Inside the Revolution
Demba Ba and Ryan Johnson discuss their experiences playing in the Chinese League
The Wunderbar in Guangzhou had a live music stage, a rustic barn-like seating section and a bar area with barrel tables. Mounted deer head, an HB München banner and framed AON, Fly Emirates and bwin jerseys hang on the walls. Flags advertising Carlsberg and Erdinger and Corona bottles adorned empty shelf space. A television replayed NBA play-off games. Stringed Christmas lights dripped from the rafters as puffs of smoke wafted by No Smoking signs.
On the menu, one dozen Cheese Baked Oysters cost RMB ¥108 (£11.50), Bavarian Sausage Soup ¥45 and Spicy Chicken feet ¥38. Chargrilled Pork Neck with Roast Apple and Beer Salad, Pan-Fried Goose Liver served with Apple Vinegar Sauce and Mushroom, and Fish and Chips all sold for ¥68. The Australian-owned bar offered a range of beers served chilled, sometimes a luxury in China. Drafts on tap included 500 ml of Paulaner Hefe-Weissbier, Hoegaarden and Budweiser.
The district had few watering holes and the Wunderbar was a 10-minute stroll to Tianhe Stadium, home of Guangzhou Evergrande, who were taking on Shanghai Shenhua that April night. Although there were fewer than 90 minutes to kick-off, staff outnumbered patrons at least two to one.
Guangzhou supporters loitered around the promenade and the Kung Fu fast food restaurant was packed, but drinking was not part of the ritual.
Walking along Tiyu West road toward the stadium yielded a glimpse into how quickly China’s economy has progressed. On one side were lush green athletic fields and on the other office buildings of corporate giants, including Ping An Bank, the Chinese Super League’s (CSL) title sponsor. The street is a world away from Guangzhou’s many back alleys, where the city’s millions of labourers subsist.
En route to the stadium, though, reminders emerged that China is still developing. Manifold entrepreneurs laid out tarps on the ground and sold ¥20 red knock-off Nike Guangzhou Evergrande shirts emblazoned with the team motto “Be the Best Forever”.
China’s wealth gap, pínfù chājù, is wide and widening. Wealthy football owners are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on teams and transfers, but sustainability questions persist. Although discretionary incomes are rising, attracting fans with adequate spending power to support this trend long-term may prove difficult.
For example, scalped tickets that night ranged from ¥350-550. For many, including the taxi driver who drove me to the bar and nets ¥200 pre-tax daily, spending that much for a couple hours of entertainment is unconscionable.
During the 12th and 13th centuries, northern invaders drove many Chinese south to the seashores, spurring Guangzhou’s development. Subsequently, the city served as a primary node between China and the outside world. Although the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties often restricted foreign interactions, they authorised trade through Guangzhou. For many foreigners, Guangzhou offered a brief glimpse into China.
And just as the city historically linked China and the world beyond, it is now a bridge between Chinese and global football circles.
Following a match-fixing scandal in the late 2000s and an ensuing ownership change, Guangzhou Evergrande is now 57% owned by the Evergrande Real Estate Group and 38% by the Alibaba Group. These corporate backers, a fervent fan base and success – five CSL titles and two Asian Champions Leagues – have enabled Guangzhou to sign some of the world’s premier players and coaches.
Each of the CSL’s 16 squads is allowed to sign five foreign players, one of whom must be from the Asian Football Federation. That evening, Luiz Felipe Scolari’s squad, boasting Jackson Martínez, Paulinho, Ricardo Goulart and Alan, faced off against Shanghai Greenland Shenhua’s Demba Ba, Giovanni Moreno, Fredy Guarín and Obafemi Martins, coached by Gregorio Manzano. These are not anomalies; other clubs are spending heavily on foreign transfers such as Alex Teixeira, Ramires, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Givanildo Vieira de Sousa.
After almost seven seasons in MLS, the dual Jamaican and US citizen Ryan Johnson spent 2014 playing for Henan Jianye. He said fans have an understanding of the game and that, “When they see foreign players come in, they’re very curious. They want to see what they can do. They are very supportive because at the end of the day they just want their team to win. It’s definitely a cool thing there.”
