In mid-November 1995, our Star TV crew arrived in Chengdu for a relegation six-pointer between Sichuan Quanxing and Qingdao Hainiu. Whoever lost were as good as down, while a draw would probably condemn both. So everything, as they say, was at stake.
We loved coming to Chengdu. While we’d seen some good games elsewhere, and there had been decent crowds in a number of stadia, professional club football was still a new thing and the public were not always as invested in the product as one might have hoped. This wasn’t the case in Sichuan.
Sichuan had a reputation as a football hotbed despite a distinct lack of success. They’d been the twelfth and last team to qualify for the original Jia A in 1994 but had impressed with a sixth place finish and, more particularly, with their extraordinary crowds.
In this they were helped by the stadium. The Provincial Sports Centre is located right in the middle of Chengdu, which made it, in pre-metro days, the most accessible place in the city. It held 42,000 spectators and was always packed.
We’d filmed three matches there that first season. A young team with some talented individuals had overturned expectations, but 1995 was much tougher. When we arrived there were two matches left to play, and Sichuan needed to win them both to stand any chance of staying up.
Those games (which were both at home – the fixture list was a bit skewed because teams from the north-east couldn’t stage games after the end of October) have since come to be known as “The Battle of All Battles” among Sichuan cognoscenti. We could certainly sense the tension in the days leading up to the Sunday, and the stands were full long before kick-off.
Sichuan’s squad wasn’t as strong in 1995 – star midfielder Ma Mingyu had transferred to Guangdong after falling out with the manager and there was no longer a surprise factor to their tactics – but, as usual, they took the match to the visitors with one of their imports, Marmelo da Silva, tormenting the Qingdao defence. By half-time, they were a goal up; a penalty after the Brazilian had been felled in the box.
But any match that stays long in the memory must have a twist, a story that makes it stand out. Ten minutes into the second half, a clumsy attempt at a clearance left the ball spinning back towards the new Sichuan keeper, He Daqi. The back pass rule was still quite a new thing and, at the last minute, it occurred to He that he might be penalised if he picked the ball up, so he ended up caught in two minds. He tripped over the ball leaving it to a waiting Qingdao player who walked it into the net.
Almost before the crowd could register what had happened, Sichuan went ahead again, a scrambled half-clearance falling to young winger Yao Xia. This lead only last 45 seconds as Qingdao crashed in a shot from fully thirty yards. What had looked like being a fairly routine victory was now anything but. In the production room, it was all we could do to get the replays in the correct order.
Sichuan’s winning goal came with twenty minutes left, a Yao Xia shot from outside the box through a crowd of players, and it took the tension up a notch a two. Another, less fatal, defensive misunderstanding led to He Daqi being substituted after it was clear he was mentally shot, but Sichuan held on. At the final whistle, the reaction was borderline hysteria, especially once news filtered through that Liaoning had lost at home and Sichuan’s fate was now in their own hands.
Three hours later, once the TV equipment had been packed up and we could finally leave the stadium, I came out of the main gate to find hundreds of people camped out. They were going to stay overnight until the ticket office opened to guarantee their spot for the final showdown.
Indeed such was the demand for tickets it seems many more than usual were sold. The following Sunday, while we were in Shanghai watching the title being settled, it’s said that over 60,000 packed into a stadium designed for many fewer to watch Sichuan beat August 1st (Bayi) by the only goal and, as a result, stay up.
Over the next few seasons, it seemed from my vantage point abroad that Sichuan had kicked on. Some astute signings had led to a couple of third place finishes at the end of the century. But the club was built on sand.
Ten years after that amazing night, I found myself back in Chengdu working on, of all things, the World’s Strongest Man. One of my colleagues from a decade earlier was also in the crew and, when we discovered Sichuan had a home match scheduled which happened to coincide with an evening off, there was nowhere else we’d rather be.
Except things were now very different. For a start, the Sichuan club was no longer owned by Quanxing. Now, after two changes of ownership, they were Sichuan Guancheng. Also, they were not playing at the Provincial Sports Centre. That fortress had been abandoned in favour of the Longquanyi Stadium. This new venue had the advantage of being football specific, specially constructed to host the Asian Cup the previous year, but it was a long way out of town. A long, long way, maybe an hour by taxi, which was only realistic way of getting there. And the combination of remote owners and remote stadium led inexorably to the worst outcome of all. That evening, we watched Sichuan beat Shanghai Zobon in the company of perhaps two thousand distracted fans. Nobody cared anymore. At the end of the season, Sichuan Guancheng folded.
