Since arriving in China in early February, my football trips have been curtailed somewhat, and there has only been a single match as I passed through Hong Kong before I settled for a stay in Beijing.
On the first weekend of March, the Chinese Super League started. This was to feature two sets of weekend fixtures, before all the teams took a two-week international break. The Chinese First Division (i.e. second tier) started a week later, and also featured two sets of fixtures followed by a single weekend of an international break. From the point of view of someone who does not want to travel far, there are two Beijing based teams in the top division, plus two in the nearby city of Tianjin and Hebei China Fortune in Langfang, somewhere between the two. There is another Beijing team in the second tier.
However, life in China is never simple. All six of these professional teams play both of their opening pair of league games away from home. Still, I am at least fortunate that the Super League Beijing derby is to be played before I leave, and it is at the only ground of these big six that I have not visited before.
The reason for the major matches being played away during the early part of the season is the security that ensues during the annual “two meetings” period. These are the major showpiece events where the policy directions for the following year and longer are discussed disseminated to the representatives from the regions.
Also, to be played in early March is the first round of the Chinese FA Cup. The CFA made a point of making announcements in the week leading up to the draw of the new expanded competition with the random draws made after each round and the end of two legged ties, except in the final. The expanded competition meant 32 ties in the first round, with half the teams coming from the China League 2 (the third tier, which has two regional groups. Regional, of course needs to be taken in context when some journeys in this division are further than London to Moscow.
I waited the draw with bated breath, and waited some more as the whole exercise was put back by one week. Apparently, this was partly in order to confirm the teams involved, with some of the teams in both divisions below the super league being under review. Somehow, this did not quite do its job. Despite the fact that it had been decided that Yanbian were to be expelled from division one before the draw was held, and it was known that Shaanxi would replace them, Shaanxi were still included in the draw. This resulted in their opponent being given a bye in the first round, while two other amateur teams were also denied entry at the first round and hence the round was reduced to 29 ties.
Fortunately for me, one of these ties was to be at BIT, the only Beijing based team in the third tier and a club that I had not yet visited. The visitors, Yanchuang Helanshan are at the same level. Again, there are delays in confirming the exact time and kick off of the match. The times of the fixtures actually make it to Wikipedia and soccerway before I spot them on the Chinese media feeds. The Chinese FA web site, which I would expect to be the definitive place to find the fixtures has still not been updated.
The website for BIT, which stands for the education institution, Beijing Institute of Technology, has not been updated for over a year. However, it contains a link to two sets of pages on Wechat, which is a Chinese social media account. I have an account on this, so I could find the details. Most of this was last season’s information, but there was an article on the start of the new season, and in response to a query put in English I received confirmation of where the venue was.
As it appears my purpose on this trip is to help my wife out with caring for boy while she got on with other business, she dropped me at the metro station and I made the journey with the boy in tow. He spent much of the day in talkative mode, as we made our journey. Fortunately, I was able to provide him with his main objective, a visit to a McDonalds just outside the nearest metro. From there it is a short walk to the ground.
It is a simple stadium, with steep concrete seats on one side only within the track. Behind the ground is the impressive building of the gymnasium. The main access to the seats being from an upper level of the gymnasium. However, once we got up there, we found that the area was closed off with a row of tape and a security guard saying no passage past. We checked the other side and the same story. No reason was given but we were advised to watch through the fences from the far side. I made a quick check inside the gymnasium. From here, the only entrance to the ground were pitch side and I was not going to get passage there.
I get no help either when I find the club officials. They will not even allow me to do more than see a copy of the team sheets. Apparently, for me to make a photograph of or take a sheet may be against republic rules, despite them being available to the official press at the ground. The only match report I have found to date gives only the home team line up, and then without numbers. However, last season, the Chinese FA did release the squads of teams at this level and they were posted on Wikipedia.
At the far side of the ground, I counted roughly 180 people watching through the fence. Almost everyone of these were there to see the game and would have normally paid admission. Inside the ground, I made it that around 70 had been let in, apart from the officials and press area. These appeared to be in two groups – a home supporters’ section where almost everyone was wearing club colours and others who looked as if they may have been players from within the club structure.
