June 1, 2010

Kicking It at a Soccer Game

I have made no bones about how easy my job is. In fact, the disparaging remarks I’ve made about the shameful ease of my professional life could warrant its own label on the right side of this blog. The tag could be, “My job: the void in my soul,” or maybe, “Idiot’s guide to playing games with six-year-olds.”

Nonetheless, Sundays kick my ass. I teach from 8:00 to 5:15 each Saturday, and then turn around and clock an 8:00-to-7:00 shift on Sunday. Even if you’re just dicking around with kiddos and concocting variations of basketball and bowling that can be played in the confines of a hot, cramped classroom, working 11 straight hours will drain you. Sure, it’s not the same fatigue that a physicist has after a long day of crunching numbers, or the fatigue that a college student has after churning out a trio of final exams in one week. But still, Sundays are brutal.

But somehow, I summon the energy at the end of day today, Sunday, to join some co-workers for a professional soccer match here in Jinan. Jinan is home to Shandong’s team in the Chinese Super League, which is China’s (bastardized) equivalent to the English Premiership or the German Bundesliga. Founded in 2004, the CSL has 16 teams. Shandong won the whole thing in 2008 and 2006, and last season the squad finished fourth. So we have a decent side to support.

I get off work at 7:00, hop on my bike and take a 10 minute jaunt over to Shandong Provincial Stadium, which I’ve driven past but never been inside. With the setting sun as the backdrop, I can see the stadium from at least a half-mile away. I can’t tell if it is an abomination or an interesting bit of architecture. It is shaped like an oval and dwarfed by four massive banks of lights jutting inward, like they used to stand upright but have since been slanted by a microburst. Built in 1988, it has some vague, fleeting sense of communism. Every inch of it is gray, and the flashing neon lights that dot the upper perimeter don’t hide the fact that the structure itself is utterly devoid of color – and life. It’s like they went out of their to build it in such a way that no one could possibly have any opinion about it, good or bad.

I don’t know if they’re going to sell beer inside, so I stop and buy four cans of Tsingtao at a nearby supermarket. (Interestingly, Tsingtao cans have more alcohol than the bottles – 4.3 percent to 3.1 percent.) I park my ride at a nearby intersection, which has turned into a quasi-parking lot, and pay the overseer one yuan for her trouble. She is probably 65 years-old and walks with a noticeable limp. As I’m locking up my bike, she keeps on pointing to my basket, which holds an old, falling-apart pair of shoes (which act as my brakes). I reckon that she is telling me that she’s not responsible if the shoes get stolen, but if someone steals those things, they probably need them more than I do.

I weave my way through the throngs of people hocking tickets. It’s not entirely clear whether they are sanctioned ticket vendors or scalpers, and I don’t have the linguistic chops to figure that out. One of these vendors/scalpers is literally standing at the window for the actual ticket office when I get there. He points to a map of the stadium as he tries to coax me into paying 200 yuan for a ticket that is apparently worth 300 yuan. But I have no intention of paying even 200, especially when my objective is to simply get in and find my friends who are already inside (they don’t have to work until 7, like I). I pay 30 yuan for a ticket and walk over to the line to get in.

In an exchange that is 40 percent speaking and 60 percent pointing, I ask a security guard if it’s cool for me to take some beers into the venue. I have little doubt that it’s allowed because, after all, you can take beer almost anywhere in China (or at least Jinan). You can B.Y.O.B. at restaurants, and no one will think twice if you are walking down the street with a brew or even if you hop on a bus toting some suds. Not that it’s common to see people traipsing around with beer, but it’s certainly not a huge deal. This phenomenon of unmitigated drinking prompted one of my co-workers’ friends to opine, after a visit to China, that people in China are freer than people in America. In the case of alcohol, it’s probably true. (In the case of the media, Internet and a semblance of a democratic legal process, it’s probably not true.).

Alas, the security guard delivers the bad news that you can’t bring your own beer, and I am left with a slight conundrum: should I down these four beers as quickly as I can and miss the first several minutes of the game (which has just begun), or should I part with the booze in exchange for catching all the action. That’s when I remember that it’s soccer, not basketball, and as such there IS no action. (Mandatory dis on soccer for being boring, check). I trade 12 minutes of game time for the four beers, then I go in.

Once in, I set out to find my buddy Toby. Working against me are the facts that I have no idea where he is, that this is a 40,000-seat stadium and that I’m slightly buzzed. Working in my favor is the fact that Toby is a 6-5 black dude, and in China, 6-5 black dudes are about as common as teetotalers at Mardi Gras. It takes me all of three or four minutes to spot Toby, who is sitting just about parallel with the end line on the west side of the stadium. I join him and his Chinese girlfriend for the remainder of the first half, which thoroughly dispels my notion about soccer being devoid of action. In the 30 minutes that I catch, there are three goals (two by Jinan), and two more shots clank off the crossbar. In addition, there are a pair of sizeable scuffles – big enough to prompt guys to enter the fray from the bench and for the ref to give guys yellow cards. It’s actually pretty exciting.

