I am a writer and teacher, out and about in the world but with Nottingham never far from my heart.
Published April 15th 2015
Football in the land of the dragon
In many ways, Tianhe Stadium is representative of China's lofty footballing ambitions. If the 58,000 seater football ground belonged to an English Premiership club, it would be the third biggest in the division, and yet China have only appeared at a single World Cup, and have never scored a goal in the competition.
But things are changing in Chinese football. In recent years, China's top division has been graced by the talents of world-renowned stars like Alberto Gilardino and Tim Cahill, while the national side performed admirably at 2015's Asian Cup. And so Tianhe Stadium – the home of the nation's most successful football club – has become a glittering symbol of just what China can offer to the world of football.
Arriving at Tianhe Stadium can be a little overwhelming, particularly for those not used to sprawling Asian metropolises. Guangzhou is China's fourth largest city after Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin, and Tianhe is its flashy financial district. As a result, the area surrounding the stadium is peppered with skyscrapers, all apparently competing with one another for prominence.
As the area is pretty well-to-do, accommodation ain't cheap. If your budget can stretch to it, the Hilton and Marriot are right on the doorstep; if, like me, you need something a little cheaper, the streets just to the south of the big H&M are where the budget hotels can be found. I ended up paying about 260yuan for a double room, which is still pretty expensive for China.
The area surrounding Tianhe Stadium is typical modern, big-city China. This is a country which doesn't do things by halves, as indicated by the several dozen skyscrapers visible from the sports park. Tianhe Stadium is far more than just a stadium; it is a sporting mega-centre, complete with swimming pools, tennis courts, basketball courts, gyms, training centres and even a bowling alley. And of course – as with every open space in China – there are hundreds of outdoor workout machines lining every walkway.
As someone who once had to buy a flat pint of Fosters from a Frankie & Benny's restaurant outside Swansea's Liberty Stadium for want of anything better to do, the amount of activities on offer at Tianhe was something of a revelation. It is as if the owners of the stadium wanted to give something back to the local community of East Guangzhou, and something about that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
I visited the stadium on April 12th 2015, as Chinese champions Guangzhou Evergrande – managed by bona-fide soccer legend Fabio Cannavaro – prepared to take on Liaoning Whowin, a team from the north of China. As the game represented some classic "nan" (south) vs "bei" (north) rivalry, and as Guangzhou's squad includes a substantial number of players poached from the province of Liaoning, I predicted a tasty encounter.
I wasn't disappointed. Despite missing the opening goal thanks to my travelling partner requiring a full sit-down meal before kick-off, we were treated to two more before half-time; one, a lobbed free-kick from at least 45 yards, and two, a controversial Liaoning penalty that had to be taken twice. The first half ended 2-1 to the hosts.
It was in the second-half that Guangzhou really turned on the pressure. Brazilian imports Elkeson and Ricardo Goulart seemed to be having the time of their lives, scoring three goals between them, while homegrown left back Gao Lin added his second of the match in stoppage time after a well-worked move. The final score? 6-1 to Guangzhou.
As I stumbled out into the pleasant evening temperatures of Guangzhou, the thing that struck me wasn't the feast of goals and incident I'd just witnessed, but the fans. I'm an Englishman, and so – genetically – I have an intrinsic and bloody-minded sense of "true football" and "true football fans". I fully expected to see a couple of thousand supporters scattered amongst the almost 60,000 seats, tapping their fingers on iPhones and taking selfies. I didn't expect to see a packed-out stadium, or see and hear the sort of flag-waving and drum-beating usually associated with the charged atmosphere of a Lazio v Roma game. And I certainly didn't expect Liaoning's dedicated away following to be singing throughout; even at 4-1, 5-1, and subsequently 6-1 down.
Should you find yourself in Guangzhou on match day, I cannot recommend the experience of catching a game highly enough. Tickets are a fraction of the price of tickets for big European games, and the atmosphere and quality of football makes for an engaging evening of entertainment.
China might not be troubling the upper reaches of the FIFA World Rankings anytime soon, but it appears their domestic league is in rude health.
Getting there: Tianhe Stadium is about a twenty minute walk from Guangzhou's east railway station, and is accessible from anywhere in the city via the metro. Simply change onto Line 1 and head to the Tianhe Sports Centre stop.