The Story of SIAFL: Shenzhen’s Top Football League For Foreigners

Football is an important part of many foreigners lives and that doesn’t change for them when they move to cities like Shenzhen. Luckily, for those who want to continue to enjoy their passion, there is the Shenzhen International Amateur Football League (known as SIAFL for short). 

With the new season starting on Monday April 8th, Shenzhen Party thought it was the perfect time to sit down with the league’s chairman, Johan Liden, to discuss the story of SIAFL.

Tigers take on Dragons back in SIAFL 2016

Shenzhen Party (SZP­): What is the history of SIAFL? How did it all start?

Johan Liden (JL): A group of smart Shenzhen based football enthusiasts decided to organize an expats league in 2012. The group was already involved in several teams and communities around Shenzhen and came together to create a serious league around a common set of rules.

Nick Thompson was the driving force and was chairman from the first season in 2013 all the way to 2017. Nick still contributes significantly to SIAFL as part of SIAFL’s executive committee with myself and Ryan Tang. From the guys that were involved already from the beginning, Tansel Oender is still a major contributor with Inter Shenzhen, Kim Lee of Lunatics, and Pedro Pinto as manager of Tigers F.C.

Devils, SIAFL 2018

SZP: What is your own personal history with the league? How did you first become involved as a player? How did your role grow from there?

JL: I came in contact with SIAFL sometime midseason 2015 when I had made friends with the guys in Tigers F.C. and started playing football with them. Then I met Nick Thompson, the SIAFL founder and chairman at that time, and we connected from day one. From there, I helped Nick out with the league in 2016 and 2017 as much as I could.

When Nick announced at the conclusion of the 2017 season that he would be busy in 2018 with work and travel and wanted to step down, the managers of the teams in SIAFL appointed myself and Ryan Tang, manager of Lions F.C., to take over the reins, so to speak. Ryan and I developed a plan for 2018 that was later confirmed at a team managers’ meeting and I took over as chairman before the 2018 season started.

Dragons, SIAFL 2018

SZP: Is there much diversity in the league in terms of ethnicity and nationality?

JL: Yes. Very much so. We have 10 teams now in SIAFL and more than 285 players played in the league at different times during the last season. Last year, players from 52 countries represented SIAFL teams. Football is truly global and SIAFL definitely proves that football can unite people from all over the world.

Los Turcos, SIAFL 2018

SZP: How would you describe the competitiveness of the league? What is the balance between players going to have a good time and teams looking to win?

JL: I am proud to say that SIAFL 2018 displayed an almost perfect mix of competitiveness and community features, and we are excited to see that continue in the new season.

And for sure, it gets heated sometimes, that comes with the level of competitiveness. The top teams in SIAFL are very, very good for amateur football level. There are a lot of football coaches in Shenzhen and most of them play for SIAFL teams. We have several ex-professional players in SIAFL as well as guys that just like to come down once a week to try to win a game with their friends. So, diversity is there too.

Last season, Shenzhen Tigers F.C. were the SIAFL 2018 Champions after winning their last game against East Side 5-1. When title rival Inter Shenzhen lost to a strong Dragons side by 2-5, the Tigers secured the title 3 points clear at the top of the table.

With the league season completed, we played two knockout competitions, the Cup and the Plate. The top teams played the Cup and the team’s placed on lower league positions played the Plate. This gave teams that didn’t get good enough results during the full season – and therefore are out of contention of winning the league – to still have the opportunity to win a trophy at the end of the season. In 2018, Inter Shenzhen ran out victorious against Tigers in the Cup, while East Side beat Dragons in the Plate.

Tigers, SIAFL 2018

SZP: Currently there are no Chinese teams in the league. Are there any plans for that change?

JL: We are looking into that. We had one Chinese team under consideration for joining SIAFL in 2018. In the end that didn’t happen. Let’s see in future. The possibility of expanding our community and league by building a bridge to the Chinese football community in Shenzhen is something that we are very keen on exploring.

Lions, SIAFL 2018

SZP: Does SIAFL arrange events on the social side of things too?

JL: We have an opening party and a closing party every season. Last year we hosted an additional, separate party to celebrate the completion of the league season and the league champion. The party started at the pitches during the games for the fans and continued after the games at our SIAFL head sponsor Xpats Bar & Grill at Central Walk in Futian.

Last year, the season-ending party was hosted on the night when we had the Cup and Plate finals. All of this is possible thanks to the tremendous support that SIAFL receives from Xpats Bar & Grill and the owner Phenix.

Wolves (wearing green) battle for victory in SIAFL 2018

SZP: What are the future plans for SIAFL?

JL: Major changes or additions to league format and rules are decided at team managers’ meetings between seasons. We have been discussing to have a first and second division to be able to offer even more focus on competitiveness for the top division and yet offer a second division with more focus on community and having a laugh.

The format and rules of SIAFL were very smartly stipulated from the beginning and have carefully been updated and amended for six years so they work well under the specific circumstances of running an expats amateur football league in the city of Shenzhen. In short, we want to improve and add features but will do so carefully.

Pests, SIAFL 2016

SZP: What do you think makes SIAFL such an important part of the expat community in Shenzhen?

JL: First, football is the best sport ever invented in human history. Football unites and is global. Second, the structure of SIAFL is very smartly designed.

Those two factors are a great foundation. But at the end of the day, the people in SIAFL must be my answer. There were some very special and awesome people that not only founded SIAFL in the right way, they also took care of SIAFL and constantly improved our league over the years. These special guys are still a huge part of SIAFL. And of course, fantastic people attract more fantastic people. The people in SIAFL are a crazy (the good type of crazy!) and an amazing group that I am very proud to be part of.

The Tigers celebrate winning SIAFL 2018

SZP: If someone wishes to join a team in the league, what is the best way to get in touch?

JL: www.siafl.org is a good start. Register a profile there and you get access to contacting managers of the SIAFL teams.

Another way is just to come down to our games. We play most Mondays from April to December with a summer break in July and August. You find all info on our website. I also think that there is great chance to meet SIAFL people all around the city that can bring you to a football session. Any interested football fans out there can also send me a message so that I can help out pointing them in the right direction.

If I may, here at the end of this interview, I want to take the chance to express my deepest appreciation and thanks to our league head sponsor Xpats Bar & Grill and owner Phenix, and to Nick Thompson, Ryan Tang, Dmitry Antonov, and Cindy Liu for their fundamental support to SIAFL and of course to all the teams, managers, players, and fans. Together we all make it all happen.