The Red Mist In A Blue City: East Asia’s Ambitious Quest To Be Top Dog In Shanghai
Shanghai East Asia are the newest addition to the Chinese Super League and will be bringing a lot of hope, hyperbole and expectation with them as they prepare for their debut season in the big time.
Throughout 2012, by playing some swaggering, free-flowing football, East Asia earned praise as a young team with an emphasis on technically capable local players along the way to winning to promotion to the CSL.
Led by their 5″7 playmaker, Wu Lei (who was capped just after his 20th birthday whilst still playing in China League One), East Asia will also ensure the first derby between two teams based directly in the city since Zhu Jun merged Shenhua and Shanghai United in 2007.
The arrival of a team comprising mainly of Shanghainese players in their early twenties will be an interesting juxtaposition for a city that has only known one top-flight football club since the merger. Unlike Zhu, whose ownership of Shenhua has been masked by a plethora of scandals, threats, diva-ish demands, unkept promises and false dawns, East Asia in their first season in the CSL have a clean slate and its owner Xu Genbao enjoys tremendous grassroots popularity.
While it is unlikely that Shenhua will be losing any of its hardcore fans to the new boys, suddenly there is a compelling choice for the casual football fan in city. Moreover, East Asia, who are more ambitious than might be expected of such a recently established club, are looking to profit from Shenhua’s recent malaise and establish themselves as the long-term ‘big team’ in Shanghai.
Yet, when trying to understand East Asia, it is important to be aware of the background of its founder. Xu, the Shanghainese footballing folk hero who owns the team but also stocks it with recruits from his youth academy is essentially the face and brain of the club.
Born in 1944, Xu was a talented left-back who played predominately for the now defunct People’s Liberation Army team, Bayi FC. Whilst at Ningbo, he was regularly selected for the national team and won old amateur league in 1975 before retiring the following season at the age of thirty-two.
However, his playing career was ultimately derailed by both the chaos of the Cultural Revolution (which effectively halted all professional sport in the country for years) but also the Chinese national team’s refusal to play countries that didn’t recognise the mainland as the legitimate government of China. All of this meant that Xu’s management career would be his opportunity to shine.
Briefly employed as national team coach in 1992, Xu was Shanghai Shenhua’s first ever manager, and won the league in his second season with the club in 1995 before leaving in 1996 despite a second place finish.
A year later, having got Guangzhou Songri (now also defunct) promoted in his first season at the club, Xu would return to haunt Shenhua by joining their rivals Dalian Shide and leading them to a title of their own. He would lead Dalian to the final of the Asian club championship (forerunner of the Asian Champions League in 1998 before losing 6-5 on penalties to winners Pohang Steelers of South Korea. Xu’s Dalian side remain the last Chinese side to have made it to a continental final.
In 2002 Xu led another Shanghai club, Zhongyuan, which later became Inter Shanghai, before moving to Guizhou via Xian, into the top-tier of Chinese football. His success led to him was once again being hired as Shenhua manager. Upon his appointment, Xu also merged his own youth project, Shanghai Cable 02 (which he had formed in 1995 as a way of coaching youngsters using far more technical coaching methods than what was already in China) into the Shenhua set-up.
Xu’s return to Shanghai was not a good one and the manager was forced to resign that season after his team spent most it in the lower half of the table- although it would be the nucleus of the Cable youth team that helped power Shenhua to the title in the following season.
His next move was to retreat to Shanghai’s Chongming Island where he started his second youth academy team, and like some middle-aged Chinese Prospero, gazed back across the Yangtze River, plotting a return to the city proper.
A decade later, and Xu is indeed back. East Asia, made up mostly of the East Asia youth team he formed in 2003, first gained entry into China League Two in 2007, winning promotion to China League One (CL1) in 2008. The team finally came of age after four seasons in China’s second tier and finished as champions of CL 1 this year with three games to spare.
Now back in the big time, Xu is talking in very grand terms about East Asia’s long-term future. In a recent celebratory dinner for the East Asia team, Xu proposed his ‘6-3-1’ ambition by which he wanted a top six finish in 2013, a top three finish by 2014 and then to see East Asia win the league by 2015. He also has his eye on East Asia being Shanghai’s top team and, in what could be seen as a reference to Shenhua, noted in an interview back in October; “I think as a world-class city, Shanghai must have a world-class team to reflect its prestige. To be a world-class team, [such an organisation] needs to be finishing in the top three’.
Those are some fighting words and also reflective of his ambition to make East Asia into that top-three team. Xu has talked about attracting around 700M RMB (roughly £70M) in investment for the team next year and added that ‘the team’s line-up will certainly be adjusted’. Where this money is going to come from remains to be seen but its probable that after years of Zhu Jun not having the smoothest relations with investors and local politicians, those same people are interested in directing their attention and money towards the new top-flight team in China’s richest city.
This season, in terms of foreigners the team really only played Ransford Addo and Luis Carlos Cabezas in the line-up so it will be especially urgent to get in some more competent players from overseas. Much of the squad is twenty-four or under, and despite having played five, six, and in some cases seven seasons of professional football already, they have little in the way of top-level experience.
On the pitch, it took about half of the 2012 season for CL1 teams to figure out how to disrupt East Asia’s momentum and this time around, the new boys can expect some serious roughing up from all and sundry. In short, Xu evidently realises that experienced players need to be brought to help give steel to the midfield and forward lines before the team comes up against top Chinese sides like Evergrande or Beijing Guoan.
Yet just as crucially, Xu has also restated his commitment to East Asia’s youth project even as his team enters the cash flush world of the Chinese Super League. Moves have been also made to forge ties with Barcelona and what started in Chongming Island might soon be expanded to a ‘La Massia’-style youth academy in the greater Shanghai area, presumably with Xu overseeing much of it.
With East Asia’s youth orientated set-up, a consensus on its playing style throughout all of its teams and Xu’s sole control over the club makes the Shanghai team potentially a good fit for a team like Barcelona which has a strong playing philosophy.
However, it should also be pointed out that this is China so the gulf between talking and doing is approximately the size of the Pacific Ocean. Though Xu has a track record of investing in youth and being prepared to see it through, this will not be the first time a Chinese football owner has promised big things in Shanghai, let alone China. Talk of a new footballing power in the city is exciting but not a guarantee.
Indeed, Xu has shown himself on occasions to be a big fan of the spotlight and has made the East Asia project as much about him as the team (case in point, a curious halftime video that gets occasionally played at home games showing East Asia youth players winning a tournament before then forming a line and placing their medals over the owner’s head). Xu also infamously ran out onto the pitch after his East Asia team won a top-of-the-table clash in CL1 and seemingly applauded a group of rival Shenhua fans who had come solely to chant his name. On another occasion he loaned out starting left-back Bai Jiajun in the midst of promotion push to Shenhua in what effectively was a demonstration of his benevolence.
As the man in sole control of the football team, Xu will also need to be pragmatic with regards to his team personnel because bluntly speaking, talk of sixth place next year is still very optimistic and East Asia will lose a lot more games having moved up to the CSL. With this in mind, he will need to be pragmatic enough to not replace current manager Xi Zhikang, the former Shenhua manager who recently left the Hongkou stadium club, if things don’t go to plan.
As the CSL teams enter pre-season, these are exciting times for everyone connected with the Shanghai East Asia prospect. There is also hope that Shanghai can start to enjoy a long-standing rivalry between the two teams playing within the city limits. Having got some revenge against Shenhua with Dalian Shide almost twenty years ago, it will now be interesting to see if East Asia gives the old Shanghainese master the last laugh for good.