The fans also add to the entertainment. Now, the place is still empty – there are probably 12,00 people. But the fans who are in attendance are doing a hell of a job making it feel lively. Part of that zest manifests in timely, knowledgeable cheering. And part of it comes in the form of venomous chants directed at the other team’s fans. That venom may be due to the fact that the opponent was from Hunan, and according to Toby’s girlfriend, Hunan doesn’t have the best reputation in China. I don’t have any proof of Hunan’s shady underbelly – and neither does she. But when it comes to vilifying and discriminating against people for nothing more than their place of birth, you can argue that rumors and perception are (at least) as important as the facts. With disdain in her voice, Toby’s girl says that Hunan is known for criminals, and that it is the epicenter or China’s vast fake clothing market. Again, I don’t know if this girl was spitting facts or B.S., but she took them to be fact, and that’s what’s pertinent here. The hatred being spewed toward the Hunan fans backed up the idea that Hunan is indeed loathed, at least by people from Shandong.

The Hunan cheering section, which is off to the left as I look at the field, is small. There are probably 200 people wearing Hunan jerseys, waving Hunan flags, and chanting Hunan chants in a sectioned-off nook of the stadium behind the north goal. There are nearly as many security guards sitting in that section as there were fans, to either prevent or protect. The Shandong fans are shouting and pointing quite a bit during the first half, especially when the little scuffles broke out, but that disdain only intensifies after the break. Hunan quickly knots the score at two apiece, and this seems to galvanize their supporters. They are boisterous as ever, and when Shandong makes a few substitutions, the Hunan fans start up a chant that, according to Toby’s girlfriend, was something to the effect of, “You switch one c*^t for another c*^t!” There are all sorts of other things being chanted and yelled, but Toby’s girlfriend can’t quite make it out. Suffice it to say that they aren’t well-wishes.

As for the actual soccer, it’s not that great. Even I can tell that there are a lot of flubbed chances. There is one play in particular where the Hunan defender falls flat on his ass, allowing a Shandong player to race unabated up the sideline with the ball. Somehow, despite being handed a golden opportunity, the team doesn’t so much as get off a shot. And then there is another play by Hunan where they have a free kick from about 25 yards out. One player taps the ball to his right, directly in the path of a streaking teammate who is all geared up to smash the ball goalward. Well, he smashes it all right – about 20 feet over the crossbar. He was roundly applauded and mocked by the crowd, but truth be told, he is no worse than any of Shandong’s players.*

* Quick note: as is the case with professional basketball in China, professional soccer teams are allowed only a few foreigners. Shandong’s foreigners are Fred Benson (Netherlands), Siniša Radanović (Serbia) and Carlos Santos de Jesus (from Brazil, by way of Croatia), and Roda Antar (born in Freetown, Sierra Leone). None of them appear to be any good.

After the game, I say goodbye to my friends and walk along the sidewalk toward the intersection housing my bike. As I walk, I notice a throng of Shandong fans conglomerating on the north side of the stadium. They are yelling with great hostility, but when I look at the stadium to see who they are yelling at, I see no one. The crowd and the yelling swell, and the tangible sense of hostility intrigues me to the point where leaving is out of the question. I join the throng, unable to deduce what’s going but hopelessly curious nonetheless.

Eventually people in the crowd take to throwing water bottles at the stadium. The stadium has two tiers, and they are launching them at the upper tier. I immediately feel bad for whatever poor sucker(s) is standing on the concourse up there, but upon inspection, there is no one standing there. It’s just an empty concourse and a 10-foot-wide entryway into the a section of seats. Yet the Shandong fans keep chucking, bottle after bottle. A roar goes up when one of the bottles finds its way into the entryway; that’s where they are aiming. More and more bottles are launched at that entryway. At this point it becomes like that scene from Independence Day where all of the planes take aim at the alien spacecraft – that entryway is the spacecraft, the people are the planes, the bottles the missiles. I still can’t tell what’s going on though, but the bottles keep flying.

Finally, I conjure up an image of the stadium in my head and realize that this entryway – which is labeled with a giant “7” – must be just about where the Hunan fans’ section was. Yeah, that’s about right: I was sitting along the end line, to the west, and then I exited and walked around the north end of the stadium, which is where I am now. The Hunan section was to my left as I watched the game – to the north, that is – and now there are hundreds of people standing around the northern concourse, more than a few of them hurling water bottles at the entrance into the section of seating that must have been at least close to the Hunan sheering section.

The cops eventually break up the bottle-throwing party and I gladly head home. It would have been fun to see what transpired had the Shandong fans been allowed to persist, but at the same time I’m pretty tired. It is, after all, Sunday.

Should anyone have read this and expected it would at some point turn to basketball, I promise we’ll get back to hoops soon…

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