Crowd concerns take shine off Chinese Super League glory for Shanghai SIPG as football fans get another raw deal

  • Only season ticket holders reportedly inside Shanghai Stadium for Beijing Renhe game in week city holds trade expo
  • Shandong Luneng and Beijing Guoan fans face similar farce for impeding Chinese FA Cup Final
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 November, 2018, 11:10am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 November, 2018, 10:22pm

Does winning the Chinese Super League count if no one is there to see it? That was the farcical situation facing Shanghai SIPG as they beat Beijing Renhe 2-1 at Shanghai Stadium on Wednesday night. Needing a point to claim their first championship and end the seven-year dominance of Guangzhou Evergrande in one fell swoop, it had been reported that only season ticket holders would be allowed in.

The situation was not quite that bad. Despite a huge police presence, with officers photographing car number plates and recording fans on handheld cameras, there were still touts selling tickets. Some of those tickets got people in, even if they paid 1,100 yuan (US$160) for the privilege.

Security was also heightened. The man who checked my bag wore a suit and spoke English, which has never happened before at this ground. Many of the fans inside also appeared to be members of organised fan groups, identifiable by matching coats.

Shanghai SIPG stun Guangzhou Evergrande as Chinese Super League lives up to its name

There were perhaps 25,000 fans in a nearly 60,000 capacity stadium for the biggest game in the club’s history. The official reason for the reduced crowd was safety concerns related to construction work taking place around the stadium. This construction has been going on for some time but the measure has not been enforced for other games this season.

Entirely coincidentally, Shanghai this week is hosting the inaugural China International Import Expo, an event that has attracted thousands of exhibitors and vendors as the country pushes its commercial power. The expo was opened by President Xi Jinping on Monday, a move that also meant road closures, a noticeably increased police presence and delays at immigration at the city’s airports.

For all the headlines over the past few years about China’s football dream, it’s clear it’s not above all else.

Reduced attendances are the norm. The new champions are limited to a 46,000 maximum for their home games by local authorities, a league-wide phenomenon put in place by risk-averse officials. Football is not a cause for celebration, it remains a cause for concern.

Last year’s Chinese FA Cup final against city rivals Shanghai Shenhua, the previous biggest game in Shanghai SIPG’s 12-year existence, was similarly constrained. While the two legs of the final were held on consecutive Sunday evenings – a regular season kick-off time and there would have been no difficulty for fans of both Shanghai sides to get in and out of the stadium – there was a spanner in the works at the last.

For the second leg held at Shanghai Stadium, there were no tickets on sale for away fans. That move was announced in the hours leading up to kick-off, presumably out of concerns that fans of SIPG’s opponents might make mischief. Better not to take the risk, hang the fans.

While SIPG lost the match, the game itself lost the fans. It was another mark against the game in the country. But at least that was better than this year’s cup final.

Beijing Guoan versus Shandong Luneng is going to be played on a Sunday night (November 25) with the return leg on the following Friday night (November 30). Both games kick off at 7.35pm when temperatures in Northern China could well be freezing. Hardly fan friendly.

The distance between Jinan in Shandong and the Chinese capital ­– 364 kilometres (226 miles) – means the game is going to be difficult for away fans to attend, assuming that tickets are available. Even the high-speed train averages out at around two hours travel and the latest of them would be almost impossible to reach on the same night without leaving the match early.

These dates were not set at the beginning of the season but only confirmed recently. You cannot help but feel they were decided to make things as difficult as possible. It’s a theme.

What should be an opportunity for the CSL and the authorities to be singing the praises of the domestic football scene with a new champion and the most exciting season in almost a decade has not been taken advantage of.

It’s always one step forward and two steps back for the Chinese game. Last week the champions and the pretenders to their throne played out a thrilling 5-4 winner-takes-all game in Guangzhou. It was played to a crowd of nearly 50,000. There will be less than half of that in attendance to see the new champions being crowned.

The success of the game is not in the number of pitches you build or players you force to play. It is in creating a football culture that can drive the game for decades to come and for that you need football fans in stadiums, not just high places.