Beijing Guoan 6 Guangzhou R&F 0 (14th Sept 2013)
They don’t go in for pubs much in China, with the bar culture being something of a novelty, limited to small areas such as the Sanlitun area of Beijing, with seemingly every bar in the city in a half mile radius – and that still doesn’t add up to a lot of them. One such bar “The Den” (presumably an opium reference, rather than a Millwall one) would become my evening base during my week in the city. The reviews weren’t great, promising poor food, bad service and hassle from ugly hookers later into the evening, but I found it fine, although admittedly the three mentioned characteristics were nowhere in evidence.
Also handily, it was just across the road from the Workers Stadium, where I’d be watching the city’s main team, Beijing Guoan, play on Saturday afternoon. An effort at acquiring a match ticket in advance had failed on my first evening in Beijing, on the Thursday, not helped by going to the Workers Gymnasium instead, first. In my defence, it is on the same road, and is big enough to look like a stadium from the outside.
Efforts on Friday morning were drawing a blank too. There didn’t appear to be anywhere selling tickets, nor anywhere which even looked remotely like a ticket office either. Eventually, after a broken-English encounter with a knot of fans kitted out in Guoan’s green outside the stadium, one offered to buy one for me off a tout apparently lurking near the north gate. Dashing off with a fistful of Yuan, telling me to wait where I was, I did only hope he’d return. Thankfully he did, and a hugely marked-up 120 Yuan (£12) lighter, but with ticket, he returned.
I was in, and for the next day and a bit I could at least relax and concentrate on more normal tourist activities. Well I say relax. Beijing is a big city, and they like everything on a big scale too. 12-lane roads crisscrossed the city, perfect for tanks and military parades, but seeming no longer able to cope with the city’s traffic. The stereotypical days of bicycles are mainly gone, with cars – oddly never a small or old one among them – and electric scooters ruling the roads now. The latter are particularly lethal, being all but silent, yet driven by people who think riding on the pavement is fine.
The attractions are vast too. Obviously The Wall is a couple of thousand miles long, so nobody tries to see more than 0.1% of it, but the Forbidden City is more or less a 1km square, jammed full of beautiful temple buildings etc. It’s almost too much, and after about three hours or so, you start to hit a wall of your own, hoping there isn’t anything else left to see. Turning a corner and seeing yet another stunning view becomes inspiring and disheartening in almost equal measures.
I spent the earlier part of the Saturday visiting the Temple of Heaven complex a couple of miles south of the stadium. It goes without saying it was huge too, although thankfully not quite as huge as the forbidden city, but less thankfully, it was baking hot. This got me thinking about the afternoon’s game, as I knew the stadium was only partly covered. Two hours sat in the baking sun would turn my face to crispy bacon, and I didn’t really fancy that.
I needn’t have worried about buying a ticket. I could see touts with tickets right at the metro station platform before I’d even got off the train – or “prepare to ghetto” as the metro announcer had it, as if she’d be given a script where the last two letters of “off” were missing. My favourite though was the recorded announcer on a different line who failed completely with the word “arrival”, and told English-speaking travellers to “prepare for their revel” instead, with metro users presumably braced against receiving their least favoured of the chocolate soft-centred assortment.
In fact there must have been a tout with several tickets about every 10 yards all the way from the metro stop along the km to the stadium. Also lining the route were merchandise sellers. Keen to pick up a scarf, I asked (via the medium of mime as I speak no Chinese, and she no English) an old woman at one stall about the price of a scarf, only for her to say something like “errsh”at me. It didn’t mean a lot to me, so in the way of people worldwide, she repeated it louder, as if all languages can be understood if just said more forcefully.
I had heard enough tourist posing for pictures, counting down san, er, yi – click, to know that “er” was two, so I guessed that with prices of 2 and 20 Yuan (20p and £2) being stupidly low, she was clearly taking me for a mug tourist and trying to get 200 (£20) out of me. I give her my most withering “don’t take me for a fool!” stare and walked off.
As it turned out £2 was the price of a scarf after all, which does explain the rather bemused look on the face of the old woman, wondering why this rich western tourist had thought the bargain price outrageous. Oops.
The Communists might have been capable of turning Beijing into a vision of Soviet-style city planning, with a stadium for the people complete with a giant statue of idealised male and female athletes at the front gate, but they never managed to grasp the benefit of turnstiles. The temporary ticket check gates which need assembling and disassembling before and after each game provide work for those workers, I guess.
At the stadium walls, riot police line up in ramrod straight rows, like terracotta armies poised for action, despite the complete absence of any away supporters in the area. If the old-style party bigwigs would have appreciated this nod towards the military days of old, they’d also have no doubt cried into their red flags at the sight of the exterior of the stadium now being given over to a variety of retail outlets, with the Workers’ stadium becoming a shopping precinct for 6 days of the week.
