4 China soccer experiences to expect when dating Chinese men who love the sport

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.

(photo by Chris Brown via Flickr.com)

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)

(Source: http://www.cqnews.net/)
(Source: http://www.cqnews.net/)

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 national soccer team (photo by Albatross2147 via wikimedia.org)

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.

Still intrigued? Watch the video for yourself (on Youtube or this China-based site) and see if you find this as hilarious as John and I do.

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.

John, showing off his soccer form (and Argentina warm-up jersey)!
John, showing off his soccer form (and Argentina warm-up jersey)!

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. 😉

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28 Replies to “4 China soccer experiences to expect when dating Chinese men who love the sport”

  1. Joss,

    Yan and I enjoyed reading the post. I caught my first two games of the 2014 Cup yesterday, happily watching Messi deliver Argentina, and then watching Germany just barely not lose. Is John a big Argentina fan? Many Chinese in Pittsburgh, including my wife, are (so I am by extension).

    Also, what is the 汉字 for the “head-ball team” name?

    1. Glad you’re enjoying the World Cup! Nice to hear that your wife is a fan — so clearly, the women are also pulling in new fans to the sport!

      Head-ball team in 汉字 is 头球队. John uses it to describe any soccer team that isn’t skillful (especially the ones that seem to rely on tall players over actual talent on the field).

  2. When it comes about soccer I always feel like I let Chinese people’s expectations down.

    You see, I am Italian, therefore I am supposed to be n.1 football fan since I come from the Mecca of football (or at least a lot of Chinese seem to think so). Especially now during the World Cup, everyone keeps asking me about it. It is like the Italian passport implied a direct obligation to love football.

    Truth is that thee is nothing I find as boring as football. I blame it on growing up into the soccer-obsessed Italian society and on the big fuss my compatriots always create around every single match.

    It is now easy to be an Italian in China during the World Cup if you don’t care about it at all 😉

    1. @marghini, wow, I’ll bet that must be very difficult to have that expectation put upon you. That sucks.

      Your comment is a reminder that you can’t generalize about these things. Like, people are surprised that I’m an American and happen to like the sport — just as people are surprised to learn that you’re Italian and don’t care for it.

  3. Joycelyn it would be interesting when one day US plays against China. Which team are you both going to support? Against each other with no love? lol
    I am glad neither China nor HK has got it to the finals so my Aussie wife is still loving me. 😛

    1. If the US played China, gosh that would be tough! I think I would just try not to get too emotionally involved in it — and hope for the best for both sides.

      So I’ll bet your Aussie wife would not be a fan of Huang Jianxiang after his comments in 2006 about the Socceroos.

  4. Not a sports fan at all, not even of American football. I grew up in a home where my family don’t really care for any sports. (Only exception being when Russia and Israel had a match against one another? Soccer one I think? And my dad rooted for Israel.) I think my Korean ex was kind of into sport, at least I heard of World Cup from him haha. But that’s about it I suppose.

  5. Well I have the same problem as Marghini… I am from Spain and I couldn’t care less about football haha. In my whole life I have just watched 2 complete games: the Eurocup final in 2008 and the World Cup final in 2010 and just because my friends/colleagues were all there and it was more like a party… but I think it is so boring! Well, I think watching any sport is boring.

    My bf doesn’t really care about football so no late nights or early mornings in our house, haha. But I have a Hongkonese friend who is a die hard fan and he’s late for work every day because he stays up until late watching the games! Luckily he’s the boss in his company so he’s not really in trouble…

  6. I can totally understand why you and marghini wouldn’t be into it. Actually it kind of reminds me of my own experiences w/ the NBA and even American football and baseball. I’m not really into any of them at all. Whenever anyone hears I’m from Cleveland, Ohio, here in China they’ll immediately mention the Cavaliers (which I don’t follow). So yeah, I know the feeling.

    That’s funny you have a friend late for work every day b/c of World Cup! But yeah, at least he’s the boss, it makes a difference! When my husband cut work in 2002 to watch World Cup, his boss docked him pay for all the missed days (he only cut to watch the games China was playing in…but given it was the first time China ever qualified and he was an excited fan, can you blame him?)

  7. The graveyard thing afflicts us here in Bolehland too.

    This morning, I was just sore that the bald fellow gave the match away so needlessly to Portugal at the very last second of the game! Otherwise, the US team would have qualified for the next round. Such cavalier play does no team any favour.

    Portugal is not a good team, notwithstanding Cristiano. I much prefer Messi who, unlike the C fellow, picks himself up with a smile and gets on with the game whenever he is brought down. In a similar situation, C would pout and make a theatrical show as if a grave injustice has been committed against the game of soccer itself! And given half a chance, this guy would nosedive for a penalty! His only redeeming feature is that when it comes to taking a free kick, Beckham looks like a poor bender in comparison.

    I have no favourite team this time around. England never looked like they were made out for the World Cup. They thoroughly deserve the early boot.

    I think three teams deserve to lift the World Cup – Germany, Holland and Argentina. Sorry about Brazil, though they are always the most supported team in the world. Nah, not for me. I am always for the underdogs. Good thing that I don’t place wagers…haha..or imagine how much I will lose if I did!

    It is sad that despite the huge number of people, China can’t even find 11 guys to play ball. Otherwise, the Chinese team would be one of the teams I would cheer for.

    The Asian teams in participation in this World Cup look like pale shadows of their potential. Iran did hold on for a long time against Argentina because of their tight 4-4-1 , 4-4-1 formation, but in the end you just can’t hold out against the genius of a Messi.

