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April 28, 2010

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'Football is my way of becoming part of the community'

SCOTSMAN Cameron Wilson says China's spirited football fans have received a bad rap. The Shanghai Shenhua's fan is a fixture behind the goal and even takes raucous overnight train rides for away games. Chris Brown reports.

A 34-year-old Scotsman, Cameron Wilson has immersed himself in a vocal but unappreciated Shanghai sporting community, armed only with a passionate interest in soccer.

Wilson is a regular fixture behind the goal at Hongkou Football Stadium, standing side by side with the Lan Mo (Blue Demon), hardcore supporters of Shanghai Shenhua Football Club. He has become something of a celebrity fan.

Wilson, a business journalist, first saw Shenhua play in 2001, when he was teaching English in neighboring Jiangsu Province. The time he spent in relatively out-of-the-way Jiangsu taught him the benefits of finding common interests with the locals.

"It's very easy to live the expat lifestyle in Shanghai - you can do anything here," Wilson observes, "but getting stuck in with everyday activities is the heart and soul of living abroad."

After a four-year hiatus in the United Kingdom, Wilson moved to Shanghai in 2005, and has been enjoying the Shenhua roller-coaster ever since. As the most devoted and prominent foreign fan, Wilson is well known on the terraces and occasionally featured by local media.

Wilson has witnessed a few turbulent years for Chinese football, with the national side slumping to ever-more-humiliating defeats, and the domestic leagues embroiled in ongoing match-fixing and bribery scandals.

Despite all this, more than 12,000 fans attended Shenhua's first home game on April 10, a 2-1 victory against local rival Hangzhou, with the thickset Wilson among them.

Shenhua has frequently competed for the championship title since the Chinese Super League went professional in 1994, but have only won it twice, in 1995 and 2003.

"People can say what they want about Chinese football, but there's nothing quite like standing in the heat of the action behind the goal at a live game," says Wilson, who also sees some excitement when he DJs around town.

But his love affair with Shenhua is about more than just watching the games. "Football is my way of becoming part of the community, doing something universal," he says. "The guys I've got to know are a really mixed bunch, and you can't find these people easily when you're just another foreigner passing through the city."

Among the fans he meets for hotpot before home games is a Pudong International Airport baggage handler, a watermelon farmer and a junior manager in the diamond industry.

"That's what football is all about," Wilson says. "Being with your mates as part of a little society - that's why I go."

Away trips to Beijing, Xi'an (Shaanxi Province), Nanjing (Jiangsu Province) and elsewhere, often on raucous overnight train rides, have helped Wilson build relationships with the Shenhua supporters, and he is nothing but positive about the people he has encountered.

"These guys support their team through thick and thin, in a society where football is roundly condemned" these days because of scandal and the image of out-of-control fans, Wilson says.

"Shanghai is a pretentious city, and it's refreshing to meet people who don't care about their image," he says.

Wilson is keen to challenge negative stereotypes about football fans, and says his contacts in the Lan Mo "are among the most open-minded people I've met."

He recalls the warm welcome given to a Japanese visitor at the usual hotpot gathering before a game in 2009 - "there was me, a Scotsman, this Japanese guy and dozens of Shanghainese, all sharing a common interest," he recalls.

Although Wilson says he's happiest when blending in with the locals, he is adamant that the team's fan base should reflect the community it plays in, and encourages foreign interest in local sides. "Shanghai is China's most international city, so its teams should have international crowds," he says.

There is certainly an international feel at the Shenhua stadium, as English-language signs and banners are draped across many of the stands.

And supporters have grown accustomed to seeing an international line-up on the field. More foreign signings have flooded in this season, including two Brazilians, a Colombian, a Syrian and a Cameroonian.

They are part of the new-look team presented by the experienced Bosnian Croat coach, Miroslav Blazevic, who led the Croatian national side to the 1998 World Cup semifinals.

Blazevic, 75, has been bullish about Shenhua's chances this season, and refers to the "universal language of football" to quell speculation about dressing-room communication issues.

Wilson urges caution, though, when it comes to the influx of foreign players.

"Many of Shanghai's recent foreign signings haven't been any better than the local guys - so they're not adding to the development of Chinese football," Wilson says, bemoaning the presence of just one home-born striker in the current squad.

Whatever his misgivings, Shenhua has made a promising start to the new campaign, winning three of their opening five games, though they suffered a disappointing home defeat to Chongqing last Saturday.

Wilson has revised his early-season prediction of a mid-table finish, allowing himself to imagine greater things, though with reservations. "You just never know," he concedes. "They're looking good, but they're also known for blowing it at the crucial time."

The affable Scotsman revels in the uncertainty, and is clearly at ease with his role in Shanghai life. He is writing a book about his experiences with Shenhua, and "certainly has no plans to leave the city."

Cameron Wilson

Age: 34

Nationality: UK

Profession: Business journalist


Description of self (three words): Honest, frank, sincere. Favorite place in Shanghai: The Shelter club. Strangest thing seen in Shanghai: Small white poodle with its ears dyed bright pink.

Worst experience in Shanghai: Mondays. Motto for life: Stay true to yourself. Things that could improve Shanghai: Stop doing things like knocking down bustling food street Wujiang Road and replacing it with soulless stuff like Starbucks.

Advice for newcomers: Find local friends with common interests. It's natural when you arrive in a foreign place to seek out fellow foreign company, hit up the bars every weekend, get up at lunchtime next day. That's normal, but after a while consider branching out a bit once you have found your feet.


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