The home supporters were seen leaving the ground at the break and did not return. I did not see any behind the fence on the other side where we were watching. I did ask the supporters around me why we being forced to watch in this way. No one had been told, but when asked if it had any connection to the “two meetings”, I was told this was probably the cause. Exactly what security concerns there were over around 250 people entering a stadium is unclear, especially as more security staff were needed to keep the people out than would have been required if they were inside.
As for the game, it was not without its moments, but it lacked any sort of pace. It is never clear to what extent the third level of the Chinese league is professional, but these players lacked fitness, even for the first match of the season and would not fare well in the National League in England. The home side, BIT had the better of the first half and deservedly led at the break, but they were then put under pressure in a much more interesting second period.
With the pressure not telling, BIT had a few chances to put some clear space between them and Helanshan on the counter attack, but fluffed their chances. Things changed with ten minutes to go when a cross from the right was met by a visiting attacker who found himself a little quicker than a couple of leaden footed defenders to get the equaliser. This led to Yanchuan pushing harder and leaving less behind to protect against the counter. The counter duly followed with a through pass finding four players onside, but goal side of the last defender. The ball was safely slotted in by the first one on the ball for 2-1. It should have been three a couple of minutes later, but somehow and open goal was missed.
Adding a little to this post, a few days after the original. A match report on the home clubs’ Wechat feed gives me all the names of the players who took the field for the home team. Not all the numbers were confirmed, but I have the majority pinned down. There is pettiness in refusing to allow access to the paper copies when the information is being released to official news channels, which may then add them to the reports. I would have both sets if I had been able to find a news report from the away side, or possible even if I had taken more photos as the players’ names are all written on the back of the shirts. I should be able to pick up the rest with a reasonable degree of confidence later, if the squad lists are published in the next week or two. This has happened in the past.
It says something (to me at least) about the general Chinese responses to officialdom that around 200 people could be turned away from the grounds, and yet I saw no one apart from myself asking why this was. I am sure that many fewer would have been in attendance if they had known in advance they could not enter. In Europe, one can be sure that there would be far more protest from those trying to attend if they arrived and found they could not enter, without reasons given. In China, it appeared that most or all of those there merely accepted the restrictions placed upon them. Even the BIT supporters’ group in their bright orange scarves appeared to accept it when they were sent away from the game halfway through. No one official I spoke to would give any reasons for not allowing people in. The security who were the first line did not speak English, but once I had managed to get into the office looking for the team lists, I encountered people who clearly could speak my language, at least to some extent and they to were adamant that rules were there and must be followed, but the reasons for the rules could not be explained.
Being a university ground, there was a level of English available amongst the watching crowd, but it was difficult to get them to speculate the reasons for being forced outside the ground. Once I had ventured an opinion, there was some confirmation that this could be it. To some extent this is down to the Chinese psych. Not only do they not want to lose face but they do not want to lose the Nation’s face either. Hence many will try to avoid answering a question if they think the person hearing might not like the answer, or if they feel that the officialdom is not being sensible. To be openly critical in front of someone they do not already know is a problem.
I am reminding of two incidents from my first visits to China. On my first ever visit, which was work only – no football available (at least that I could find out about), I recall being in a technical meeting. One of my English colleagues asked a simple question, to which one of the Chinese technicians made a reply which was clearly false. I was sitting close to him, and could even see that the answer given differed from the notes he had written down. The problem was not even the technician’s fault, but probably the responsibility of one of his superiors – so he could not come out and say something. I waited until after the meeting to quietly let my colleague know that he had been misinformed.
On a later trip, I did get to see some football, including a series of derbies in Guangzhou. Back at that time, the Chinese were not so secretive and were on a charm offensive towards foreigners, so I had no trouble obtaining a team sheet and got a good seat up in the stand close to the one or two other Gwailou (a Chinese term for white people). Early in the second half, tempers in the stand were raised, and I think there was a small amount of actual fighting. I only think this occurred, as the first objective of the security people was not to stop the event, but to make sure the foreigners could not see the problem.