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THE WORD SHANGHAI is written with two characters in Chinese: 上 (shang) and 海 (hai). The first one means “above”, while the latter stands for “sea”, giving a quite obvious hint about this metropolis’ location. Despite this, Shanghai’s downtown, with its bright lights and vertiginous skyscrapers, is not particularly close to the Yellow Sea, resting on the Huangpu River instead. Though a rivulet if compared to the Yangtze, it runs through the heart of the megalopolis, providing an adequate mirror for the magnificent cityscape to look at itself.

On the riverside, more precisely at 18 Zhongshan East Road, one’s sight is struck by a majestic English-style building which hosts the Bar Rouge on its seventh floor, a required stop for everyone spending a weekend in China’s biggest city. Its most remarkable feature is definitely the terrace facing Lujiazui, a little peninsula formed by a bend of the Huangpu. Lujiazui’s soil is where some of the most impressive buildings on earth have sprouted like flowers in the last 20 years: the Oriental Pearl Tower, the Shanghai World Financial Center, the Shanghai Tower, just to name the most iconic ones.

Their silhouettes can all be contemplated from the Bar Rouge while sipping a Martini, at least until the city’s government shut the lights off for the night, a thing that usually takes by surprise those coming here for the first time. Despite allowing customers to take a glimpse at the rumbustious life of the city, with its ant-like dwellers, barges sliding down the river and eye-catching artificial panorama, the terrace can’t do anything to provide a football enthusiast with a satisfying view, as there’s a thing that really can’t be seen from there: the Hongkou Stadium. The venue is home to Shanghai Greenland Shenhua, the team which, together with the red-shirted Shanghai SIPG, gives life to the fiercest derby in China at least twice a year.

Typically, when talking of derbies, we deal with two teams whose roots can be traced back to the first decades of the 20th century or even before, with supporters handing down the passion generation after generation for many decades, proud to show a loyalty first displayed by their fathers or grandfathers. To cut it short, this is not the case with Shanghai, as the first time Shenhua faced SIPG was in 2013. Does this imply a match with no stories to recount is completely devoid of emotions, incapable of making people feel like they intimately belong to one side or another? Not at all.

Just like older derbies around the world, the Shanghai one is fascinating because it’s deeply intertwined with the social fabric of the city. To understand how is this possible with a fixture born just a few years ago, taking a step back is absolutely essential. Examining what lies at the origin of the Shenhua versus SIPG clash provides a chance not only to better understand Chinese football, but also to peep into the history and the social habits of the most populated country in the world.

The history of Shanghainese football is a long one. Back in the 19th century, when many coastal cities were occupied by westerners that took advantage of Chinese ports for their wealth and strategic position, Shanghai was one of the first places where football started to be played, second only to Hong Kong, where British presence was even more prominent.

The city’s football environment grew big in the first decades of the following century, and Chinese men promptly joined foreigners in playing the game. There were many squads back then, competing in a local league and attracting copious crowds from time to time, so fan bases started to develop around teams representing a particular district or university. Although most of the sides were still largely made up of westerners, football was slowly taking hold among the locals.

On 1 October 1949, after defeating Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists in a three-year-long civil war, Mao Zedong appeared on Tiananmen Square in Beijing to proclaim the birth of the People’s Republic of China. It was the onset of the communist era and, for football, it meant a revolution. The game became just another part of the new highly-centralised economic system and, like every other thing in the country, it had to serve Mao’s plan of establishing a socialist society. As such, city tournaments and club-like teams were brought to an end.

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What the People’s Republic needed was to strengthen its recently-obtained unity, and squads like those managed by foreigners – who, by 1949, had left the country – were not the right choice for the regime. Accordingly, it was decided to create some teams administered and subsidized by the Party, linked to enormous geographical areas rather than to a city or a neighbourhood. The fate of Shanghai was to become home to the East China team which, as their name suggested, catered to the football needs of a big region lying to the east of the country.

With the absence of a true national league and professionalism still not formally recognised, the few existing teams could only compete in the National Games held yearly in one city, for a period up to a couple weeks. It was a round-robin affair and obviously, given the widespread poverty and the Soviet system that bound every citizen to his working unit, it was not possible for people to travel across the country to watch the tournament, nor did they have much interest in doing so.

