It was 2004 and I was working at an expat magazine in the city of Nanjing, in eastern China. It was one of those rags full of advertorials and paid-for reviews, distributed for free in coffee shops and hotels, but I wasn’t complaining. You’ve got to start somewhere. In an editorial meeting one morning, a colleague had an idea. One of the city’s football teams, Nanjing Yoyo, who then played in the Chinese second division, had a new foreign player. Perhaps we could go and interview him? In the world of expat magazines, features have been made of far less. One question though: who was he?
My colleague Carol, who like most young Chinese of the time had an English name but very little by way of language skills, was hesitant. “An-de-ni,” she said slowly and with no conviction. That would be “Anthony”, but really, as either first-name or surname, it could be anyone. Carol went off to contact the club to arrange the interview, and I went to my desk to try to figure out who it was. Carol popped back in a few minutes: His family name was “Luo-ji-ye”. Did I know him?
“An-de-ni Luo-ji-ye”…I said, scratching my head. Anthony “Luo-ji-ye”? Then bingo: I knew exactly who, and a quick search on Google confirmed it: it was Tony Rougier.
It’s unlikely I would have figured this out so quickly if I hadn’t grown up near Reading and been to many a game at both Elm Park and the Madejski Stadium (my love for Spurs, and loathing for dodgy Russian owners, has seen my feelings for the Royals dip since then). I’d seen Rougier, a Trinidadian international who joined from Port Vale for £325,000 in 2000 and made 80-odd appearances for the Royals, on several occasions. There have been better players in Reading’s history, for sure, but there have certainly been worse.
A couple of days later, when we met for an interview in the hotel where he lived, I introduced myself as a Reading fan. Understandably, he was amused. If I hadn’t been so starstruck (and socially inept), I would have arranged for us to go and have pizza or something. He was obviously bored and missing his family, and must have been desperate to talk to someone who at least knew who the hell he was. Having discovered an ex-Royal , I no doubt threw in the word “legend” when describing him, I had to go and see him in action.
Nanjing Yoyo were the “other” team in the city, population 3.6 million and located on the southern bank of the Yangtze River. Nanjing is that rarest of things, a pleasant major Chinese city, the surrounding hills and river creating famously good feng shui and ensuring Nanjing has served as China’s capital at various points in the country’s long and turbulent history.
The bigger team was Jiangsu Shuntian, now Jiangsu Suning, who have just shelled out a combined £63 million on Ramires and Alex Teixeira and are managed by Dan Petrescu. (Nanjing Yoyo no longer exists — the club couldn’t pay its wages and was dissolved after the 2010 season.)
Nanjing Yoyo played at Wutaishan Stadium, an old wreck of an arena built into a hillside, but conveniently just down the Shanghai Road from where I lived. It was rumoured it was where the mass denunciations used to take place in the Cultural Revolution, when the guy who used to sell you watermelon was paraded with a dunce’s cap on his head and placard reading “left in form but right in essence”, before being beaten to a pulp in front of a baying mob. It had that haunted atmosphere of a stadium being left to rot.
The next Saturday afternoon, myself and a couple of mates went down to check it out. We didn’t buy a ticket (either they weren’t sold, or we were let in for free, I couldn’t tell) and wandered up the hill to the top of the stadium before plonking ourselves down on the concrete benches. The crowd was small, maybe a couple of thousand in the stand opposite, the same again on our side. At the front, there were a dozen or so people with large flags, and one bloke with a massive drum. On the running track around the pitch, however, was a ring of riot police, hundreds of them, with full armour and shields. “Hello”, I thought. This might get interesting after all.
The game started, and for 20 minutes it was risible. The drummer smashed away, the flag wavers soon gave up, and on the pitch, Tony Rougier and his teammates went through the motions. Football, when it doesn’t matter and is played badly, is boring.
There were a couple of other black players on the Yoyo team, including an absolute donkey of a striker, whose frequent misplaced passes were greeted with groans and increasing levels of racist abuse. I think the opposition was from Tianjin, not that anyone really cared who they were, and their black players were jeered with every touch. China isn’t a diverse society, and even less so back then.
Just as it seemed the game was drifting into some sort of terminal footballing coma, the bottle throwing started. Unnoticed, most of the fans had crept gradually lower down the concrete rows, and en masse started hurling objects at the the riot police. The flagwavers scarpered, and the drummer shuffled off, and for the rest of the game, with a brief half-time intermission, the fans kept it up.
It was harmless, just water or those bottles of sweet green tea drunk by millions each day, and the riot police put up their shields with a sense of ennui. It was going to be a long afternoon. There were no announcements asking the fans to stop, no batons were waved and no-one was hauled off by plainclothes police officers. It was like someone, somewhere, had decided that this was a level of public steam-letting that was acceptable on a Saturday afternoon in China in 2004.
I moved to Beijing a year later, and the football there was a far more serious matter. Beijing Guoan (pronouned gwoar-anne) have long been one of the biggest clubs in the Chinese Super League. Not always the most successful, but always one of the best supported. They played, in their signature green shirts, at the Workers’ Stadium, a huge Communist-era relic in downtown Beijing. The stadium was soulless, a 66,000-capacity ring of concrete, wide enough for several runnings tracks between stands and pitch.
Nonetheless, it was a “good” place to watch football. There were plenty of places for a pre-match pint as it was in the main entertainment district. There were actually bars underneath the stadium, including one which you entered through a hot dog stand and touched a button to make the wall slide out. It was never full, but there was always a big enough crowd for an atmosphere.