The night before the match while sitting outside the Hilton Guangzhou, its architecture resembling an ancient Chinese wedding box, Ba echoed his thoughts: “They love the show, they love the good movement, the good shot, the good dribble. They love all this.”
Particularly for attacking players, China provides lucrative opportunities. “Every team needs a striker,” Johnson said.
Over time, with the import of foreign players and the gradual improvement in China’s domestic level of play, more local fans are following Chinese clubs, rather than Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Liverpool, Manchester United or Real Madrid.
Ba spoke about his first few games in China: “The most surprising thing was the fans. Unbelievable at this stage.” In 2015, the average CSL attendance exceeded 22,000, making it the sixth-best attended league in the world.
One issue Chinese teams encounter, though, is geographic disparity. With an area of 3.7million square miles, China is the third largest country in the world, making it onerous for fans to attend away games. In the Tianhe Stadium, the few fans sporting the Shanghai blue were engulfed in a sea of red.
As the players took to the pitch, there was an appreciable change in the atmosphere among the 48,000 fans. At one end, thousands of high school and college-aged Guangzhou supporters began bouncing on their feet and kept doing so for the game’s duration.
Three dozen students hoisted gargantuan flags representing different fan clubs. The five meter long poles steering the flags required herculean shoulder strength to wave them continuously.
Drummers got the masses in rhythm and sweaty devotees on bull horns led chants in both Mandarin and Cantonese. And when refereeing decisions riled the local crowd, this quarter of the stadium was the first to bellow “Hēishǒu, hēishǒu,” (loosely, “corrupt official”).
English signs plastered near the field stated “We are Canton”, “Believe in Canton” and “We are Not Just Dreamers.” Around the large track and concourse distancing fans from the field, signs advertised Ford, Hdfax.com and VASTO. Rotating, scrolling ads around the field displayed logos for Nike, DHL, Red Bull, C’est Bon, JD.com, Carlsberg, Edman, Shell, TAG Heuer, Lesso, 21CN, Bode and Tempo.
As I found my seat my presence was noted, merely for being a foreigner. A local 12 year old sitting in front of me, who adopted the English name John, turned around, looked at me, and immediately fired off, “What the fuck?”
A man sitting two seats down on my left said to his mother, “Kids watch too many movies.”
The mother turned to me and asked, “Are you Australian?”
“No,” I responded, “American.”
A man to my right asked if I was Brazilian.
“American,” I said.
In many ways, China benefits from having differing climates and natural environments, but these conditions are not always conducive to playing top-level football. For example, when the season kicked off on March 4, the city of Changchun, home to Yatai FC, suffers torrential rains from the southern typhoons.
Ba said, “That weather is very difficult to play in.” And early in the Evergrande v Shanghai game, the drenched field hampered play. As the rains subsided, players gained their footing. In the 40th minute, Rong Hao sent a crafty flick on to Alan who, just inside the box with his back to the keeper, was engulfed by three defenders. After two touches, Alan turned and fired, tucking the shot just inside the right-hand post, giving Evergrande the lead.
The fans flared up and quickly joined a cadenced, cohesive chant: drum beat, drum beat. “Ā lán!” Drum beat, drum beat. “Ā lán!”
In response, Ba created a scoring opportunity for Shanghai in stoppage time, but an improbable save by the Evergrande keeper Zeng Cheng preserved their 1-0 lead.
At half-time, fans spilled into the concourse, purchasing water, Coke, wafers, peanuts, and small cans of Copico chips, a Pringles knock-off. China is deservedly renowned for its food and Guangzhou cuisine has served as the inspiration for Chinese food around the world, but the foodstuffs on offer were disappointing.
While in the stands, two nearby fans lit up cigarettes, enraging someone behind them who complained to security. It would have taken an act of god, however, to get the closest security guard, a 20-something, to involve himself in that fracas.
A couple of people asked to take pictures with me, others did so covertly.
