(Note: I've lived overseas for nearly two years now. This, and the influence of a rather gorgeous Brit, have forced me to succumb to international peer pressure. From now on, football will refer to soccer, unless preceded with "American.")
I'd been warned to set my expectations low.
As Manfriend told it, the team was pretty bad. The fans were disinterested. We'd likely see more gratuitous selfie-taking* than worthwhile football.
Yet here we were, walking over to Beijing Workers' Stadium for the big game, Beijing Guoan vs. Hebei CFFC. The sidewalks had gone green — green shirts, scarves, jerseys.
"Geez, I didn't realize people got this into football here," I half-shouted over the noise of kids tooting game horns.
"They don't really," Manfriend replied. "It's more that it's something to do."
I nearly commented on that silliness — why get so decked out for a sport you don't care about? But as I opened my mouth, I stopped.
Hadn't I been (drunkenly) shouting at a Nuggets game without any understanding of basketball? Wasn't I (drunkenly) screaming, even when I couldn't see the damn puck, during that Avs game?
"Fair point," I muttered to myself.
I wasn't even sure why I wanted to go. I'm no die-hard football fan. I'm an American. It's not our way. Maybe I could chock it up to crossing off a Beijing bucket list item.
But as we clambered up to our cheap seats, it hit me: It was the atmosphere. I missed being in the stands, screaming at a team to win.
Shouting with the best of them about an early penalty shot, I clapped and snapped some photos. As the chants began, I struggled a bit. What they hell were they saying? But soon I had the basics.
"Guoan! Guoan! Beijing Guoan!"
Just me and a couple hundred of my new Chinese friends — all of whom couldn't get enough of the foreign couple. "Do they even know what's going on?" they seemed to ask with their staring.
Halfway into the match, I was exhilarated, despite Guoan's rapid deterioration. For halftime entertainment, they'd set up four tiny fields for a few local children's teams.
I quickly had my favorites and watched closely as they played. At their next score, I cheered — as did, to my surprise, a bulk of the nearby crowd.
"I'll give them this," Manfriend said. "They may not be dedicated fans, but they sure do know how to make a player feel good."
Hustling about their miniature pitches, a couple dozen local kids soon had the same attention from the crowd as the city's professional team did.
Sure, most people weren't the die-hards I'd known in America, but they were happy to cheer on anyone giving it their all, even the Hebei team as they took the lead, ultimately winning 4-1.
"Are they really cheering for Hebei?" I asked. Manfriend chuckled. "They just want to cheer, I think, and to see someone play well." Hey, like I said, no judgments here. I was just happy to cheer with the crowd.
* While all other assumptions were negated, there were definitely a lot of selfies, mine included.