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Chinese Super League

Opening day disaster for Shenhua

Yesterday, for the first time since China launched it’s professional football league in 1994, Beijing Guoan beat Shanghai Shenhua on their own turf.

The capital outfit beat Shenhua 2-0 at Yuanshen Stadium in Pudong, but the historic first was over-shadowed somewhat by the furious reception reserved for new Shenhua owner, online gaming tycoon Zhu Jun. He masterminded an RMB 150 million merger between Shenhua and rivals Shanghai United just a few weeks before the season kicked off yesterday — a move which prompted a swift re-scheduling of the entire league calendar, reported Sinosoc.

Despite the fact that Shenhua finished Chinese Super League runners-up last season, only four of their playing squad made the starting eleven of the combined team yesterday — the remaining seven all came from the old Shanghai United squad. Perhaps not surprising since Uruguayan Osvaldo Gimenez, manager of United last year, was installed as boss of the new team at the expense of Shenhua manager Wu Jingui. Also missing was Shenuha’s close season signing, Brazillian Ronny Silva, who has joined north-eastern Chinese Super League side Changchun following the somewhat unexpected merger.

The Blue Devils, Shenhua’s biggest fan group, made their feelings very clear on the merger issue throughout the match, with a series of rather rude chants. Their impressive repertoire included “Give us back our Shenhua” and “Zhu Jun go away” amongst other unpublishable and amusing songs about Shanghai United, Beijing, and last but definitely not least, “your mother”.

Indeed, former United players in the Shenhua line-up were roundly booed every time they made a mistake. The howls of derison increased when Shenhua’s offisde trap was sprung and Beijing scored from the resultant penalty after just 12 minutes.

The half-time scoreline of 0-1 flattered Beijing a little, as neither team had looked like scoring, and certainly didn’t do justice to the “China Derby”, a heated fixture between two cities and sets of fans who love to hate each other. Remember — this fixture is a forum for regional rivalry in a country where no other such conduits exist. Perhaps with this in mind, Shenhua stepped it up a little in the second half, with defender Du Wei ironically looking like the most dangerous man for the Shanghai side.

Beijing introduced a few substitutions late in the game, and no sooner had their Brazilian import Alysson stepped onto the field than he scored to make it 2-0, sending his team’s small band of travelling supporters into raptures. The boos and catcalls from the Shenhua faithful for Zhu Jun’s head began to reach a crescendo, before the referee brought an end to an unremarkable match in which the home side paid for their lack of creativity and presence upfront.

The game did have a few positives however. Shenhua did indeed appear in their trademark blue playing shirts, contrary to fears Shanghaiist reported last week. Zhu Jun was also quoted by the Shanghai Daily as saying that the name, badge and playing colours of the team would not be changed despite his buyout of the club. A relatively healthy crowd of around 16,000 watched the game, despite complaints about the suitability of Yuanshen Stadium in Pudong as a venue for Shenhua, since its home ground of Hongkou Football Stadium is being renovated for the Woman’s World cup in September.

Still, Shenhua could not have made a worse start to the season, losing to their national rivals from the capital. New boss Gimenez faces a stern test blending the two playing squads into a title-challenging outfit, having had so little time to prepare before news of the merger broke. Shenhua are also minus their athletic left-back Sun Xiang, who is currently on loan at Dutch side PSV Eindhoven and recently became the first Chinese to play in the European Champions League. He previously had unnsucessful trials with English Premier League side Wigan Athletic.

Off the pitch, its become commonplace to focus upon Chinese football’s well-documented problems, or put a negative spin on routine news stories, but Shanghaiist’s Chinese contacts say the domestic league is making slow but steady steps back towards respectability following its scandal-plaugued past. It has sealed a sponsorship deal for the second year running, and despite complaints about the quality of play, top players continue to attract interest from abroad. In addition to the aforementioned Sun Xiang, Shandong’s playmaker Zheng Zhi is currently on loan at Charlton in the English Premiership — where the club’s marketing men have very astutely used his image on the front page of the club’s website.

Shenhua’s young striker Mao Jianqing had close season trials with Arsenal, and highly-rated 18-year-old Wang Dalei, once of Shanghai United but now with Shenhua, trained with Inter Milan last summer. And Shenhua defender Yao Lijun could soon be playing alongside David Beckham for LA Galaxy in the USA.

UK trained journalist and long-time Chinese football observer Cameron Wilson has been writing about Chinese football for over a decade...

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