Despite of substantial investments in Chinese Football, if you walk around the streets of Beijing, you have the distinct impression that there is no football culture in the capital. The most telling clue was the presence of basketball pitches even close to the historic Workers’ Stadium.
China is the country of contradictions even in this sector: football has been the most viewed sport on Tv in 2015, but it is not practiced by the masses, in fact, Japan and Thailand have more young players registered in comparison to China.
The CSL is one of the championships with the highest average of fans to stadiums, but many of these are not even half full.
The trip to Beijing has confirmed that this deregulated growth has in some ways left the supporters bheind: in the capital I had watched the games of Beijing Guoan (CSL) and those of Beijing Renhe (China League One) and the differences between the two realities are profound.
Beijing Guoan, also known as Imperial Guards, has a strong tradition in professional football, from 1992, when the team was purchased by Shenzhen CITIC Bank. The club was born in 1951 with the name of North China, under the strong influence of the State until the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.
The Imperial Guards have a strong identity, it hasn’t changed during the years, this fact explains the strong fan base.
Beijing Guoan can count on the second average attendance at the stadium (over 40,000 people), and many ultras groups who have Italian names, from the more neutral Curva Nord to LFAM ( fight to the death).
The Workers Stadium is located in Chaoyang District, the most international and trendy area of Beijing.
Warm fans fill up the stadium. From ultras to ordinary fans they support the team even if they are in difficulties or they are losing, as I noticed during the match against Chongqing Lifan on 12th August. A green “mass” who support 90-minutes-long Imperial Guards, despite a disappointing season and a title drought that lasts since 2008.
If in Chaoyang I could see a strong fan base and a lot of people at the stadium, things are not like so brilliant on the other side of the city, in Fengtai District. It is located in southwest of the capital, and it is an industrial area.
The Fengati Stadium is the home of Beijing Renhe, a team which established in Beijing this year. It is not a new club, it was founded in 1995,
but Renhe history deserves to be analyzed carefully to understand how fans have been ignored, and which market logic and economic responds Chinese football.
The club was founded in 1995 in Shanghai, with the name of International. In 2005 after the match-fixing and the inability to maintain investments that led the club to compete for the title, the owners (Cosco Real Estate) decided to move the club in Shaanxi Province, and rebrand it with the name of Xi’an International, then, they sold all of the shares to Baorong investment.
At Inter Xi’an changes are common and in 2010 the Renhe Commercial Holding Company (Real Estate for shopping centers), began to invest in the club and became the majority owner.
The following year, for the special relationship with Guizhou province and the local government promise to use the Olympic Stadium, Renhe decided to move the club for the second time in its history, leaving Xi’an and his supporters with no team. The new Guizhou Renhe reached excellent results, they won the CFA Cup in 2013 and the Super Cup the following year against Guangzhou Evergrande. It ‘s just the beginning of another end: in 2015 the Guizhou unexpectedly ended the season second from bottom and were relegated to China League One. For the fans another drama: Renhe moved another time the club, for new Real Estate project in Beijing.
So, the owner relocated his “toy” to the capital.
Beijing Renhe’s reality is quite sad.
There were just 3.000 people at Fengtai (stadium of 40,000 seats), on the stands they were distracted, and just thirty fans supported the team with a couple of choirs, among the general indifference. There is no true fan of Renhe, people at the stadium support Beijing Guoan as the first team, they were at the stadium cause they live in Fengtai District.
In the Football Reform, Chinese government want to put a limit (even delete) the possibility of club relocation, so that even the young reality of Chinese football can be rooted in the territory and create a strong fan base, which the Renhe hasn’t been able to do in his crazy history.
Photo © Nicholas Gineprini / MondoFutbol.com