Fans of fallen Chinese football champions forced to suffer in silence

Peter STEBBINGS
·3 min read

Fans of Chinese football champions Jiangsu FC say police have warned them not to protest or "make trouble" after the club's abrupt financial collapse, and describe themselves as angry, heartbroken and powerless.

Jiangsu said it had "ceased operations" after its backers, retail conglomerate Suning, who also own Serie A leaders Inter Milan, pulled the plug on February 28.

The club's sudden implosion came just over three months after Jiangsu won the Chinese Super League for their first domestic title and highlights wider problems undermining China's bid to be a leading football country.

Irate supporters have pledged to boycott struggling Suning.

A small group of fans were pictured on social media last week, their faces blurred, outside the Nanjing-based club with a banner reading: "Hot blood is hard to cool, defend the Jiangsu team."

Liu Yu, a member of a fan group of more than 400, said supporters also lobbied outside Jiangsu province's governmental sports office.

But they have now been warned by authorities against more protests, especially with the annual National People's Congress, China's legislature and biggest political event of the year, under way in Beijing.

"The police called the people in charge of fan groups and told them not to go there anymore because gathering is not allowed, so there's nothing they can do now," the 31-year-old accountant said.

Liu said that she has "a very strong sense of powerlessness" and can only stand and watch as the club she loves -- which was founded under a different guise in 1958 -- disintegrates.

Jiangsu FC have not officially disbanded but that appears certain to happen, becoming the highest-profile casualty among more than a dozen Chinese clubs to disappear in little over a year.

The speed at which Jiangsu went under, just over 100 days after the biggest triumph in their history, is especially hard to bear.

"I feel that something very close to my heart suddenly disappeared," said Liu.

Another fan, who did not wish to be named -- underlining how even football can be sensitive in Communist Party-ruled China -- backed up the assertion that "people in charge of the major fan clubs received calls from the police and were asked not to make trouble".

- 'Boycott together' -

Chinese state media has tried to cast Jiangsu's demise, which is expected to soon be followed by that of fellow CSL outfit Tianjin Tigers, as a chance for Chinese football to reset after the heady days of big spending on foreign stars.

Bereft Jiangsu supporters do not share that optimism but their opinions have been given scarce coverage in the heavily vetted Chinese media.

A Jiangsu supporter who asked to be called "Oscar" -- the name of the Brazilian who joined Shanghai SIPG from Chelsea for an Asian-record 60 million euros in 2017 -- went with friends to the club just after its bombshell announcement.

They were confronted by five security guards who stopped them taking pictures.

The 25-year-old said that he never trusted Suning and felt the soul of his club was ripped out when they took over in 2015 for 523 million yuan (now $80 million).

He mostly stopped attending matches in 2018 and instead went to see the youth team. When he did occasionally watch the first team, he refused to sing.

His scepticism about Suning was proved right, he said.

"Everyone knows it now," he added, calling the company's treatment of the club "disgusting".

"So everyone who used to support Suning has started to boycott Suning together.

"For some fans, perhaps for me, the team may be their biggest emotional support.

"It disappeared so suddenly."

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