Chinese soccer ultras? It’s a family affair in the Super League where unsavoury chanting is as bad as it gets
As the CSL surges in popularity, a fan culture is taking root and supporters’ groups are on the rise across the league. For now, their behaviour is mostly aimed at aggravating opposition fans without violence
The big game this week – and we’re only allowed one – in the Chinese Super League took place in the capital where Beijing Guoan hosted Guangzhou Evergrande in the Workers’ Stadium.
Under the floodlights at Gongti, as it is known locally, the home team were handed a 3-0 hiding by the reigning champions. The game was all but over at half-time with the visitors two goals to the good but that did not stop Guoan’s fans being in full voice for the whole game.
They were led by the Yulinjun, or Royal Army, Beijing’s self-styled ultras. This several-hundred strong supporters group, which celebrated its tenth anniversary last season, is a mass of loudhailers, flagbearers, banners, supporter T-shirts, drums and the odd vuvuzela – a sea of green that doesn’t stop throughout from the moment they get in the ground to well after the final whistle.
Don’t be confused by the term “ultras”, which to some conjures images of Europeans not averse to dabbling in a spot of football related violence. These groups are more tifosi – the Italian for supporter now goes hand-in-hand “tifo”, which outside of Italy has become a byword for supporter choreography such as the tickertape of the 1978 World Cup or the placard walls created by Borussia Dortmund fans.
If you want proof that supporters’ groups such as the Royal Army are not hooligans, even if the local expat media do like to refer to them as “firms”, they are made up of men, women and children. That’s something you don’t find in European football.
And the capital’s side are not alone with their Royal Army. Ultras are a phenomenon at all Chinese Super League sides to some extent, with the bigger and best supported teams leading the way – Shanghai Shenhua has its Blue Devils while Evergrande are said to have up to eight supporters’ groups.
The likes of the Royal Army don’t just lead the chants at home games, they are the hardcore who also travel away.
Away days in the Chinese Super League are hampered by the distance that you have to travel and the inconvenience that can create, but also the fact that away allocations are minuscule – the recent Shanghai derby was reportedly played in front of an away section given a little over 600 tickets.
But those fans were there to see the 1-1 draw and they wouldn’t have been anywhere else because the rivalry between Shenhua and SIPG goes further than most. Just last week a set of Shenhua fans unfurled a banner at SIPG’s Asian Champions League away game in Osaka declaring that they are the true Shanghai team. They did the same in Melbourne earlier this season with an “only Shenhua rep Shanghai” banner and there was another incident where one fan infiltrated SIPG’s home game against Gamba Osaka to wind-up the home fans.
These forays into enemy territory have blown up on Chinese social media (and led to tit-for-tat statements from both clubs blaming opposition fan groups) but they are exactly the type of thing that football fans are expected to do.
Look at Manchester United and Liverpool: United fans unveiled an “MUFC 19 times” banner at Anfield during Liverpool’s game against Spurs just after United had clinched a record 19th title, and at the recent Europa League game some Liverpool fans unfurled a Liverpool banner in the home seats at Old Trafford. To borrow from a better behaved sport, it’s par for the course.
And it shows that fan culture is developing in the CSL. Supporters may still be derided for their favourite chant – shabi or stupid c*** – but it’s not much different from the mindless nonsense that greets every opposition goal kick against Mexico or the “you’re s**t, ahhhhhhh” of yesteryear. It’s also a damn sight better than the behaviour of those Liverpool and Manchester United supporters in that aforementioned Europa League game who are now under a formal Uefa investigation for chanting much worse.
Nowadays on the streets of Beijing and Shanghai, you’re as likely to see local team sportswear as you are that of foreign sides. Club crest tattoos are rare but not unusual. Supporters’ clubs have their own bars where they watch away games on TV.
Where Chinese fans once picked between Inter Milan, Manchester United and Bayern Munich they are now supporting their local sides.
In much the same way that grassroots football in England is replacing the distance, price and general otherness of the Premier League, so it is that more and more football fans in China are watching the football that is available to them.
Last year’s average attendance across the league in the CSL was around the 22,000 mark, this season after four games it’s closer to 30,000 (with some sources saying it is higher). More than 50,000 were in Gongti on Saturday night. By and large attendances have been going up over the last few campaigns but they have rocketed for the 2016 season.
Let’s not forget that this league is barely two decades old as a professional entity. Just a decade before, as Rowan Simons pointed out in his excellent Bamboo Goalposts, which chronicles his time in China through football, football was essentially illegal before that as it was a gathering of too many people. The growth in that time has been meteoric.
The CSL might not yet be world class on the pitch but in the stands the fans are sure giving it their best shot.