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All bets are off: Shenhua commence CSL 2006 title attack this weekend

Shanghai Shenhua is among the favourites to lift this year’s CSL Championship and begin their 2006 CSL campaign against newly-promoted Changchun Yatai at Hongkou Stadium tomorrow.

After Chinese football hit an all time low last season (and that is pretty low, Shanghaiist can tell you) a mood of cautious optimism is emerging in the hope that this could finally be the year where the sport turns its back on its sordid wrongdoings once and for all.

Grave warnings are abound this week–if football in the middle kingdom doesn’t clean up its act, it might be shut down completely. None other than chief mover and shaker of world football himself, FIFA president Sepp Blatter, has urged China to clamp down on the gambling and other dubious goings-on which have plagued the sport.

But close down the league? Shanghaiist doesn’t think so. Any cynical hack worth his salt can see that the Chinese football market is the holy grail of world sport and the temptation to try and crack it will always prove too difficult for capitalist hordes to resist.

Why? For example: despite the sport being somewhat colourfully described this week by one CSL club owner as suffering from “match throwing, gambling, corruption, biased reporting, strikes, rude crowds, violence, drugs, prostitution, debts, giving up, and falling levels”, UK internet telephony company IPhox stepped up to sign a RMB80m five-year sponsorship deal. Given the fact that last season received not a single sponsor, the news proved that much sweeter.

If further proof is needed that the sport is still alive and kicking despite the outrageous corruption of the previous few seasons, Xian Chanba will play to a 57,000 sell-out crowd today in the capital of Shaanxi province. The club changed its name from Shanghai International and relocated to west China during the close season. A team official told the Shanghai Daily, “I think we will collect more money in gate receipts in this single game than we did for the whole of last season in Shanghai.”

Inter’s move sees Shanghai’s number of top-flight teams drop from 3 to 2. Providing the derby opposition this season for the city’s most established club, Shanghai Shenhua, will be Shanghai Liancheng Zobon. The outfit were known simply as Shanghai Zobon last year, but were taken over by lower league team Shanghai 9th City – owned by the online gaming company of the same name.

So what does the forthcoming season have in store for the Shanghai soccer scene? Shanghaiist spoke with Blue Devil fan leader Frank Ding who says that Shenhua are good bet this season (no pun intended) but watch out also for perennial Dong Bei front runners Dalian Shide, and their regional rivals, Shandong.

“It looks like it will be a close and exciting season,” Frank said. “We have signed Chinese international defender Li Weifeng from Shenzhen, and Ivan Jovanovic from Serbia and Montenegro, and Du Wei is back from Celtic so our team will stronger this year.”

“Dalian will be strong with year, as always, but they don’t have the same money behind them that Shandong has this season.”

And what about the heated Shanghai derbies of the past few seasons now that Shenhua’s rivals Inter have moved to Xian? “I think their fans might disappear. There is a new team who will play in Pudong at Yuan Shen stadium (Shanghai Liancheng Zobon), but I don’t know how many fans they will get. But of course we are looking forward to playing the fucking ducks, Beijing.”

And it’s that kind of straight-up, authentic football rivalry which gives Shenhua’s Blue Devil fans their well deserved reputation of being among Asia’s noisiest and most passionate. Make no mistake – these guys are the real deal and their knowledge of the world’s game is as good as any group of fans you’ll meet anywhere.

European Champion$ League aficionados, English Premiership snobs, and other followers of top flight football might look down their noses at Chinese soccer, but Shanghaiist will take its place among the blue devils tomorrow afternoon and relish being alongside real fans who support their team, come rain, shine or, er, match-fixing allegations.

Fancy going? The game kicks off at 3.35pm (on Sunday) and Hong Kou Football Stadium has its own metro stop on line three of the same name, so it’s easy to get there. Tickets can be bought from around 30rmb, either from touts around the ground (genuine tickets but they will try to overcharge you), or from the ticket office which is a separate building opposite the metro station on the right.


This post originally appeared on Shanghaiist.

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.

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