With football not being considered part of the usual tourist agenda, the addition of English to my ticket was marked by its absence. True, the ground regulations on the back of my ticket did have the additional title “Notice for Audience”, before listing the ten regulations – they could have been the 10 commandments for all I could tell – entirely in Chinese. Nevertheless, I vowed to not covet the oxen of anyone sat next to me, even if they did have a really nice one.
I was eased into deciphering Chinese football tickets slightly easier than I could have been, as this would be the only ticket I’d buy which featured a ground plan. By matching the symbols up, I could deduce that I was in the upper tier of Sector 9. Row and seat weren’t completely obvious, but after puzzling for a while, I realised that as both were “14”, it didn’t matter that much.
Making my way into the Section 9 Upper Tier, or the “On Stage Entrance” as the sign leading to the area would have it (lower tier was “below stage”) it became obvious that my seat was in a toasting section facing the blazing sun. Not wishing to cook, I opted to move back towards the top, under the shade of the roof, at least until the area started filling up.
I quickly became clear I wasn’t the only one thinking this way, as everyone who entered clearly thought the Chinese equivalent of “bugger this for a game of soldiers”, and moved up to the shade. Fortunately, this wasn’t the most popular section of the ground, so most could take cover.
To our left were around 300 or so travelling Guangzhou R&F fans, every one of them decked out in white. With a distance of 1431 miles between the two cities, about the same as London to Warsaw, you have to feel for any of them whose turn it was to drive that week. It’s not as if their afternoon was about to make up for it either.
It’s fair to say that when Yakubu gets round to writing his memoirs, this afternoon, with him more isolated than a rule 45 prisoner up front for Guangzhou R&F, won’t feature too strongly. His team were utter garbage, and the opening goal on 13 minutes, when a laughably unmarked forward steered in a header, really set the tone.
With the green army to my right singing away and blowing the odd vuvuzela-type instrument to spur their team on, most of the play was at the far and distant northern end of the stadium. The southern end, with the area behind the goal filled with scaffolding for an upcoming gig for The Killers, was much less busy. The pre-match enthusiasm of the knot of away fans didn’t take long to wane.
The away side were just about hanging on until eight minutes before the interval. A break from the right was rather curtailed by a defender thinking it fine to just run in from the side and knock the attacker over. Outside the box would have been crazy enough, but inside, with him as the last defender, was suicidal. Naturally he protested complete innocence, but he got a red card, and the home side duly scored the penalty.
More cheering and more blows on the trumpets, with the home fans cheering “Guoan, Guoan, Guoan” as “g’won, g’won, g’won”, like 34000 Chinese versions of Mrs Doyle from Father Ted asking if they want some tea.
I liked the ground more than I thought I might. The decent crowd certainly helped, but the place also had a bit of colour and something of a roof, even if it looked like it was welded together by people more used to making ship hulls. It wasn’t the two-tiered socialist bowl I’d feared, and the fans with their colour and banners made the place more personal. The “something of a roof” was starting to become a problem though.
As the sun slowly dipped, the shade of the roof was noticeably rising up the stand, row by row, exposing more of the stand to the still hot sunlight. The refugees from those now in the sunburn section began to rise throughout the first half, as personal tolerance levels were hit and exceeded. Some took to making hats out of newspapers to try to keep the burn off. Another could take no more, and dashed from his seat with his attempt at protecting his arms by wrapping them entirely in newspaper clearly failing. The problem was that the number of vacant seats in the shade was rapidly running out.
By half-time, the sun had just started to reach my row. There were empty seats behind me, but they tended to necessitate peering round – in some cases directly through – thick concrete pillars in order to see the game. Instead I took the option of waiting until the break and dashing for the rear, where a space behind the last row of seats was functioning as a makeshift terrace.
Given how poor R&F had been with 11 men, it didn’t take much to realise they could be in for a right lumping if Beijing Guoan kept going. 5 or 6 nil seemed likely, and it was only some sloppy finishing that stopped that being a conservative estimate.
It took 10 minutes for the score to become 3-0, with a fine lob across the keeper marking the end of the game as a contest. Somehow it took a further 25 minutes to add to the score. Guoan’s Nigerian forward Utaka had been guilty of a few glaring misses before tucking a side-foot shot low into the corner.
Following up his penalty and lob, home forward Zhang Xizhe added a 5th with 5 minutes left, hitting a free kick low around the wall, and through the hands of a weak-wristed effort of a save.
The away keeper completely a miserable afternoon in stoppage time, deciding to palm a save to a position of danger rather than one of safety, and Utaka gleefully ran in to tap in the rebound for the 6th.
It was after this goal that the club management decided it wasn’t worth waiting for the final whistle to play the club victory song over the PA system, so Guangzhou’s embarrassing afternoon had the humiliating seal of having the last couple of minutes of injury time taking place to music as well as the cheers of the home fans. Plenty for them and their fans to think about on the long, very long, journey home.
My own post-match journey was significantly shorter, just over the road to “The Den” for the evening, and my pain – caused by a blister that had grown large enough that I’d considered giving it a name – would probably still be much less too.