I went to watch Beijing vs Dalian Shide one year, I can’t recall exactly when with my memory as hazy as the Beijing sky. The local rivalry is with Tianjin, a city of 7.5 million an hour down the road, but Dalian (a city in northeast China) were still at that point considered “the Manchester United of China”, even if their powers, like the current Old Trafford team, were on the wane.
There was a much bigger crowd than normal that day, and we squeezed into the upper deck of the stadium, not many spare seats around. This was Super League, not the second tier, and although the quality was still very low, it felt like football. Unlike in Nanjing, you could tell this game mattered.
The crowd was amped up, crying out “jia you” — which literally translates as “add oil” but just means “come on” — whenever Beijing moved towards the Dalian goal.
Dalian had a black Brazilian player who took all their set pieces. Whenever he came over to take a corner, the jeers would pick up and the plastic bottles would start flying in his direction. The corner flag was so far from the stand that most bottles fell harmlessly short, but the occasional one would hit its target and the crowd would cheer. The Brazilian guy would wearily kick them away and carry on. This went on for the whole match, with the same seemingly endless supply of plastic bottles.
For 20 minutes, just as in Nanjing, it was like a normal match. The crowd was enthusiastic and engaged, and there were a few chances. But then the match settled into a pattern, and people started to get bored. When they get bored, or they start losing, the Beijing Guoan crowd had a very simple chant.
“Shabi” was all it was, pronounced “shah-bee”. All around, the fans would stand up, clear their throats and start shouting it out, over and over again: “shabi, shabi, shabi”. Which would be fine except that “shabi”, and there is absolutely no way to soft-pedal this, means “cunt” (or literally, “stupid cunt”).
“Cunt, cunt, cunt”, the crowd went, whenever Dalian attacked, enjoyed a spell of possession or a Beijing player gave the ball away, which happened a lot.
For the Beijing authorities, famed enforcers of public order, this was a step too far. Racist abuse? Fine. Mass shouting of the word “cunt” — nope, they drew the line there. Whenever the crowd started the “shabi” chant — it was either “shabi” or “jiayou”, there are only two chants in Chinese football — the stadium management would respond by pumping out excruciating white noise at full volume from the loudspeakers. This would only enrage the crowd further, and the chanting would get louder. Eventually it would stop long enough for the white noise to be switched off, but as soon as it was, the “shabi, shabi, shabi” would resume.
I wonder what it must have sounded like to someone walking with their kid outside, hearing the swell of noise coming up out of the stadium. “Wait, WHAT are they chanting?”
It all made for an enormously entertaining spectacle, that feeling you sometimes get living in China, population 1.3 billion, that you are just one spark away from seeing the social bonfire being lit and the whole quasi-Communist edifice come crashing down. As a purely sporting experience, however, it was much less enjoyable. It really is hard to concentrate on the football with white noise being pumped out at full volume and the guy next to you standing on his seat, all game, screaming the word “cunt.”
I thought back to my time in Nanjing when I read that first Ramires and then Alex Teixeira were moving there. Life for a Brazilian footballer has always been an itinerant one, and your career is short. Brazilians have long plied their trade in China, these guys just happen to actually be good and will be paid according to their talent.
China wants to host a World Cup, it’s next on the list after the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics and the Winter Olympics that the Chinese capital, once it has found some snow from somewhere, will also host in 2022. But before China can host a World Cup, it needs a team that won’t embarrass itself.
I attended China’s first ever World Cup match in Gwangju, South Korea, in 2002. They were soundly beaten by Costa Rica, 2-0, and barely mustered a shot. It didn’t get any better — they were beaten 4-0 by Brazil and 3-0 by Turkey in the coming days.
But at least they were there. As a starting point, you could accept this miserable performance as some sort of a building block, but since then China hasn’t qualified, while the likes of Australia, Saudi Arabia and even North Korea have.
The enthusiasm was there back then in 2002 — China had sold out its allocation, with tens of thousands of fans making the short trip across the Bohai Bay to South Korea. My friend and I wore fake China national shirts that we’d bought in a local market, and it was the only thing we needed to buy all day. We had a dust up with a FIFA busybody who tried to get us to take off the fake merchandise, but our newfound friends came to our rescue and bustled us into the stadium.
The Chinese fans were up for it — face paint, banners, everyone head-to-toe in red. The hunger for football was there, and it has only increased since. China isn’t India, where anything but cricket seems an irrelevance. The Chinese love football, but football — with the corruption, dodgy referees, low standards and poor infrastructure — hasn’t loved them. It has been a national embarrassment that China, a rising power in everything else, can’t find 11 guys capable of stringing three passes together. The women’s game is far more competitive, but the men’s team has been hopeless for a long time, and no-one has had much incentive to connect the dots as to why.
I worked for a while in Chinese state media, and there was an expression used by senior editors there to describe the censorship system: “Stop at the red light.” It meant, you could say what you wanted about most things, but on certain issues there was clear guidance and you either towed the line or stayed clear.
It feels like, all of a sudden, the red light has been switched off. Under President Hu Jintao’s “harmonious society” straightjacket, or the sweeping anti-corruption purges of President Xi Jinping’s early years, wealthy owners were cautious about sticking their head above the parapet by signing expensive Brazilians. China, in 2016, is still scary as all hell, but at least it’s a little more fun.
One suspects that Ramires, on a smoggy Nanjing afternoon with a poor pitch, mediocre teammates and a uninterested crowd, will miss the Premier League more than the Premier League misses him. There are plenty more Ramires-es where he came from.
But it’s hard to argue against the idea that a superstar like Ramires, or Alex Teixeira, stands a better chance of lifting the standard of Chinese football and inspiring the next generation of homegrown talent than old Tony Rougier, formerly of Raith Rovers, Port Vale, Reading and Brentford, ever did.
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