang. The current Shenxin logo is a Rooster on a blue kit, though they were wearing their alternate yellow and white third kit the night I saw them. Originally from Shanghai, the club soon moved to Nanchang  where it moved steadily up from the 3rd to the 2nd and, in 2010, finally the first division. In the three seasons in the top flight the team had never finished higher than 13th in the table. Still, it’s my neighborhood team and I will support them.

Sure, I could support the big Shanghai team, Shenhua, with its rich owner and big stars (recently both Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka were on the squad). Or I could support Shanghai Dongya (East Asia) who was just promoted for the first time to the first division after winning the second. But I live on the ‘dong’ side of the river and the local team here is Shenxin. It’s this sort of tribalism that is the root of all that is both good and bad about soccer.

After sitting down I studied the group of home team Ultras behind the southern goal. They were loud and enthusiastic, waving their four flags enthusiastically to the sound of a few loud drums. Then I looked to the northern end…

Not only where there twice the number of Ultras for Luneng, but they had some cool banners as well. Now I know how Chivas USA fans feel when they play the Galaxy at their 'home' games.

When many think of Chinese soccer the first thing that comes to mind is game fixing. The CSL has been working hard to stamp out corruption in the game, so it didn’t come as a big surprise when I saw that the referee was not Chinese. In fact, he was not Asian. A local suggested he might be Australian, but I have yet to ascertain his nationality.

So how was the game, you ask?

Shenxin managed to lose, even though they were a man up with 20 minutes to go and the score tied 2-2. The final 2-3 score line did not do justice to the better play and skill of the away team. At times, it was actually a little painful.

Is it too late to move to Ji'nan?