    World Cup madness is in full swing here too, and a lot of the hard core fans will report late for work or take unofficial leave. Quite a number of these will also lose financially, from betting on the games with the “ah longs” (notorious illegal money lenders) going after them for their pound of flesh and more! Some will even go bankrupt! That is the extent of the soccer folly a large section of the Malaysian soccer fanatics are blighted with. Guess that is okay to them – its once every four years lah!

    1. oops, should read 4-1-4-1 formation. My mind was spinning and the figures were dancing around my nose from some lack of sleep. Now about to watch the live match between Brazil and Cameroon. Tomorrow won’t be able to have the same luxury.

    2. Wow ordinary malaysian, you are a hardcore fan! I’m impressed with how you noticed the formations and everything! Also fascinating to hear about the World Cup madness going on in your neck of the woods!

      Agree about the US-Portugal match, a total bummer. And you’ve definitely pointed out the teams I also see as strong this time around. Add to the mix France. What about Brazil and Costa Rica? I’m wondering if our Latin American friends will fare better in this World Cup because they have the geographical advantage?

  8. John is wearing Argentina’s shirt! He has good taste in football, yes yes ~~~
    In Argentina, “soccer” is like air to us. Everybody knows about it, there aren’t many people that don’t like/don’t care about it. And when Argentina plays, believe me, world stops. At school, teachers put TVs and everybody /children included of course/ watch the matches; at work, the same; people gather in bars, and don’t you dare ask the waiter something, because he is watching it too. Last Saturday, I was in university. Argentina played at one o’clock, we finished 1:30, and my friends and I went to watch the match in the university cafeteria, which is never open on weekends /mind you, it’s really small, more like a bar/. But of course, there were a lot of us that had class and didn’t want to miss the match, so we watched it together. It was an amazing experience to me, I always watched in my house, so I really loved being able to share something that is so much ‘us’ with other people I didn’t even knew, drinking beer and mate.
    One anecdote: I have friends studying in Taiwan, born here but of Taiwanese parents. They just couldn’t stand how Taiwanese narrated the match, they said they weren’t focused and kept on telling stories. So now they go to an Argentinian bar when our team plays 😛
    So, to my country, it’s really important, because of the passion, and because it means sharing something with your friends.
    On the other hand, my Chinese boyfriend, born and raised here, couldn’t care less about it : / However, I don’t mind it. If I’m at his house and there is match, I’ll just go to mine 😛

    1. Thank you! I’d like to think my husband has outstanding taste in soccer! 😉

      Sounds exciting to enjoy soccer in Argentina! And with Messi as one of the biggest soccer stars ever, you have a lot to cheer for! At least this time around we don’t have Maradona mucking things up. I thought Argentina had the chance to take the World Cup last time around and his coaching seemed to be the downfall of an otherwise strong team.

  9. Oh the irony, I was reading your blog post during the US vs. Portugal game yesterday. My Chinese BF has spent all spring getting me up to speed with US Basketball (oh his beloved Miami Heat were so disappointing in the finals) and now has been tutoring me in World Cup soccer. While I usually still can’t tell when someone is off-sides or not and can’t tell the difference between a legal hit, a foul and a yellow card offense, we do have a terrific time together!

  10. I have never been a real football/ soccer fan (isn’t a better name for American football more like American Handegg?), however I always watch the World Cup and the Euro Champs.
    Basically I have no interest at all in the normal games but these big games are very interesting for me, resulting that I watch as many games as possible. Especially the games Germany participates I have to watch but this is probably because I am myself German…

    I am always surprised how bad China performs in this sport, some Chinese friends (football fans) told me that all Chinese players are more like Diva’s, trying to get as much attention in public as possible but dont really care about the sport (can’t comment on that as I have no idea about it)

    1. Ha ha, love that! “American handegg!” It does look like that, doesn’t it? Or the Chinese version works great too, “Oliveball” (since it looks like an olive).

      The big games are fun, sometimes way more so than the regular soccer season. World Cup is like a huge world war (but in civilized form)!

  11. I don’t watch basketball games anymore and I don’t have any temptation to watch basketball/football/soccer etc. I used to watch it all the time. After 2 broken ankles from playing basketball tournament , I quit basketball. I normally don’t watch people play the game because I only want to be in the game myself. One time, I jumped above the rim for a jump shot and made the shot while landing on the opponent’s foot.

  12. I always enjoy watching soccer (I was one of those girls who played in the little leagues) but since none of my close friends are into it, I don’t go out of my way to see the games. I am hoping to watch US v. Germany tomorrow, but we’ll see. It is very late!

    1. That’s cool you played in the little leagues! I’ve thought about watching that game too, but I think it’s going to make me too nervous! As much as I know the US isn’t strong enough to take the World Cup, I still kind of like to see them win and have a feeling that may not happen during that game. So I’m going to catch Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo instead.

  13. Hi there!!!!

    I happened to google a few hours ago, “Why do Chinese people like soccer so much?” and your blog appeared in the search results. As someone of Mexican descent and very interested in Chinese men, I was extremely ecstatic and downright giddy with the fortune to find another foreign woman who finds Chinese men sexy as well as the links to the other foreign women that are either married to a Chinese men or are dating. I have bookmarked your blog and will continue to read it dutifully in the hopes that, I too, will find my Chinese husband in the near future. 😉

    Wishing you all the best,

    1. Thanks for stopping by Elizabeth! So cool to meet someone else in the community! Look forward to seeing you around here and wish you luck in finding a wonderful guy here in China. 🙂

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