Football is a big deal in Shanghai. But most fans are generally more interested in watching big European teams like Manchester United or Barcelona on TV than catching games in their own local Chinese Super League, which is pretty lame. It's much more fun to go to a real match, join in the chanting, and within a few years become a master at cursing in Shanghainese.
Thankfully Shanghai has plenty of people, so the local clubs still attract relatively big followings. Sports transcend everything, and you'll find everyone from students and airport baggage handlers to diamond traders at the games. Everyone has their team, and we're spoiled for choice in Shanghai. The Chinese Super League has 16 teams and three of them are in Shanghai – more than anywhere else in China.
Shanghai's Three Teams: Shenxin, Shenhua, and SIPG
Of Shanghai's three teams, Shanghai Shenxin are the smallest, and are a bit of a waste of space to be honest. They've moved stadiums four years in a row. This year they'll play at Yuanshen Stadium in Pudong on the east side, so if you're a Sharks fan or live in that neighborhood, perhaps Shenxin are the team for you.
For a more authentic Chinese football experience, you've got two choices – Shanghai Shenhua, who play at Hongkou Football Stadium on the north side, and Shanghai SIPG (formerly Shanghai East Asia), who play at Shanghai Stadium in Xujiahui on the south side.
Shenhua / 上海绿地申花足球俱乐部
Home: Hongkou Football Stadium
Shenhua are the city's original, old-school style team with the most fans and history, and their home matches have the best atmosphere in Shanghai. But they've also got a bit of baggage and are kind of the soap opera club of China. They paid huge, huge money for superstars Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka back in 2012, but it was all some ploy from the club's private owner to wrestle full control of the club from Shanghai town hall.
That failed, Didier and Anelka didn't get paid, they left suddenly, and Shanghai football lost an awful lot of face. That and the club's 2003 title was taken away for match-fixing, even though it took the Chinese FA over a decade to find out. So, Shenhua aren't universally popular. However, they are the team of choice for many football fans. Oh and they signed Tim Cahill this season. He's a pretty big star.
This time last year, Fortune 500 company Greenland Group bought Shenhua and renamed the club “Shanghai Greenland.” Although it's normal for clubs in China to bear the name of their owner, the fans were livid and mounted a massive protest at the first game of last season, sitting in silence for 19 minutes – one for each year of the club’s history. On the 19th minute, the entire stadium stood up and chanted, “Give us back Shenhua!” That night, Greenland’s big boss was there, as was the mayor of Shanghai – a massive loss of face all-round. The protests continued until the club agreed to change the name back. Shenhua fans are hardcore like that.
SIPG / 上海上港集团足球俱乐部
Home: Shanghai Stadium
Shanghai SIPG used to be called Shanghai East Asia until a big-bucks take-over last winter by Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG). They splashed the cash to bring in some big names, including former England national team manager Sven Goran-Eriksson and Argentinean midfield genius Dario Conca. There's a feeling in town that SIPG is the "new school" team – the cool one for the kids. Certainly they attract a lot of foreign fans with their convenient Xujiahui location. They don't have as big a fanbase as Shenhua, but it's growing and they have the passion.
More info about both teams on Shenhua and SIPG on Wild East Football.
Players To Watch
For Shenhua, look out for Tim Cahill who used to play for Everton in the EPL and New York RB. He’s the guy who scored that huge goal for Australia against Holland in the World Cup last year. Then there’s Gio Moreno, a tall, lanky Colombian, who looks lazy and wasteful, but can do amazing things like score with one leg wrapped behind the other while falling over. Shenhua sold all their best Chinese players, but local hero Cao Yunding is a great player on his day.
Watching A Game
Attending games is cheap and easy. Pick your team, then check the schedule on a site like Soccerway, or at the bottom of this article. Both teams usually play on the weekend, but occasionally they throw down on weeknights, too. Sometimes games get re-arranged though, so double check the club's Chinese schedule.
Shenhua's home Hongkou Football Stadium has its own stop on Lines 3 and 8, and SIPG's turf Shanghai Stadium is even easier - you can get off at Shanghai Indoor Stadium (Lines 1 & 4), Shanghai Stadium (Line 4), Shanghai Swimming Centre (Line 11) or even Caoxi Lu (Line 3) and follow your nose.
On match days, you can feel the atmosphere well before you get to the stadium. Hawkers on the street sell all kinds of gear, from whistles and horns to bootleg club merchandise. Remember: SIPG are red, Shenhua is blue. It's like bloods and crips. As you get closer to the grounds, you'll see groups of fans chatting in the streets or packing out the restaurants.
Neither team sells out their ground, and there are usually tons of scalpers hanging around the stadium. They will find you. Expect to pay 50–100 rmb per ticket, and don't be fooled by "VIP" tickets - you can sit where you like as long as you go in the right section.
