This is a tale that seems like it’s set in a distant past – in a world of travel, of large crowds gathering, and not a mask to be seen. This was 2018.
I travelled to Suzhou in China to watch a football match between its national team and India. It was the first time that the Indian team had played in China; for me it was my second trip to the country.
From the perspective of 2021, it is a reminiscence of things I love and miss: football, travel, and the freedom they so often represent.
The confirmation email that concluded my arduous quest for a ticket came with a slightly unexpected message: “We wish you a happy life”. Quite a lot to ask of a ticket for an international friendly football match but I was pleased to be in possession of it.
The process of getting a visa for China did not result in a net overall increase in life happiness, though. I realised I would need a fast track application, so I filled in the forms that a medium-sized forest had been sacrificed for and paid the inflated fast track price.
The game was being played in Suzhou, which meant a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Shanghai followed by a bullet train. After a night in Shanghai, I made my way to Suzhou one day before the game.
It is a beautiful city with a charming old centre built on a small network of canals. It’s referred to as the “Venice of the East” – a slightly ambitious description on the part of the tourist board.
My taxi journey from the hotel to the stadium was a non-stop honking, lane-swerving, nerve-shredding experience. A large sign said “seatbelts must be worn at all times”. The seatbelt didn’t work.
In this regard it didn’t appear to be alone among arguably more important parts of the car. The horn was in fine working order and in China, it seems to serve as a substitute for indicators.
The roads surrounding the stadium were all blocked off by the police so the last mile was a slower but less stressful journey on foot.
My abilities with the Chinese language are limited (by which I mean limited to the non-existent) so I may have misunderstood what happened next but it seemed as though a couple of touts were trying to buy my ticket.
Having gone to such lengths to get my ticket and flown a considerable distance to attend the game, I decided to keep it and forgo the profit-making opportunity.
The stadium was impressive but in a modern, soulless way. It could have been in Singapore, Stockholm, or Seoul. And it lived up the Olympic in its title with a running track around it.
There are very few truly great football stadiums with running tracks. Stadiums only become great over time as they develop a history and memories, and provide a stage for triumph and heartache.
The players emerged to a warm welcome from the ultras and Beyonce’s Crazy In Love, one of the less likely collaborations for the pop superstar. Another American influence was the Ford SUVs on display behind either goal. The global game attracts global sponsors.
The game was still young when I realised that I was part of a very excitable crowd, but some of the initial excitement had worn off by the 15th minute. That’s when the first attempt at a Mexican wave began.
Mercifully it failed.
Football has lulls, periods when nothing much happens, and it’s just as well. Its highs are so high that they cannot possibly be sustained.
The game was interesting rather than enthralling but the guy sitting directly in front of me was quite entertained by it. He must’ve had some insider information (or been friends with the stadium architect) because he had brought along his binoculars.
At half time the game was still 0-0. China’s dominance was not reflected on the scoresheet but India were growing in confidence.
The break brought more revelations as I went in search of something to eat. The first kiosk I found wasn’t selling food; it was selling vacuum cleaners. I have not the faintest idea why.
Several people seemed quite interested and were apparently having detailed technical discussions with the sales people.
Eventually I discovered a huge queue for food I didn’t recognise. I might as well have been trying to buy a vacuum cleaner again.
Someone had a KFC box but alas I didn’t spot the Colonel so I returned to my seat empty-handed.
The pattern of the game in the second half was a close approximation of the first. Despite hitting the bar and a forcing a goal line scramble from a corner, China failed to make the breakthrough.
The final whistle brought a sense of deflation among the home support but they rallied to give the players an enthusiastic round of applause.
But the fact remained: I had travelled more than 4,000km for a 0-0 draw.
In the gents’ bathroom after the game I encountered a truly inspired sign: “One step forward for man is one step forward for civilisation”. Personally, I think it’s more than a single step forward for civilisation.
Outside the stadium I found a taxi surprisingly quickly. I asked the taxi driver if he liked football but he just looked at me across the chasm of an incomprehensible foreign language and smiled.
Or perhaps grimaced, it was hard to tell in the dark.