For the enterprising foreign player, relocating to China may be rewarding. However, there is a reason their Renminbi-denominated pay cheques are multiples of those available in other currencies; adapting to life and football in China can be challenging.
Johnson said, “It’s kind of hard to prepare yourself until you’re actually there. After you’re there for a couple of weeks you start to get used to things.”
Ba is grateful for the opportunity to play in China. “I enjoy my job, I enjoy what I do,” he said. He also noted, however, that “it’s not as easy as people think… There are many players who came here and just didn’t play the same way they were playing in Europe and just go back.” Communication, living conditions, transport, food and other variables in China are often exotic to foreign players.
Off the field, plush accommodation and living in China’s most metropolitan city eased Ba’s transition. “Going out to restaurants, I love,” he said. “I live in a nice area in Shanghai. I love going around, having a walk and just sitting down and having a cup of tea.”
A driver provided by the team also helps. “If you don’t know the city, you don’t want to drive in China. I guarantee you, if you’re foreign,” he said. Although unperturbed by flying economy, he said it is “way different from what I was used to in Germany, England and Turkey. You just have to get on with it.”
As a coastal city, Shanghai’s broad seafood options suit Ba’s tastes. He said, “I’m lucky because I like fish and they like fish.” Food safety concerns, meanwhile, inspired Johnson and his wife to cook regularly in their home.
For different reasons, Johnson also exercised caution around baijiu, China’s most popular liquor, made from sorghum, rice, wheat or other grains. “The Chinese wine is some real strong stuff so you’ve got to be careful with it,” he said. He spoke of alcohol’s cultural significance, particularly its place in toasts at functions: “You go through a lot of formalities and a lot of formalities involve having a drink. It’s just the way they do business there.”
Although Ba accepts it as part of the job, he misses his family and said the biggest challenge has to do with “my culture, my religion. There’s not a lot of Muslims here. So to find a mosque, to find some Halal places to get some meat, is quite difficult.”
And the communication barrier limits social interactions. Johnson said, “You make friends with the other foreign players on your team. That’s your main circle just because they understand your life.” He also became friendly with English teachers and others in China’s foreigner community as well as English-speaking locals.
Although Ba benefits from Shanghai having more English- and French-speaking residents than smaller cities, developing friendships is still difficult. When asked about his social circle, he said, “The guy next to me,” pointing to Obafemi Martins, the Nigerian forward who has played in Europe and for Seattle Sounders. Ba also mentioned a French-speaking Chinese man who works in a watch shop: “He’s a really good guy. Sometimes, I’ll have dinner with him. Otherwise, I’m with Obafemi.”
On the field, communication is simpler. Ba said some players speak English and that, “Football is a universal language. If you use your hand, then they understand.”
Chinese respect for seniority also required adjustment. “They have a lot of respect for the name, for the badge, for the people above. A lot, a lot, a lot of respect for these people,” Ba said. According to him, this is “sometimes good,” but “some people take advantage of it.”
Pollution is another concern, particularly for competitors making their living running around outdoors. Johnson didn’t feel an impact on his body, but said it was an issue, notably in the winter when people burn coal and wood for heat. “It can be pretty dense where you won’t be able to see a couple of blocks in front of you when it’s at its worst… When you can actually physically see the pollution, it definitely gets concerning,” he said. Both he and Ba, however, were more concerned for local Chinese. Ba said, “I’m not going to live here forever… Of course, for the Chinese it’s worrying.”
Like fans everywhere, the Chinese appreciate good play and desire victory, but their reactions outside the stadium contrast with other markets. For one, fan recognition has not reached hysterical levels. Ba said, “This is one good part I like because I can live my life. You can play football and not be recognised on every corner… In Turkey it was impossible to go out. Impossible. Here they take a picture because they’ve never seen a 6’2” black man. That’s the only reason why they’re taking a picture,” Ba said.