Matches To See
In Shanghai, the best matches are games against Beijing Guoan (especially versus Shenhua, on July 15), Guangzhou Evergrande, Shandong Luneng, Hangzhou Greentown, Jiangsu Sainty, and of course, the Shanghai Derby - SIPG v Shenhua (May 9). That is definitely the game you don't want to miss. For bigger matches, tickets may be a little harder to get a hold of. In that case, you may want to have a friend help you book tickets online.
The Vibe At The Matches
Chinese people are stereotyped as shy and reserved in most situations. That is not the case here; the fans are insane. Shenhua have the oldest fans' group – the Lanmo, or Blue Devils. They stand on the north terrace at Hongkou Stadium and just wild out for the whole 90 minutes - singing, jumping, waving huge flags up and down, cursing the opposition fans and players, and going absolutely nuts when their team scores. They are the real deal. Think of all the passion you saw on TV and in the bars last summer during the World Cup, then multiply that by ten. Shenhua and Beijing Guoan have a bitter rivalry, and Shenhua fans burn Beijing jerseys after a Shanghai victory at these matches. SIPG also have their own fan groups and "ultras" areas with their own impressive repertoire of songs and chants.
The fans here don't drink as hard as in some countries, but mildly drunken behavior isn't uncommon. At Shenhua games, you can bring your own beer into the stadium if it's in an open-top container. No one minds at all, but bringing in cans or glass is forbidden and security is quite strict. While they don't sell alcohol in the stadium, the Family Mart next door does, and you can go in and out of the stadium as much as you like, provided you keep your ticket.
Shenhua fans burning a Beijing jersey after a victory
In the stadium, a lot of the songs sung by the fans are about Shanghai and a lot of the words are in Shanghainese. This is what football is all about, expressing your local character. But unlike some parts of the world, you're safe at a match here – unless your Chinese is good and you're easily offended by profanity. Anyway, the fans are friendly, and there's a surprising number of women at the game, too. It's a great way to make local friends – football is a universal language, and Shanghainese fans are always super-grateful and appreciative when foreigners come support their teams.
The social side of the games is one of the best things about the experience - seeing locals let down their hair and get into something which isn't about their job or family is really cool to see. Shanghai has its fake side, but there’s absolutely no one more real than the local football fans in this town.
Cameron Wilson, a.k.a. Shanghai_Ultra, is perhaps China's number one football fan. He blogs about the subject regularly on his site Wild East Football.
Photos by Micah Sittig and the author
Shanghai Football 2015 Home Game Schedule
Shanghai Shenhua @ Hongkou Football Stadium
March 21: Shanghai Shenhua vs. Tianjin Teda @ 7.45pm
April 11: Shanghai Shenhua vs. Chongqing Lifan @ 7.45
April 25: Shanghai Shenhua vs. Hangzhou @ 7.45pm
May 1: Shanghai Shenhua vs. Guangzhou Evergrande @ 8pm
May 17: Shanghai Shenhua vs. Guizhou Renhe @ 7.45pm
May 30: Shanghai Shenhua vs. Shijiazhuang Yongchang @ 3.35pm
June 20: Shanghai Shenhua vs. Liaoning Whowin @ 3.35pm
July 4: Shanghai Shenhua vs. Guangzhou R&F @ 7.45pm
July 15: Shanghai Shenhua vs. Beijing Guoan @ 7.45pm
July 27: Shanghai Shenhua vs. Henan Jianye @ 7.45pm
August 23: Shanghai Shenhua vs. Shanghai SIPG @ 7.45pm
September 20: Shanghai Shenhua vs. Shandong Luneng @ 7.45pm
October 18: Shanghai Shenhua vs. Changchun Yatai @ 7.45pm
October 31: Shanghai Shenhua vs. Jiangsu Guoxin-Sainty @ 3pm
Shanghai SIPG @ Shanghai Stadium
March 22: Shanghai SIPG vs. Guangzhou R&F @ 7.45pm
April 12: Shanghai SIPG vs. Beijing Guoan @ 7.45pm
April 26: Shanghai SIPG vs. Henan Jianye @ 7.45pm
May 9: Shanghai SIPG vs. Shanghai Shenhua @ 7.45pm
May 31: Shanghai SIPG vs. Shandong Luneng @ 7.45pm
June 19: Shanghai SIPG vs. Changchun Yatai @ 7.35 pm
July 5: Shanghai SIPG vs. Shanghai Shenxin @ 7.45pm
July 16: Shanghai SIPG vs. Tianjin Teda @ 7.45pm
July 25: Shanghai SIPG vs. Chongqing Lifan
August 16: Shanghai SIPG vs. Hangzhou @ 7.45pm
September 12: Shanghai SIPG vs. Guangzhou Evergrande @ 8pm
September 19: Shanghai SIPG vs. Guizhou Renhe @ 7.45pm
October 17: Shanghai SIPG vs. Shijiazhuang Yongchang @ 7.45pm
October 31: Shanghai SIPG vs. Liaoning Whowin @ 3pm