We walk into a shop selling stickers, caps, skateboards and green football shirts and hoodies. We have a look around, and I ask the lady in my best Mandarin if she speaks English. She doesn’t, so I produce a pen and paper, and start drawing a stadium, with a question mark next to it. I show her my map, and she points to an area just East from the center of town. I draw the Yuan symbol with another question mark, and she gives me the approximate price. It’s always the first thing to do when you get to a new city, you ask about the football, the studium, the next game, and the price of tickets.
Football, is our way to meet people, to mix with locals and have conversations which are always about football at the beginning, but which end up being about the 6th of June 1944, velux windows, Tintin or the price of stamps. It’s usually quite random. Today Beijing’s facing a club from Shanghai in China’s top league and it’s taking place at the Worker’s Stadium.
We’re walking round the stadium trying to find a ticket office but only find a bunch of loud men waving tickets and yelling at us in Mandarin. We shrug them off but they come back, running behind us, shouting at us and moving their arms about. Like everything we do in China, buying tickets for the match is going to be an adventure in itself. And we’re realising that we’re never going to have time to go back to the laundry to fetch our clean clothes, and buy the tickets before the game starts. Spag decides to take care of the laundry, and leaves me to buy the tickets.
My tactics are simple, I go up to the youth - who’re the most likely to speak English - and I do my best to pronounce my one and only Mandarin sentence “Do you speak English?”. Every time I stop someone, older men come running towards me like I’m a piece of meat and they’re a pack of hungry hyenas. I keep calm and carry on because that’s also part of the tactic. I spot a bunch of students and try my luck with them. “Yes, how can I help you?” is answered in an almost perfect English, and I feel like I’ve just scored a goal in a world cup game. The winning goal. Against Argentina.
The students tell me that there is no ticket office, you can only buy tickets on-line, or else buy them off the hyenas. They tell me what price is reasonable, and what sections of the stadium are the best. She writes “23 upper tier” on my piece of paper and I show it to the hyenas who are swarming around me. In a couple of seconds, a short plump man pulls forwards and offers me 2 tickets for 400 yuan. I bring the price down to half the amount, and the ticket-selling hyena mob finally let go of me, and I’m left in peace to talk with the students about their university, Beijing, Anelka, and a tiny little bit of politics. We talk about family and a girl comes up with the saddest sentence I’ve heard on this trip: "We don’t have borthers or sisters, that’s why we have so many cuddly toys". She says it as a kind of joke, but I feel so sorry for them. However it’s the first real conversation I have with some Chinese people since getting here, and once again, it’s all thanks to the beautiful game.
It’s 7:30, the game is about to kick off, Spag comes along in a hurry and tells me he’s lost his iPhone somewhere, possibly in a taxi… That’s going to be another pain, as the phone and its apps are so useful for us here. Unfortunately, there isn’t much we can do about it right now.
The stadium is a 60 000 seater but it’s only half full today. I’m told that this Shanghai side isn’t a very big club and don’t have many fans. We join a small group of Beijing Guoan supporters who seem to be very energetic and organised. It looks like an “ultra” group, just like what we have in Europe although this one seems to be younger and with many more girls. We join the group and try to sing along, following the leaders. I even grab a green and gold flag and do the job like at home, the same great feeling, and I shout what everyone else is shouting which to me sounds like “Jean Pierre” but it must be something else, but who cares, it doesn’t matter what I’m singing about, all that matteres is that everyone’s together, standing as one, bouncing up and down on plastic seats, and suddenly a green player knocks the ball and it’s saved on the line, or maybe just behind the line, and it’s unsure if Beijing has scored or not, but the linesman gives it, and the crowd goes mental. Spag and I are joining in, feeling at home with this bunch, although we’re probably the only non-chinese in the stadium, (apart from a few players on the pitch). I’m told that the supporter’s group is called the “green-faced brotherhood”, so I suppose they do have some sort of a family. The whole block is looking at us now, wandering who we are, and what we’re doing here. People are pointing at us and smiling, curious. One of the group leaders gives us a thumbs up sign and the whole group start clapping for us like we’re heroes, just because we’re trying to sing in Mandarin. They’re so sweet and I’m just loving this game, right now I couldn’t care less about the bloody i-phone.
Photos Hu Yu