The further one gets from the metropolitan, foreigner-dense cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, the more this attention intensifies. Johnson played in central Henan Province, which has few foreigners, piquing locals’ stares and inquisitiveness. “I have a bi-racial family. I have two girls. So people seeing mixed children will come up and touch their hair,” Johnson said. “They’re very open to learning about who you are, where you came from, what you do.”
This interest also spawned many memorable experiences. “I’ve been invited over to peoples’ houses for dinner countless amount of times just because they’re that welcoming,” he said.
In China, he enjoyed mooncakes, a pastry traditionally eaten during the mid-Autumn festival, but missed comfort foods such as branded potato chips and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Sourcing these items was arduous. Once found, he hoarded them. “When you find something that you like you have to grab it,” he said. “Those are the things you learn when you’re an expat living in a foreign country… You don’t think about that when living in the States.”
Navigating new cities and entertainment options also requires adjustment, but mobile devices help. “Technology makes the world a lot smaller place so you can watch your favourite shows in China, wherever,” Johnson said.
Turning to Martins, Ba said with a chuckle, “I’m African. Any place we go, we get used to it. Like a chameleon… we just deal with it.”
Both players were also impressed by the level of play. “The football, of course, the quality is not what I experienced in the past in England, in Germany or even in Turkey,” Ba said, “but it’s better than what I thought when I first came… I was surprised by the quality.”
Although China is not the destination of choice for every player, rewards exist beyond the salary for those who go. Johnson, for example, appreciated the opportunity to travel to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong.
One trip he cherished in particular was to the Shaolin Temple, which many consider the birthplace of kung fu. He and his family spent time with the temple’s abbot, who prayed for them, took pictures and gave them Buddhist beads. Temple students also performed, displaying their fighting techniques. “That was a cool experience,” Johnson said. “And to bring my family to see that was something you never forget.”
Although his children practised kung fu moves, he abstained. “I didn’t want to offend anybody messing around so I kept it professional,” he said. “Really soaked in the experience. There’s young kids there that are five to six years old and you’d be amazed by what they can do with their bodies, it’s pretty crazy.”
Owing to adventures like this, “I would definitely do it again,” he said. “Looking back at the experience now and all the people that I met, I’m very happy with the decision that I made. It helped me grow as a person and my understanding of the world outside of America.”
While improving conditions are attracting foreign footballers and the CSL has growing fan support, for the sport to develop domestically and for the country to have success at international level, grassroots expansion is necessary.
The Chinese have long admired football. Han Dynasty (206 BC too 220 AD) military personnel played cùjū, which according to fifa.com, “consisted of kicking a leather ball filled with feathers and hair through an opening, measuring only 30-40cm in width, into a small net fixed onto long bamboo canes.”
In the 20th century, China’s leaders, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, tried unsuccessfully to elevate the country’s international prospects. In Issue Six of The Blizzard, David Bartram wrote: “It wasn’t until 1957, under Mao, that China first entered a team into World Cup qualifying, going out to Indonesia on goal average after a play-off in Burma finished 0-0. By then Deng was one of China’s most senior leaders, a confidante of Mao and the man in charge of the country’s sports policy. Deng was devastated by the defeat. It had been his idea to enter the World Cup, a way of reaching out to the international community1.”
Today, although the Chinese are integral to many social, economic, and geo-political realms globally, the beautiful game is not one. In their only World Cup appearance, in 2002, they lost all three games, conceding nine goals without scoring.
Football in China faces various impediments. There are few pitches and although some are being created, sport is not always a priority when set against the food chains, shopping malls and apartment complexes.
Additionally, recreational team sports are rarely celebrated; parents encourage their children to study and government representatives focus on Olympic sports in which, no matter how esoteric, the individual medals carry equal weight as in team sports. Bribery and match-fixing are other reasons why China’s Fifa ranking has consistently approached 100.
There are individual corporations and government entities, however, working to improve the country’s international standing. In recent years, a corruption crackdown has led to jail sentences for many footballers, referees, team officials and government representatives.
Beyond enforcement, government support influences policies and spending, boosting growth. According to reports, Chinese President and football proponent, Xi Jinping, is aiming to more than double China’s sports economy by 2025 to $850 billion (£643m). He also hopes to host a World Cup.
