[SPORTS & BUSINESS] Chinese football fever yet to reach some corners of the nation

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[SPORTS & BUSINESS] Chinese football fever yet to reach some corners of the nation


Left: barely any fans are spotted at Yellow Dragon Sports Center, the home ground for Hangzhou Greentown FC, even on a game day. Center: Hong Myung-bo, former manager of the Korean national team during the 2014 Brazil World Cup, is introduced on the scoreboard before a match. Right: the stadium sits almost entirely vacant during a game. On average, only about 12,000 fans attend Hangzhou home games. [CHOI YONG-JAE]

Earlier this year, China laid out a blueprint to become a titan in the world of football by 2050. Chinese clubs went on a spending spree as a result, and their expenditure over the last winter transfer window eclipsed that of all European leagues, a drastic move to boost the popularity and the competitiveness of its domestic league. But as massive as the Chinese mainland is, fever for the sport has yet to reach some parts of the nation, including the home of Hangzhou Greentown F.C. - Hangzhou, Zhejiang.

As a result of such massive investment, it’s no longer uncommon to spot familiar faces in the Chinese Super League. Managers such as Sven-Goran Eriksson, former English national team manager, Luiz Felipe Scolari, who led Brazil’s national team to claim the 2002 Fifa World Cup title, and Felix Magath, who oversaw Bayern Munich and Fulham in the past, are just a few of the easily recognizable names found in the Chinese league.

Moreover, world-class players such as Givanildo Vieira de Sousa, more popularly known as “Hulk,” are also seen playing in the league. Hulk rejected an offer by English Premier club Liverpool and joined Shanghai Sipg for 55.8 million euros ($62.4 million), the highest transfer fee recorded in Asian football history.

Such relentless efforts put forth by the clubs have paid off it seems. In most parts of the nation right now, it would still be an understatement to say that, in general, football in China is merely popular.

The heat of the games felt in various stadiums in China verges on being explosive. Guangzhou Evergrande Football Club, led by Scolari himself, is at the fore of this phenomenon. In Evergrande’s 13 home games this year, more than 580,000 fans attended. On average, about 44,000 fans have made their ways to Tianhe Stadium to root for Guangzhou FC, a number as solid as some European teams.

“The fever here for football is something I have not seen before,” said Choi Yong-soo, former skipper of FC Seoul, who now oversees Jiangsu Suning FC. “The stadium and the fans, it’s all huge. The average home crowd for Jiangsu is about 35,000 per game. The infrastructure is well established and the management system of the club is well organized. They essentially have laid out the ground work for further growth. It is an indisputable fact that Chinese football is developing at an unprecedented pace.”

But some teams have yet to feel that vibe. As in European leagues, or almost any league in the world for that matter, the popularity of low-ranked teams suffers. “It is true that football is the hottest sport in China right now,” said an industry insider. “But for those teams making less investment and lingering around the bottom in standings, this is not true.”

Hangzhou Greentown, led by Hong Myung-bo, former manager of the Korean national team, is one of those teams that struggles to raise their reputation among locals. Unlike other clubs who drop astronomical sums of money, some as much as 100 billion won ($90 million), Hangzhou’s yearly budget is roughly 40 billion, a devastatingly low number compared to others in the league. Perhaps reflecting this, Greentown is ranked near the bottom, 14th in the Chinese Super League, and facing possible demotion if they sink any further.

When Ilgan Sports, an affiliate of Korea JoongAng Daily, visited Yellow Dragon Sports Center, the home of Hangzhou, to watch the game between the Greentown and Jiangsu Suning, it wasn’t difficult to see why the fever sweeping China eluded the club.

Anyone visiting the venue for the first time would find it difficult to locate the ticket window since there was no sign indicating its location. The venue was a multi-purpose stadium, often used for other events such as concerts. Also, besides the difficulty of finding a place to buy tickets, the stadium looks nothing like a place where a professional football game was about to start in few hours. No banners or posters were hung advertising which teams were playing or when. In fact, the only posters that were hanging were for past events. One banner, for example, was for the 2016 G-20 Hangzhou summit, which ended in early September. For Koreans visiting the venue, only the photo of Hong displayed on the scoreboard would be the only clue that this was indeed a football stadium.

The low level of interest by the locals were also mirrored in attendance. In 13 home games this season, only about 12,000 fans attended per game on average. For four of them, less than 10,000 people showed up.

BY CHOI YONG-JAE [choi.hyungjo@joongang.co.kr]
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