Photos by Darcy Holdorf
Germany is the most popular international soccer team in China. Beyond the immediate visual evidence—hordes of locals walking around Shanghai in knock-off replica shirts—we know this thanks to a survey conducted at the beginning of this year, and because thousands of Chinese social media users sided with Germany over any other team competing in the World Cup.
That survey, conducted at Coventry University’s Center for the International Business of Sport (CIBS), also found that Arsenal is the most popular club team in China. Again, all the shirts are a bit of a giveaway, as is this fan art of a stoic, horse-riding Lukas Podolski that's been plastered all over social media, and the fact that Shanghai goes fucking crazy any time Arsenal is playing on TV.
Last Friday, before heading to the German Center in Shanghai's Pudong district to watch Joachim Löw's squad play their quarter-final against France, I got some insight into this cross-continent support from Professor Simon Chadwick, director of the CIBS. “Support for Germany and Arsenal is closely linked,” he said. “The common denominator is the three players Ozil, Mertesacker, and Podolski. Ozil in particular is important, as there is evidence to suggest that he is something of an icon among certain fans in China.”
He might be an icon, but I still wasn't sure why. How come Chinese fans picked the German midfielder over, say, Guangzhou FC's Zhao Xuri, or Italy's Andrea Pirlo? Is there a solidarity in the fact that both Germany and China are bossing it economically in their own respective regions? Or was it perhaps because China's national soccer team is consistently terrible, having only qualified for the World Cup once, in 2002?
“Given the lack of international success by their own team, Chinese fans do look elsewhere for glory and achievement,” said Professor Chadwick. “At another level, many Chinese people often look to Western consumer brands when making consumption choices. Soccer teams in this respect are just another form of Western consumer brand.”
If Germany is just a brand, 34-year-old Feng Jiong Lin is practically a shareholder, buying into every aspect of the squad he possibly can. When I met him to get the bus to the game it looked like somebody at Germany's merch table had been using his body for a game of Mr. Potato Head.
Putting his flag and enormous drum aside so he could scrape the German flag in face paint across my cheeks, he explained that he’d been following the team for 24 years.
“I started supporting them during the 1990 World Cup; I was influenced by my father,” he said, before adding his own theory as to why Germany is so popular in his country: “Chinese girls have been thinking that the Germans are very good-looking, especially in the past few years.”
Feng’s wife Song Jie, a 34-year-old business journalist, proudly showed me a then-and-now picture of her family, with the recent shot next to one taken during the 2010 World Cup. “I’m afraid that if Germany loses my husband won’t be able to handle it,” she said, lowering her voice. “But I love being with someone so obsessive about the team. You’ll see his love and passion for them at the screening. When you see it, you’ll begin to love him, too.”
Arriving at the German Center, we all handed over 150 Yuan (about $24) to this man—a face you can trust.
That fee covered entrance to the screening, snacks, and free-flowing beers, to be poured into these specially made tankards while wearing these specially made German lei necklaces. Say what you want about its comedians, bureaucracy, and rap music, but Germany sure knows how to put together a night of regimented fun.
This is Yang Houqing, a 29-year-old sales worker who'd traveled more than 100 miles from the city of Changzhou to watch the match in Shanghai. “I like the toughness they show,” she said. “Chinese fans say they support their national team, but they’re not doing well, so fans find comfort, happiness, and satisfaction with other teams.”
She added that her favorite current player was Bastian Schweinsteiger, whose nickname is "little piggy" in China. “I’ve watched him play since 2005—we’re the same age,” she said. “It’s like we're growing up together, maturing together—like he’s keeping me company on the way.”
Once we were done discussing the conceptual relationship Yang has had with Bastian for the past nine years, it was time to line up for the national anthem. Feng’s mob draped their arms over each other, proudly clasped the flag, and moved their mouths a bit as "Das Lied der Deutschen" blared out of the speakers.
It was pretty bizarre to see this group caught in a moment of nationalistic tribute to a country they'd never visited.
I didn’t have to wait too long to see what Song Jie meant about her husband's passion for the German side. Mats Hummels’ header put them one up after 12 minutes, triggering a flurry of flag-waving and manic drum whacking, as Feng and the other supporters totally lost their shit.
Despite the whole build-up, I still hadn’t expected to see this level of emotion. I figured that perhaps the Coventry study and social media support were just pointing to a 2014 fad—a country backing a solid, reliable team in the absence of their own national squad. But pretty much everyone I spoke to told me they’d been following Germany for years, sometimes decades, giving misty-eyed accounts of the first time they saw Kahn, Klinsmann, Brehme, Matthäus, and the like on TV. Most said they supported Bundesliga teams, too.
This man, Jin Keng, a 35-year-old civil servant, took me aside during the match to show me pictures of the amateur team he plays for. Their team uniform is the full Germany kit—socks and everything.
“Most of us like Bayern Munich,” he said. “I’ve been supporting them and Germany since 1990. Germany fans are very loyal. If they lose tonight I will cry. Yes, actual tears.”
The final 20 minutes were tense, with France coming dangerously close to scoring and, in the process, shitting all over everybody's weekend. But Germany held out and secured their place in the final, prompting cheers of relief from the entire room.
Earlier, Professor Chadwick had told me, “Chinese fans are more discerning in their consumption choices than we might imagine. They chose Germany for particular reasons.”
When I asked the fans what those particular reasons were, I was offered a general mix of "strength," "discipline," and "great tactics." And I found it hard to disagree; Germany might not have the flair or beauty of what South America—and even a couple of European squads—have to offer, but they're dependable, and if you're going to invest a whole bunch of money and time into a country 5,000 miles away, you want to be able to count on the fact that you'll at least make it through to the semis.
"My job with the drum is creating a great atmosphere where everyone can join us and root for the national team,” said Feng, as the shuttle bus drove away from the German Center. “I can’t go to Germany in person, so all I can do is be here and use this opportunity to support my favorite team. As a Germany fan who can lead and create excitement, I feel proud.”
Jamie Fullerton is a freelance journalist who has written for the Times, the Sunday Times, the Independent, and other publications.