Features is excited to launch the first edition of our new series ‘From Our Correspondent’, where we encourage Manchester students currently on a year abroad to write a long-form piece about what is happening in their new cities. We look forward to reading the interesting, peculiar, or funny qualities our writers notice. We kick things off in Beijing, where Freddie Tuson is surprised by the scarcity of fans of the city’s biggest football team. In a country full of avid followers of Europe’s biggest clubs, Beijing Guoan’s supporters appear few and far between.
When I jump on the Beijing underground in the late afternoon, the carriages are packed. Midway through September, the Chinese capital still feels like summer. The balmy evening air battles with the train’s roaring air-conditioning as commuters head home and youngsters head out.
Stop after stop I crane my neck, scouring the carriage for the jade-green sign of a Guoan fan. Only as I emerge from the station do I finally encounter what I had searched for so long: after two months in Beijing I finally see my first Guoan strip. I ditch my phone’s navigation instructions and follow the shirt.
Since my arrival in China’s capital, the pride of Beijingers has become obvious. Pride in Beijing roast duck and traditional hot pot. Pride in the city’s cheap, clean and efficient public transport. Pride in the city’s climate – it has rained just twice since my arrival two months ago. However, I continuously emerged empty-handed when searching for pride in the city’s sole Chinese Super League (CSL) team – Beijing Guoan.
That is not to say that Beijingers lack an appreciation of football. Lionel Messi is ubiquitously admired. Any mention of football is met with clamour for the Argentine superstar. The global reach of the Premier League extends eastward, with the dive bars of Beijing’s hutongs swarmed with football fans on Saturday evenings. When Wu Lei, the all-time top goal scorer in the CSL, made his La Liga debut for Espanyol against Valencia in 2019, he was watched by 40 million people in his home nation.
While it may be the NBA and basketball that is slowly winning the race for the attention of China’s sport hungry youth, there is no doubt that there is still a healthy appetite for, and enjoyment in watching football.
In Beijing however, Guoan are unloved. When I first arrived in the city, one of the first things on my agenda was to purchase a Guoan shirt. This proved to be a harder task than I anticipated. Market after market, mall after mall, seemingly enough knock-off Inter Miami and Al Nassr shirts to clothe the entire city twice over, and yet not a glimpse of the jade green strip of Guoan.
Within the 127 pages of the latest edition of Football Weekly Magazine, there are extended features on Declan Rice, Phil Foden, and Arsenal’s Invincibles side. Martin Keown, is regularly referred to as “veteran fiend” – a sentiment with which I’m sure Ruud van Nistelrooy can agree with. Amongst all this, there is no mention of the Chinese Super League, or indeed, Beijing Guoan.
In conversation, any mention of the team is met with a variety of snorts, giggles and ridicule. Speaking to a Barcelona supporting Beijinger, I enquired as to why he, or seemingly everyone else I met in the city, didn’t support the local side.
Having previously shown no indication of speaking a word of English, he toiled and stretched his linguistic ability to tell me that “they are disgusting, terrible, awful…Guoan shit, Beijing Guoan shit.” Clearly, he wanted to make sure that my unreliable Chinese skills would not confuse the fact that he thought Guoan were bad, very bad.
Yet a glance at the recently finalised 2023 Chinese Super League table shows Guoan finishing in a solid 6th place, only four points outside the AFC Champions League places. While by no means a standout season, Portuguese manager Ricardo Soares’ squad’s performance certainly did not justify the ridicule which I had continuously encountered.
Beijing Guoan has won only one Chinese Super League title since the division’s foundation in 2004. However, while the CSL and many of its member clubs, have had a tumultuous 19 years, veering wildly from relative anonymity to the disruptive cash splashing of the 2010s and back again – Guoan have maintained remarkable stability. Guoan has qualified for the AFC Champions League on eight occasions – only Shandong Taishan can boast more continental campaigns (nine) than the Beijing side. Yet the capital’s side is perhaps regarded as monotonous in the eyes of the city’s inhabitants.
Beijingers are used to big, bold, and beautiful. The ancient beauty of the Forbidden City. The architectural wonder that is The Great Wall. The fastest trains in the world, speeding through the city. And Guoan has never been that. Even in the wild heyday of CSL spending, Guoan were relatively restrained. Cedric Bakambu was signed for a hefty £36 million from Villareal in 2018; however, he is one of only two Guoan signings that rank in the CSL’s 30 most expensive of all time.