Another issue is that although many Chinese watch football, few play. According to a 2014 Goldman Sachs report, “The number of registered players is around half that in the Netherlands, which has a smaller population than either Shanghai or Beijing.”
To reverse this, according to a report published by China’s sports ministry, the General Administration of Sport, the country is targeting 20,000 football academies by 2020.
Some are led by experienced foreigners such as the former Denmark forward Ebbe Sand, who manages a private Shanghai academy, and Cristiano Ronaldo, who has opened schools. Partnering with Evergrande, Real Madrid established the Evergrande Football School in 2012, reportedly the world’s largest football academy. According to a CNN report, the school cost $185 million and its 2,800 students play on more than 50 pitches across a 68-hectare campus.
Other parties lack football expertise but bring capital. State-owned enterprises and real estate developers such as the Evergrande Real Estate Group, Dalian Wanda Group and Greenland Holding Group have acquired CSL teams. Questions persist surrounding the sustainability of recent spending, particularly if the Chinese real estate market encounters a sustained downturn, but investment returns to date have been justified.
In May 2010, Evergrande acquired the Guangzhou outfit for ¥100 million. In June 2014, they sold a 50% stake to Alibaba for ¥1.2 billion, realising an annualised return of 118%. In 2015, they went public, the first Asian club to do so. Although the organisation has lost money in recent years, the valuation of its thinly traded stock on the National Equities Exchange and Quotations (NEEQ) puts it on par with some of the world’s most prestigious teams.
Having entities including the e-commerce giant Alibaba involved also aids the sport’s development. Alibaba was founded by Jack Ma, China’s second-richest person, worth an estimated £18bn according to Forbes. In 2015, Ma was instrumental in founding Alisports. Owned by Alibaba Group, Sina Corp, and Yun Feng Capital, Alisports claims it seeks to bolster Chinese citizens’ happiness and health through sport.
And football is a key Alisports initiative, with Ma personally involved in many of the football related meetings and activities. Dong Martin Wang, vice-president at Alisports, said, “Jack Ma really loves football. He personally is very much interested in team sporting events, collective efforts. He feels that by involving people in team events, then boys and girls, men and women, can have this sense of collectiveness and teamwork, which is very important.” In 2015, Ma was involved when Alibaba signed an eight-year deal to be the presenting sponsor for the Club World Cup.
Wang noted that football interest in China differs by age, gender and geographic location. With data they can pinpoint local communities of amateur players and supporters. He said, “This is really our forte, cloud computing and also big data.”
Wang said Alisports and its competitors benefit the entire system – teams and leagues deepen their brands, football participation spreads, fans are better informed and Alibaba generates revenue.
Alisport’s objectives, however, are not entirely profit-driven. Wang continued, “More importantly we’re interested in the development of Chinese soccer, level-wise.” Alisports is particularly focused on grassroots and university development.
According to Johnson, inadequate feeder programs are stalling development at China’s highest levels. He said the styles of play are similar, but “in MLS, the players are definitely a lot more athletic,” owing to the US’s strong university foundation.
China’s government leadership is pushing for improved stature on the international stage, private enterprises are infusing capital, academies are improving the level of instruction and the number of devoted fans continue to increase. Advancement, though, will come incrementally.
Though optimistic, Wang sees China as starting from scratch and acknowledges the need for a long-term strategy. “20 years later, anything is possible,” he said. “However, it’s a long course, it’s a long shot and a long way. We need to really do it step by step from our grassroots level.”
Guangzhou kicked off the second half. 10 minutes later, a penalty kick gave them the opportunity to secure a 2-0 lead, but the Shanghai keeper, Geng Xiaofeng, dived right to make the save. Ba then put a shot just over before levelling with 21 minutes remaining. Within two minutes, Alan responded with a dipping shot that pecked the crossbar on its way in. It proved the winner for Guangzhou.
Drum beat, drum beat. “Ā lán!” Drum beat, drum beat. “Ā lán!”