Luckily enough, Shanghai was one of the big cities regularly hosting the National Games, and its inhabitants kept having the chance to witness some matches from time to time. This led people to preserve some kind of link between the city and the squad, even if, with the hardships encountered after the failure of the Great Leap Forward policy and the fear running through the streets after Shanghai became one of the core points of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, people frequently had other things in mind than football.

Mao left the scene in 1976, escorted to the great statesmen’s paradise by the tears of a whole nation. Deng Xiaoping, after getting rid of Hua Guofeng, the heir chosen by the Great Helmsman, took power in 1978, starting his project of reform and opening to the outer world, which brought market rules inside China and finally put an end to its condition of complete isolation.

A great fan of the beautiful game, Deng Xiaoping started thinking about welcoming capitalist principles into football and, by the mid-1980s, private enterprises started acquiring some teams. The trailblazer was Baiyunshan Pharmaceuticals with the purchase of Guangzhou, from then on known as Baiyunshan Guangzhou, and nowadays coached by Luiz Felipe Scolari under the name of Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao.

In 1994, with the launch of China’s first professional championship, named the Jia-A League, every team was encouraged to seek financial aid by itself, without relying on the government anymore. This prompted the acquisition of already-existing teams by privately-owned companies, as well as the constitution of brand new clubs.

China’s new football policy had calamitous consequences on the fandom, as teams started to change name and even location in order to chase good sponsorships. Imagine Liverpool being relocated in the West Midlands and being called Birmingham Coca-Cola overnight. Even the most affectionate Kop-dwellers would probably have some issues in feeling love for this new team. This is exactly what Chinese football enthusiasts have been witnessing since the 1990s, with the consequent lack of deep European-style engagement in most cities, with few exceptions.

One of these exceptions is surely Shanghai, where the East China team had been granted permission to take the name of the city as early as 1957, becoming one of the most successful participants at the National Games. In 1993 the Shanghai team signed a deal with a local company called Shenhua and, accordingly, delved into the professional era with the name of Shanghai Shenhua, claiming the 1995 title under the guidance of former national team coach Xu Genbao, a key figure who, later on, will pop up again in Shanghai derby’s history.

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Back then, there were no derbies or disputes between different-coloured supporters in town but, as Deng Xiaoping’s free-market rules kicked in, the situation was about to change.

In 1994, another team had been founded under the name of Shanghai Dashun, rechristened as Shanghai Yuyuan two years later to evoke the dream-like garden located in the middle of the city. On 1 April 1996, the first ever Shanghai derby took place when Shanghai Yuyuan faced Shanghai Pudong, a club that had been founded the previous year. This happened in the Jia-B League, the second tier of Chinese football, and the atmosphere was far from that of a proper derby, given the fact that the teams involved had amassed just three years of history between them.

The dream of a Shanghainese top-tier derby became reality when, in 2002, Shanghai Pudong entered the Jia-A League after having changed its name to Shanghai Zhongyuan. Initially, the rivalry was not as bitter as one would expect. Shenhua had hitherto been the only top-tier club in Shanghai, and there were no real divisions among local football enthusiasts, as the great majority of them just supported the old team.

To try and gain some support, Zhongyuan made everything possible to build an aura of authenticity. They wore blue jerseys with a red-and-blue crest very similar to those of Shenhua and, to add some spice, started signing Shanghai-born and raised players from their city rivals, like Qi Hong and Shen Si, plus Fan Zhiyi, another citizen who had played for Shenhua until 1998 before moving to Crystal Palace and Dundee.

Shanghai Zhongyuan was renamed Shanghai International in 2003, and what was the first Chinese top-tier derby went on until 2005, in a match that became more heated every time. The development of Chinese football, with teams appealing to fan bases as large as entire regions in the pre-professional era, and clubs continuously changing name and location from the 90s onwards, had created a singular kind of supporter, characterised by a very loose sense of loyalty and for whom it was completely normal to switch teams during a lifetime, or even to support two at once. It’s for this reason that Shanghai International, with its fresh appearance and big investments, started to steal a part of Shenhua’s fandom, especially among those particularly disappointed by the lack of recent success.

The Shenhua versus International derby became one of the most anticipated fixtures in the country, usually paired with disputes over the right to represent the city, plus some healthy hatred toward players who made the move from one team to another. In 2003, the already-escalated rivalry was brought to the eyes of the whole nation as the two clubs battled until the end for the title, which was eventually won by Shenhua with 55 points, with International finishing a single point behind. Nevertheless, Shenhua would be stripped of their second title 10 years later for match-fixing, in a campaign which brought the arrest of several former players and officials.

