Beijing Baxy V Hunan Billows
By Roy Delaney. Pictures by Catherine McCarthy
Football, like most other things, is growing massively in China at the moment. With the birth of the Chinese Super League a decade ago this once secretive nation made its first steps in becoming a future football superpower.
Big-budget clubs with uber-rich sponsors have started to attract some decent names from the west – and Didier Drogba (now returned to Chelsea) – to ply their trade in the massive stadiums that are sprouting up like big concrete mushrooms right across the country’s more populous east side.
They’re also luring the big names of old world football across for high-profile pre-season matches, and even got Brazil and Argentina to play what would have been the people’s World Cup final in Beijing’s beautiful Bird’s Nest stadium back in October.
But what’s the state of the game as you descend the pyramid? Thankfully a little less showbiz, as we discovered on our recent visit to see Beijing Baxy play Hunan Billows in the second-tier China League One.
Of course, practically everyone in China could direct you to the Bird’s Nest or the enormous Worker’s Stadium – home of the capital’s top-flight team Beijing Guoan. But could we find a single person who had even half an idea where Baxy’s ground was hiding?
Even the club’s website was somewhat vague in its directions. But after a couple of metro rides, a long walk and a lot of confused locals: “You want to see Baxy? Why?” we eventually tracked down the Chaoyang Sports Centre by the time-honoured method of looking out for floodlights – although we did nearly end up at an industrial rail yard along the way.
As we’d hoped, the stadium was a treat. Part of a massive sports complex, it was built mainly to host the 2006 Junior World Athletics Championships, and acted as a training centre for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. It looked as though that was the last time it was swept.
Another thing you’ll find common in China, along with the sparse directions, is the last-minute time changes of events, so we found ourselves two-and-a-half hours early at a ground in the middle of nowhere. But that did give us the rare opportunity to watch the stadium wake up. And what an unexpectedly excellent show that was.
After the traditional lap around the ground, we arrived at the main gate to see the security crew arrive en masse. A raggle taggle gaggle of skinny lads in rather fetching blue and brown camo jumpsuits lined up in front of the ground, their clearly long-suffering boss, a Captain Snort type in aviator shade, shouted at them a bit, then brought out their equipment for the day, which was frankly terrifying.
Half of them were given huge eight foot poles with half hoops on them – clearly for pinning miscreants to the ground – while the other half brandished slightly shorter sticks with retractable straps around the end, of the kind you’d see a dog catcher use. Of course, all of this would have been a little more scary if the lads using them had turned up in respectable bovver boots, rather than the somewhat less troubling selection of espedrilles and orange suede moccasins they were wearing.
Finally, the ticket office opened and we paid our 60 Yuen (about six quid) to get in. Actually, when I say ‘ticket office’ I mean ‘a table behind a crash barrier with a lady selling a pile of tickets, popcorn, and extra large cups of water for 30p a go’. But it did the same job.
“You have to pay 30p for a cup of water, but ice cream is free. That’s my kind of civilised society”
As we turned to head for the entrance gate, we saw a massive queue beginning to grow. As we had an hour or so still to go, we thought we’d join it, just to see where it would take us. We soon noticed people dashing off from the front of the line with little tubs in their hands, and a minute or so later we discovered our eventual quarry. Ice cream. Free ice cream. Free rum and raisin ice cream. Yes, rum and raisin. For free (although they did punch a hole in the ticket to make sure we didn’t go back for more).
It turns out that the club’s sponsors are an ice cream company, so for every home match they clear out their fridges and pass on the joy to the masses. You have to pay 30p for a cup of water, but ice cream is free. That’s my kind of civilised society.
But that wasn’t our last obstacle to entry. Before we could finally make our way into the ground we had to pass two old ladies at a table. After a bit of waving and some Pidgin English being bandied about we discovered that there was a raffle ticket on our tickets, and that once entered into said raffle we would be in the hat for some top star prizes. Quite what those prizes would be – or indeed how we’d know if we’d won something – we never discovered. But it added an extra dimension of excitement to the affair to be sure.
