In my mind, soccer — also known as football — is synonymous with romance. That’s because it’s the relationships I’ve had in China (especially my marriage to John) that introduced me to the sport and made me a fan.
Who’d have thought that the woman who in 1994 had no idea the US was hosting the World Cup now has her own list of can’t-miss matches for this year’s World Cup in Brazil?
Before I came to China, and starting dating the men here, the World Cup — and, for that matter, the entire sport of soccer — was completely off my radar. I knew what a soccer ball looked like and had a handful of girlfriends who played in kids’ leagues growing up…and that was about it. In fact, when I first arrived in China in August 1999, the name David Beckham meant absolutely nothing to me.
All that changed in the fall of 1999 with my first relationship with a guy named Yao, where I spent part of my weekend evenings snuggled in his arms as we watched the English League soccer matches. He schooled me in the rules of the game, the best teams, and of course, all his favorite stars (including, of course, David Beckham). We even played the FIFA soccer video game together a number of times.
As it turned out, Yao was no exception. Every single man I’ve dated in China — especially my husband John — has been a big fan of the sport. In fact, John even famously cut work during the summer of 2002 just to watch matches. Yes, that big.
Now I’m not saying that every Chinese man here in China will go to that extreme for soccer — or even likes the sport. But there’s a good chance that any man you meet here will be a fan of some kind.
So if you’re going to fall in love with a fellow from the Middle Kingdom — and you’ve never been into soccer — get ready to experience a different kind of relationship with the sport (one with decidedly Chinese characteristics).
Here are four things you should know about soccer and Chinese men if your sweetie is a fan:
1. Get ready for some late night soccer time (including when you least expect it)
John often says, “Chinese soccer fans have the hardest time.” Take a look at the scheduling of the matches in Beijing time and you’ll understand why.
Essentially, China gets “the graveyard shift” of all World Cup scheduling. Matches start at either 12am, 3am, 4am or 6am.
My eyes are already going bloodshot just reading those kickoff times.
Chinese fans don’t even get a break during the official soccer season in the European leagues, where the games kick off late into the evening or after midnight or even in the middle of the night. Remember the UEFA Champions League Final last month in Lisbon? If you wanted the privilege of watching Ronaldo score goals in real time in China, you would have had to wake yourself up at 2:45am in the morning and then survive more than two restless hours before it was all over.
But anyone who knows China’s history also knows the Chinese people never flinch from a challenge — including when it comes to watching soccer matches. This is why as I write this, there are literally tons of sleep-deprived soccer fans scattered across China, including the really hard core folks who will stay up all night to catch World Cup matches. (It’s a dangerous occupation — three people have already died from staying up multiple nights in a row.)
Fortunately, John isn’t crazy enough to give up his life over some World Cup matches. But yes, almost every night he’s been catching the first half of the soccer games that start at midnight here. And because John is a morning guy (who, without fail, rises and shines sometime after 6am), he often catches the entire last game — if not most of it. And if I’m unlucky, his early morning matches snap me straight out of my dreams and into the hard life of a Chinese soccer fan.
The most infamous experience in our relationship has to be the Euro Cup matches during the summer of 2004 in sweltering Shanghai. Of course, John couldn’t miss the semifinal or final matches, which all started sometime around 3am or so. The flickering of the TV and the hum of the crowds in the background became the late night wake up call I never asked for. I remember mumbling something to the effect of, “What are you doing?” Up until that moment, I never knew that my husband would actually sacrifice part of his nighttime rest just to enjoy the excitement that comes when the announcer screams, “Goooooal!”
But then again, I’m just as guilty. Wasn’t I the one who dragged John out of bed for all of those early morning matches during World Cup 2010? And wasn’t I the one checking the score well after midnight the other night in the Argentina versus Iran match while John dozed away beside me? (What can I say? I’m a fan!)
