Withdrawal Symptoms – How the Football Fan Gets a Fix in Shanghai
need to apologise in advance if, at times, a certain sense of unreality creeps into this piece. You see, I am a Fulham fan and the Whites have just had the finest season in their none-too-illustrious 130-year history. Seventh in the Premier League – our highestever league finish; 53 points – likewise our highest ever points tally; a place in this season’s Europa Cup – our first appearance in a major European tournament (although I still recall our glorious march to victory in the Intertoto Cup a few years back). I am still reeling from the sheer ecstasy of it all.
And, of course, I missed the whole thing. Being away from your team for a prolonged period of time is at times a gut-wrenching experience for the dedicated follower. It’s not just the matches themselves – it’s the whole ritual that surrounds going to the game. As a superstitious sort of chap, my routine for a home match at Craven Cottage was almost always the same – leave home at the same time, same greasy spoon for lunch, same artery-hardening fry-up for sustenance. As a season ticket holder, you always saw the same people at each game, had the same banter,
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complained about the ineptitude of the same players, the manager’s substitutions and so on. Then the same pub afterwards for the post-mortem. I know that for many people living in Shanghai, this is the hardest thing to be without. Yes, you miss your family, your friends, of course, but deep down, the thing that you find it almost impossible to admit – even to yourself – is that what you miss most of all is going to the match. But it needn’t be so. We have Shanghai Shenhua. The Chinese Super League attracts an enormous amount of criticism – often, in my experience, from people who haven’t been to a game in years, if at all. The poor standard of play. The charges of corruption. The second-rate foreigners that every team possesses. There may be some truth in all of these accusations, yet somehow, to me, none of that matters. We have a team – a pretty good team – and I would urge all expats in Shanghai to channel their yearning for live action towards Shenhua.
“Being away from your team for a prolonged period of time is at times a gut-wrenching experience for the dedicated follower“
The Super League season is something of a moveable feast, but in principle it runs from March until November, with a summer layoff during July. There are 16 teams in the league, from all over China, who play each other home and away in a 30-match season. In addition to one up, one down promotion and relegation, the top four each season qualify for the Asian Champions’ League. Shanghai Shenhua play almost all of their home games at the very attractive, custombuilt and easily accessible Hongkou Stadium in northern Shanghai (Hongkou Football Stadium Station on Metro lines 3 and 8, while numerous buses stop right outside the stadium), although occasionally games are at Yuanshen Stadium in Pudong (Yuanshen Stadium Station, Metro line 6). This season has seen the introduction of Friday night games, although the majority take place on Saturday or Sunday, with both afternoon and evening kick-off times. There is also the occasional Super League midweek fixture, while Champions’ League games take place on Tuesday or Wednesday evenings at 8pm. Prices are extremely low, especially for anyone used to paying English Premier League admission charges. A season ticket (15 home games) costs around RMB300, while tickets for individual games can usually be picked up for RMB30 around the stadium before the game. The atmosphere at home games is pretty good, with boisterous sets of fans – the Blue Devils and the Blue Boys – behind each goal. There is much singing, beating of drums, the occasional flare or firework and
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a pretty passionate atmosphere throughout. However, crowds are disappointingly small in a city of Shanghai’s size – about 20,000 for a big match but around 10,000 on average. The side are worth watching though. Last season, Shenhua had the chance to win the title and but for a missed penalty in the last game of the season (by Hamilton Ricard, formerly of Middlesbrough and now, thankfully, moved on) would have been champions. However, second place saw Shenhua make it into the group stages of this year’s Asian Champions’ League, although, after a reasonably promising start, that campaign has now sadly ended, Shenhua finishing third in their group behind Kashima Antlers (Japan) and Suwong Bluewings (Korea).
Sports (sometimes) and even Ben Sports (rarely, these days) to help you keep in touch with your team at home, no amount of watching games on television can compare to the real matchday experience of watching a game live. So if you haven’t done so yet, go to a game at Hongkou the next time Shanghai Shenhua are at home (although be careful mentioning this fact to Chinese friends – they will simply ask you why, and then give you a long lecture on why Chinese football is rubbish). Despite the fact that they play in a shade of blue that is uncomfortably close to that worn by Chelsea, I have found a second home at Shenhua (although nothing could ever replace the Cottage in my affections) and am enjoying immensely my regular fix.
Nonetheless, this season at home Shenhua are undefeated in the Super League and it is only fairly inconsistent away form that has left them in fourth place (albeit on course again for a place in next year’s ACL). The side is captained by the redoubtable Du Wei, the former national captain, and, particularly at home, has been playing a quick, counter-attacking brand of football which has already seen Shenhua score 13 goals at Hongkou this season. The Australian defender Mark Milligan has been a good buy, quickly becoming a crowd favourite (particularly for his long throws), while other foreign nationals in the side include the Bulgarian defender Yanko Valkanov, Vyatcheslav Hleb of Belarus (brother of the former Arsenal player), Argentina’s Henan Barcos and Aleksandar Rodic of Slovenia up front (although the most dangerous striker this year has undoubtedly been Mao Jianqing). The Shanghai Shenhua official website www.shenhuafc.com.cn is in Chinese, but fixtures are listed on the left hand side of the homepage and the dates and times of fixtures are easy to work out, even if you don’t read Chinese. (It is worth your while to check the website fairly regularly as fixture times – and even locations – can be changed with little or no notice. I am ashamed to admit that I have twice turned up expecting games to be taking place, only to find they had been moved. Much face loss!) You could also try calling Shanghai Call Centre (962 288) for updates about the time and location of matches. However, there is also a very user-friendly English-language website that lists fixtures, scores and league tables – www. soccerway.com/national/china-pr/ super-league/2009/regular-season Super League games are also shown each week live on CCTV5.
“Shanghai Shenhua play almost all of their home games at the very attractive, custom-built and easily accessible Hongkou Stadium“
So while there is ESPN (sometimes) and Star
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