The popularity of European football in Beijing alone is a challenge to Guoan’s ambitions of citywide popularity. I have met Chinese fans of Liverpool, Tottenham, Barcelona, Bayern, and beyond but have yet to spot one Guoan supporter in the wild.
I make my way to Guoan’s game against Zhejiang Professional, which kicks off at 19:35 local time. In Beijing’s Chaoyang district, amongst luxury shopping malls, streets lined with glitzy nightclubs, and a short walk from the British embassy, Guoan’s Workers’ Stadium appears as if from nowhere.
Originally built in 1959 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, it was demolished in 2020 and rebuilt – opening in time for the start of the 2023 season.
By the time I arrive at the foot of the iconic workers’ statue on the stadium’s perimeter, the one Guoan shirt I followed from the train has grown into a throng of green.
The complex surrounding the stadium provides a comforting familiarity thousands of miles from home. Caps pulled over their faces, ticket touts brushed past murmuring “tickets, buying and selling.”
Others weave through the crowds with duffel bags filled with knockoff merchandise. This feels almost like going to a big match in England, but when I pay for my Guoan scarf it’s through the QR code hung around the vendor’s neck, rather than with a scrunched fiver dug from my coat pocket.
The box-fresh concourse vibrates with quiet enthusiasm. The manager, Soares, appointed midway through the season, has overseen a steady upturn in form, inspired by the signing of Fabio Abreu from Emirati side Khor Fakkan in July.
Born in Portugal and of Angolan heritage, Abreu’s footballing career started in the foothills of the Pennines. While attending sixth form college in Manchester he played youth team football at non-league sides Bacup Borough and Mossley. Flash forward to the present, and Abreu has scored goals in the top flights of Portugal, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and now China.
As the Guoan players trickle onto the pitch to warm up, it’s the emergence of the Portuguese-born, Lancashire-raised Angolan that rouses the ultras below me into song. The wave after wave of chants crashing through the sea of green, drums pounding, and flags waving, force the gentleman sitting next to me to look up from his game of online Mahjong.
The March of the Volunteers rings out around the stadium as fans rose from their seats in unison. It’s with this unity that Guoan’s supporters loudly back their team as they started on the front foot and pin Zhejiang back. Abreu, playing nominally up front, drifts between the lines, until, with just 3 minutes on the clock he latches onto a ball over the top, poking it past the onrushing goalkeeper.
The Workers’ Stadium erupts, the crowd rushing inwards as if magnetically drawn towards their new star. This outburst of joy is, however, cut short by the sight of the linesman’s raised flag. Abreu is involved again as Guoan have the ball in the Zhejiang net twice more in the first 45 minutes, both of which are also ruled out for offside. When a yellow card is not given to a Zhejiang defender as Abreu is dragged down on the breakaway, fans’ frustrations turn to the referee.
As I desperately try to find a Chinese translation of “You’re having me on ref” generic guitar music blasts through the stadium’s speakers. The non-descript riffs continue until the anger against the officials has subsided.
Into the second period, Guoan are foiled by Zhejiang’s resolute low block. In the 57th minute, Zhejiang’s full-back Yue Xin breaks down the left-hand side, whipping a ball between Guoan’s backtracking centre backs, onto the boot of Brazilian striker Leanardo, who duly puts the Hangzhou-based side into the lead. The Worker’s Stadium falls silent but for the faint celebrations of the small enclave of Zhejiang fans in the rafters. For those who have made the 1300 km journey from Hangzhou, the trip begins to show its worth.
On the sounding of the final whistle, Guoan’s players collectively collapse to the turf. While disappointment lingers, the predominant emotion that emanated from Guoan’s fanbase is pride: victory chants from the travelling fans are overwhelmed by a wall of support from the home crowd. The pride in the capital’s football team, for which I had searched high and low, now overwhelms my senses.
It is not often a football team that regularly attracts crowds of over 40,000 can be considered part of a niche subculture. Yet in the sprawling metropolis of Beijing, Guoan certainly is that. Of all the people I had spoken to who had derided Guoan’s quality, none had paid a visit to The Workers’ Stadium.
If they had, perhaps they would realise that this is a community with as much pride as any other in Beijing.