2. You’ll learn the meaning of 2002 and the China World Cup soccer conundrum
China’s population exceeds 1.3 billion. So why can’t the country find at least 11 soccer players talented enough to get China to the World Cup finals every time? Call it the China World Cup soccer conundrum, which is something you’re sure to learn about if you date or marry a Chinese man who loves the sport.
John, bless his soccer-loving heart, still dares to watch China’s national team play in real time (usually followed by a string of expletives). I’ve learned all of his horrible nicknames for them (including his favorite, the “head-ball team”), and heard the frustration in his voice when they suffer yet another humiliating loss.
Of course, he’s told me all about 2002, the first time China ever qualified for the World Cup finals — and something you’re sure to learn about from any soccer-addicted Chinese guy. John sums it up in these four disappointing words: no goals, no wins.
Well, with any luck, your home country has qualified for this year’s World Cup finals (and hasn’t been eliminated yet). Maybe you’ll give him — temporarily — some other team to root for. (Sigh.)
3. Your mind will be filled with all sorts of hilarious anecdotes about China soccer that your friends back home will never understand
Huang Jianxiang, World Cup 2006. If my husband wasn’t a soccer fan or from China, this hilarious incident in the China soccer world would never have been on my radar.
It was the Italy versus Australia match on June 26 when CCTV sports commentator Huang Jianxiang went wild on the air during the last few minutes of the match (when Italy scored that decisive goal that allowed them to advance). Between his passionate chanting of “Long live Italy!” and “The great Italian left back” (plus his remarks about not giving Australia any chances), Huang put his own pro-Italian bias on public display. Showing favoritism on the job was a no-no by TV station regulations, leading to Huang’s suspension from working the following match. (He would resign from the station later in 2006.) Huang was unapologetic for his actions, and while some criticized his partiality, the stunt ultimately turn this already legendary soccer commentator in China into one of the most controversial figures of the World Cup that year. Incidentally, the best of his anti-Australia rant (including the “Long live Italy!”) became the must-download cell phone ringtone for Chinese soccer fans everywhere.
Even though this still makes John and me bust out laughing, it doesn’t sound nearly as funny when I have to explain the whole thing to you. Worse, my American friends in the US will probably give me extra blank looks because Americans think soccer is the world’s most boring sport.
4. You might just end up like me — another accidental soccer fan, thanks to my husband
I wouldn’t call John soccer-obsessed. But he stays up late (or wakes up early) for certain matches, knows the difference between AC Milan and Inter Milan, fondly remembers watching Maradona play in the 1994 World Cup, and still hasn’t given up on the Chinese national soccer team. He even owns three different jerseys and two pairs of soccer shoes to play the occasional pickup game, a legacy of his university years when he captained his department’s team.
In other words, he is a soccer fan for life. And when you spend time with a guy like that, it’s bound to rub off on you.
For me, it’s about learning to love a sport I never expected to love.
To think that once I had the US hosted the World Cup in 1994, and now I know all the big soccer stars from Balotelli and Messi to Neymar and Suarez. I own a T-shirt with US soccer player Landon Donovan’s name on it. Last year, my parents bought us tickets to a friendly match between the US and Belgium for my birthday. I even have favorite teams in this year’s World Cup: Italy, Argentina, Uruguay, France and of course, the disappointing Portugal and (sob) Spain. And let’s not forget that I’ve been checking some late night World Cup scores these days — and even once pulled a half-asleep John out of bed just to watch the World Cup matches in 2010.
I’d like to think the beautiful game is a little more beautiful when you can share it with the ones you love.
And besides, I’m not the only impressionable one in this relationship. Ever since I introduced John to birdwatching back in 2004, he’s now been the one pausing on walks in the parks in Hangzhou to catch of glimpse of a heron or coot.
It’s too bad, though, that our love — and the mutual love of soccer — doesn’t do a darn thing about those past-midnight kickoff times during this World Cup.
Ah well, you can’t win everything. 😉