Despite the encouraging results, International’s ownership couldn’t keep up with the initial spending spree. Results started to slip and, despite a solid fan base built up from nothing, it still couldn’t match that of Shanghai Shenhua. With these problems, plus the threat posed by Shanghai Zobon, a newly-created team that had joined the fray in 2005, the decision was taken to move Shanghai International to Xi’an in 2006. Zobon would only last two seasons, as it would merge with Shenhua in 2007, leaving no trace in the name of Shanghai’s oldest club, nor any derby to watch in the world’s largest city.

In the meantime, the Genbao Football Base, a football school founded in 2000 by former Shenhua manager Xu Genbao, had turned into a formal team in 2005, with the name of Shanghai East Asia. They competed in the Chinese third tier during the 2006 season, exclusively fielding players aged between 14 and 17. Genbao’s kids made it to the second tier in 2007, earning the nickname of “China’s Manchester United” in the process. At the end of the 2012 season, they won promotion to the top tier, which had changed its name from the Jia-A League into the Chinese Super League in 2004. The Shanghai derby was ready to start again.

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In fact, Nanchang Hengyuan had moved to Shanghai at the beginning of 2012, even if in the remote district of Jinshan and, in doing so, they had technically given life to another derby. The newly-arrived team had taken the name of Shanghai Shenxin but, as it’s not hard to imagine, enjoyed very scarce favour among the locals. The club even used to pay its former supporters from Nanchang to come and watch home matches in Shanghai, and they were occasionally joined by some nostalgic Shanghai International fans with anti-Shenhua sentiments.

In the end, given Shenxin’s distance from downtown and its lack of widespread consensus, the game with Shenhua failed to develop into a deeply-felt derby, a task that was eventually left to Shenhua versus East Asia, especially when they became the only top-tier teams in town due to Shenxin’s relegation in 2015.

During their second-tier years, Shanghai East Asia managed to attract quite the fan base, lured by a breed of spectacular youngsters. Several of them eventually turned into some of China’s finest players, like Wu Lei and Zhang Linpeng, the latter known as “the Chinese Sergio Ramos” or simply Zhangmos, if you prefer.

In 2013, East Asia secured the financial support of Shanghai International Port Group, initially retaining its original name but switching to Shanghai SIPG in 2015. Shenhua, on the other hand, was bought by the Greenland Holding Group in 2014, becoming Shanghai Greenland Shenhua. It should be noted that, unlike the rest of Chinese clubs, the new owners decided to preserve the distinctive ‘Shenhua’ to avoid serious problems of authenticity and recognition among supporters.

Since 2013, SIPG and Shenhua have been giving life to one of Asia’s fiercest rivalries, and even to the first derby worthy of the status as such since the days when Shanghai International was still around. The first clash was on 23 April 2013, when Shenhua won 2-1 thanks to goals from Xu Liang and Giovanni Moreno.

From then on, the match has never failed to make the whole city focus its eyes on that mix of red and blue shirts battling on a green rectangle which goes by the name of the Shanghai derby. Every time, the city brims with anticipation and, even if getting a ticket is a mammoth task, wandering around the stadium before kick-off is an experience in itself. Stalls sell fake merchandise on every corner and touts look for latecomers with thick wallets, but what’s most exciting is seeing how the immense crowd can make a European forget about his idea that football is a young sport in China in the blink of an eye.

The truth is that this rivalry made it into the thinnest wrinkles of Shanghai’s futuristic body. Shenhua fans keep boasting about their long history and their being the first team of the city, as concisely indicated by the famous ‘Only Shenhua rep Shanghai’ banners and scarves. On the other hand, SIPG can count on a lot of people that once supported the city’s older teams, plus those who deserted Shenhua to embrace a new cause. Even the two chairmen hate one another, and often reserve only a few tickets to rival supporters on derby day.

With the arrival of superstars like Hulk, Oscar, Carlos Tevez and Fredy Guarín, the situation has only compounded, as Shenhua fans can barely tolerate that the johnny-come-latelies enjoy as much economic wealth as their club. Though it was born in 2013, the Shanghai derby’s roots stretch deep inside the metropolis’ social substratum like its western counterparts do, making it worthy of being described by the Chinese as a huoyaotong – a powder keg 

By Franco Ficetola