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Chinese Football League - Popular Sport or Middle Class Hangout? print version

After attending a football game of Shandong Luneng, the current leader of the Chinese Super League (CSL), it is still difficult to decide whether we are dealing with a passionate and colorful sport or a concert-like activity.

China's cities are changing tremendously. The middle class is becoming a more prominent consuming power wherever you go, and if we add to that the fact that there is a growing awareness to concepts such as environment cleanliness, more 'civilized' manners and improved facilities, then urban centers are not a place for low-class popular activity.The Chinese Football Association Super League (CSL, 中国足球协会超级联赛 zhōngguó zúqiú xiéhuì chāojí lián sài( has been initiated in its current format in 2004 (replacing the former Jia-A (甲A) League. Trying to follow the European standard, formally realized by other East Asian football associations, a new, more western product has been produced; new sponsors joined the game and the budgets of the teams grew significantly, allowing them to sign up better foreign players and well known coaches.

I attended a match of the Shandong Lǔnéng山东鲁能 last weekend. Like all the teams in the CSL, Luneng is called after the company which sponsors it, in this case the biggest supplier of electric energy in the province. With championship titles in 2006 and 2008, Luneng is one of the best clubs in the CSL. Currently the team holds the first position, with a 9 point margin over number two Shanghai Shenhua (上海申花), with 7 games remaining until the end of the season.

The current success of Shandong Luneng doesn't enable them to fill up the 40,000 seats in their wonderful stadium (though the pitch is too distant from the crowd if you ask me) in the center of Jinan (济南). Although their rivals was one of the worst ranked teams, the Shenzhen Ruby (深圳红钻), one could expect a bigger crowd would come to support the best team in China (about 6000 spectators were present), especially after it returned home from an impressive win in Beijing in the preceding weekend.


 Shandong Luneng fans cheering for the new CSL champions (photo by Gil Hizi)

Tickets cost 50-80 yuan, a price which more than implies that football in China is directed towards the middle class ands up. In the entrance to the gates classical music was played, keeping the arriving crowd in a very relaxed state. Flags and shirts of the home team (playing in dark orange) were quite abundant among the fans. The southern gates had even about a hundred 'ultra fans', standing and singing throughout the whole match, almost resembling the passionate football fans who could be found in stadiums in Europe, the Middle East or Latin America.

Perhaps it is the fact that Shandong Luneng will probably win the championship easily that made the crowd feel rather at ease. Even when Shenzhen led twice during the game (ending with the score 3-2 to Shandong) no significant tense was felt, even among most 'fanatic' fans. Swearing the referee and the opponent were quite frequent, but they were derived from a humorous playful sentiments and not real anger nor frustration.

Football matches aren't one of the most popular activities Chinese urban centers have to offer and their target crowd isn't extending to all classes of society. Still, there is no reason to neglect the middle class and its aspirations when determining which activities are adapted to the 'Chinese taste'.  Football matches within the Chinese Super League are another opportunity to for locals to taste a modern culture and to examine whether such 'football product' could connect with their passions.

For the official CSL site press here.

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