Is it sports fanaticism or political expression? International studies major Guanpeng “Sam” Wang ’18, an expert participant in ultras football fan culture around the world, has translated his passion for soccer into a senior capstone project on sports diplomacy—and a job with Copa90, the home of global football fan culture.
Sam Wang traveled over spring break to Peru, with the singular purpose to attend two soccer games in Lima. A diehard DC United fan, he frequently follows the team to away games, adding his voice and his energy to the thunderous crowd of his fellow ultras—football fans renowned for their ultra-fanatical support. He knows everything there is to know about the national teams of Argentina, England, Wales, Egypt, Jordan, Korea, and, of course, his native China.
“As for Chinese soccer, it’s a national embarrassment,” Wang exclaims. “They’ve only qualified for the World Cup once.”
But that hasn’t stopped him from promulgating the ultras soccer fan culture there. In 2010, Wang co-founded the ultras for Tianjin TEDA in his city of Tianjin and began blogging about the young team that has struggled to come to power. He has 180,000 followers.
“The Chinese people need this culture because our fan culture before was boring,” Wang says. “They would just sit and clap their hands very politely. There was no spirit. No pyrotechnics. No banners. Now, fans bring giant painted canvases to cover the whole terrace.”
This “terrace culture” is a national movement that Wang has almost single-handedly imported from the West.
“When you talk about ultras in other countries,” Wang says, “you’re not talking about soccer itself. You’re talking about identity. It’s a way to express political standings. This is something the Chinese people need. In China, there are not so many places we can express political standings. So the ultras movement is a powerful force.”
Wang explains that the ultras movement first began in Italy after World War II.
“Teenagers needed a way to express their political standings. They used the soccer terrace to display their collective identity. It’s kind of like rock and roll,” he says. “This culture came to China very late.”
Now, the Chinese government is capitalizing on the movement to boost national morale. In his senior thesis, Wang likens it to the “ping-pong diplomacy” of the early 1970s, which marked a thaw in the Cold War.
“I was curious why our government would use sports as a political tool,” Wang says. “I started digging into the history, visiting archives in China and researching historical documents and academic works. I learned a lot from my research.”
It’s knowledge he can draw on in his role as a guest writer for Wild East Football, a London-based media outlet about Chinese soccer, and his work for Capo90, a football media company with offices in London and Manhattan. The company produces documentaries about soccer fan culture around the world, as well as a print magazine.
For Wang, soccer is a universal language, with the power to unite people of all backgrounds. It has helped him make friends around the world. Soccer has taken him to France, Mexico, Japan, and Vietnam. It also builds community. After Wang became a DC United fan and joined the local ultras group, two members of that group traveled to China to support his team.
“Soccer is also the reason I fell in love with the Latin American culture,” he says. “Here at Washington College, the Latin American community knows me because I love their soccer culture. If I meet someone from Ecuador or Argentina, I often know more about their soccer team than they do. When you go to a new country most people focus on the difference, but it’s the similarity that’s more important to me. When you go to the soccer stadium, you are chanting with them.”
Wang says that he’s “pretty sad” he’s about to graduate, but he’s eager for the next chapter to begin. For Wang, that includes a full-time job with Capo90, graduate studies in London focusing on sports management, and cheering on soccer teams around the world.
“If there’s anything I learned, you have to do whatever you’re passionate about. Then you can do better than you imagined,” he says. “People fall in love with this culture. My local team is really bad, but I will always love them.”