Eventually we climbed our way to our dusty seat in this roomy 36,000 seater stadium. Now seasoned football travellers will be used to having to brush down their plastic seats before parking themselves down for the match, but this was something else. It were as if the creeping sands of the Gobi desert has been climbing their way up the terracing – although we suspect that in this case it was more to do with the long jump pit directly below our seats. Indeed, many of the more fastidious locals brought little brushes or bags of wet wipes along with them to make for a more hygienic sitting experience – which of course is a good idea when your club colours are mostly white.
Away to our right, and bang on the halfway line were perched the Baxy Ultras. Perhaps that description might be overselling them a tad, as they numbered about a dozen mostly overweight teens with mullets banging on a big drum – but boy could they make some noise despite their small membership. Now and again they’d try to engage the Hunan faithful in a bit of banter, but seeing as the Billows fans appeared to number only in the high single figures, their efforts fell a little flat.
While all this was going on, the tannoy was pumping out a delightful range of slightly-too-loud local Canto Pop songs. It’s a kind of high energy local oomph techno beloved of these climes and was setting the scene perfectly for the evening’s footballing delights when something a bit weird happened. I’m not sure if they changed the DJ, or if the current chap had decided to show off to all three of the European-looking punters in the park, but all of a sudden the lumpy Danish tones of Barbie Girl struck out across the echoey stadium. A little bit of Bad Boys Inc followed, and then it started to get really unlikely. “I’m sure that sounds like the start of Wham’s Last Christmas,” our lass remarked, before we realised that yes, that was actually the best selling UK number 2 record of all time playing out over the scratchy sound system. On a muggy, humid night. On the 27th of September. In China.
This was already fixing up to be one of the strangest evenings I’d ever had at the football, and the match hadn’t even started yet. But when it did eventually get going it wasn’t half bad. Both sides were made up mainly of Chinese players, with a smattering of journeyman Brazilians, Africans and East Europeans fleshing out the sides. The teams were sitting in fourth and fifth places in the table, and with about six games to go, both had an outside chance of bagging a promotion place, so there was everything to play for.
Baxy came out flying, but the Billows were difficult to breakdown. I’ll call them the Billows here, because their local name – Xiangtan – is a bugger to type. And of course, as is often the way when a team pile on all the pressure, Hunan scored late in the first half with a cracking set-piece header from a well-placed corner. The Baxy massive, who up until that point were a little sedate, suddenly perked up and got behind their team, and it wasn’t long before they bagged an equaliser.
The second half began pretty evenly, with both sides stringing together a lot of nice passes, but never quite threatening the goal. Baxy had, among their number, a mercurial Ghanaian called Godfred Karikari, and he looked as though he might provide some of the best moves, although he did tend to drift out of the match for the odd half-hour.
Later research proved Karikari to be a pretty interesting character, too. Born to a relatively well-off family, an early coach encouraged him to go and play in Hong Kong, and he hasn’t been back to his homeland since. He’s been away for so long that he now qualifies to play internationally for his adopted land, although lately he’s trying his hand in the more lucrative Chinese leagues.
Anyway, after a spell out of the action that went on for so long we’d forgotten he was still on the pitch, our Godfred picked up the ball lazily deep in his own half and started to go on a bit of a meander. He passed one hapless Billows assailant after another, zig-zagging in and out of the opposition like one of those dogs running through poles at Crufts. We were half expecting a fabric tunnel and a seesaw to appear, but instead he took the ball to the touchline and started to look a bit confused.
So bedazzled were his team-mates with his run that not one of them had bothered to follow him in. So, instead, he dropped his shoulder, slalomed to the corner of the box and absolutely tonked the ball into the top-right corner. It was genuinely the greatest individual goal I’ve ever seen with my own eyes – and I was there for Ricky Villa’s wonder goal for Tottenham at the 1981 FA Cup Final replay, so I know my spuds.
This goal pretty much drained any remaining fight from the visitors, and Baxy soon bagged another to make for a comfortable 3-1 win. After a slow start, it ended up being a pretty entertaining match, although it was such an amusing night from start to finish that the game itself almost didn’t matter. I mean, come on – free rum and raisin ice cream with your ticket? It’s like some kind of mental cheese dream come true.
Never did find out if we won that raffle, though.