How had this happened? The fragile nature of Chinese clubs, of course, lurks as a root cause. The new professional clubs of the 90s were joint ventures between provincial sports authorities and local flagship companies. Quanxing, manufacturers of a particularly strong drink, fitted the bill. But not many companies have the deep pockets and, frankly, desire to support a club through thick and thin over many years. Financial priorities change, enthusiastic CEOs may be replaced by others with different interests and the club, without roots or long-standing fan base, can disappear almost overnight. When Quanxing withdrew in 2002, the new owners were Dahe Investments. Unfortunately, this company were part of the same group that controlled Dalian Shide, a conflict of interest so egregious even the CFA noticed. Another Chengdu company picked up the reins but by then the rot had set in and funds soon dried up. With the football of that era a deeply corrupt undertaking, and with far too many administrators involved for reasons other than sport, there was no saviour on the horizon and the club was wound up.
There were other reasons. Sichuan’s Sports Bureau doesn’t have a monopoly on football in the province. Chengdu’s city football association set up a rival club, Wuniu, which became a byword for corruption. Also, the province itself had changed. In 1997, Chongqing was hived off as a new municipality and the fans who had regularly made the trek north soon had their own club to follow when Qianwei, the former Wuhan Police team, chose the city as their new home.
Every sports bureau is responsible for developing new talent so, with quite a few youngsters emerging in the province, a new Sichuan club, Meilianshu, was formed with coaches and administrators drawn largely from the old Quanxing players. They had reached the second tier by 2008 and the next season I decided to include a visit to Chengdu in my schedule. It was an interesting contrast to 1995. The crowds were long gone and this was a club run on less than a shoestring budget.
The head coach was Wei Qun, the captain from 1994. Wei had been one of my favourite players, a gifted defender who always seemed to have time on the ball and who combined those skills with a feisty attitude that embodied Quanxing’s style of play. His habit of never taking a backward step has led to some rowdy incidents away from the game, including one in 1993 where he suffered a stab wound, but he’s fiercely loyal to Sichuanese football and that single-mindedness was almost the only thing keeping the show on the road.
The club had no money. The players shared a few apartments near a small municipal training field, and the catering was handled by Wei’s relatives (led by an aunt if I remember correctly). The players were youngsters who had come through the provincial youth system and, though they did try to sign the odd foreign player to help out, found the wages impossible to afford. They didn’t even have a proper stadium; matches were held at the football field on the Sichuan University campus, which had a stand on one side and nothing at all on the other three.
Oddly enough, the local football structure seemed in relatively good health by Chinese standards. There were plentiful facilities and players of all ages received coaching. Chengdu also had a thriving amateur league, one of the first set up under the Vision Asia programme, Indeed, Wei Qun coached the reigning champions, a club based on his local bar.
As for the match, Sichuan beat the Beijing Institute of Technology by the only goal. It was one of only four wins they achieved all season.
After their relegation, the picture seemed to get a little fractured. 2011 saw two Sichuan youth teams take part in the third tier. The better one relocated to Xi’an, the other stayed at Sichuan University. Then both vanished and a couple of new teams appeared in 2014, one of them apparently run by a twenty-something actress called Ai Ru. It didn’t last more than a single campaign.
I was last in Chengdu in 2016. The geography of the city has changed utterly and Shuangliu, pretty much a rural village with an airfield attached in 1994, is now a busy and crowded suburb hosting an international airport. It is also where the national badminton team has its base and I flew in the previous night from Beijing hoping to spend the day filming a few Olympians before taking the evening plane to London.
As it happened, the shuttlers couldn’t have been more helpful and I was wrapped by lunchtime. So what to do with a spare afternoon? Well, a few yards from the badminton facility is the Shuangliu Stadium which happened, that very day, to be featuring the latest Chengdu team in action. This was Qbao, a club induced by the city sports bureau to relocate from Nanjing the previous winter. Joining three thousand or so fans, I saw them lose an entertaining match to Jiangxi before rushing to catch my flight. They just missed out on the play-offs before discovering the owner of their eponymous sponsors had been a bit fast and loose with the finances. They withdrew for the 2017 season.
Four years on, the situation appears a little brighter. The 2019 CL1 entrant, Longfor, are no more but in their place, the second tier has two teams who will both, should normality ever return, play their matches at Longquanyi. That stadium is now on the far end of Metro Line 2 so, while not exactly convenient, it is at least accessible to the determined fan. Chengdu Better City are the reformed Qbao while Sichuan Jiuniu picked up the provincial baton in 2017 and, like Meilianshu, trace their ancestry all the way back to the original Quanxing. Like Meilianshu, they even wear the same yellow shirts.
Jiuniu have secured investment from the City Football Group; being associated with Manchester City could be a boon and help secure some decent foreign talent. Should they reach the CSL access to proper funding may enable them to compete with the big boys. Anyway, that is the dream. But, over the last quarter of a century, there have been lots of those in Chengdu and not many have come true.