The match signifies the dawn of a new era in Asian football, as the A-League side enter the Asian fray for the first time since Australia quit the Oceania confederation a year ago to join the Asian one.
And with typical Aussie bravado, Sydney FC captain Mark Rudan told the Sydney Morning Herald that his team fancied their chances. He said “Physically, we’re more than a match for them, and, mentally, we’ve got that Aussie attitude that when the going gets tough, we get going.” Rudan had a spell in Jiangsu Province with Chinese second-level side Nanjing Yoyo in 2002, so at least he has something to base his rhetoric on. His boss, Branko Culina, is also confident.
For newly-merged Shenhua, it marks another stern test so early in the season following their opening-day defeat to hated rivals Beijing Guoan. New manager Osvaldo Gimenez apologised to the fans today for that bitterly disappointing result, the Shanghai Daily reported, but his explanation that the team have not had time to bond following the controversial merger just three weeks ago is likely to have fallen on deaf ears among the Shenhua faithful, who are still fuming over the departure of their former boss, cult figure Wu Jinggui.
The Sydney Morning Herald carried an interesting article on Shenhua’s defeat to Beijing on Saturday. It said that the “normally polite supporters booed the team off the pitch”. Eh? Polite? A bizarre assumption, Chinese football fans are not known for their gentile behaviour, as any Chinese speakers would have heard for themselves at the game on Saturday. The article also said that new Shenhua owner Zhu Jun was a “gambling tycoon”. We are pretty sure Zhu probably takes the odd trip or two down to Macau, but he is in fact an online gaming tycoon.
The Ozzies had been unsuccessfully trying to get out of the tiny footballing pond of Oceania for years, having long grown tired of a lack of any worthy opponents in their region — only a few years ago they hammered minnows American Samoa 31-0 during a World Cup qualifying preliminary match. Previously, the Socceroos route to the World Cup consisted of tanking their little Island nation neighbours in ridiculously one-sided contests before the best two sides in Oceania (almost always Australia and New Zealand) would play off for the right to play the best non-qualifer in various other confederations, most recently South America. This in effect was Australia’s only competitive match every four years, limiting their chances to develop at an international level.
Australia’s entry into the Asian confederation has been welcomed by most — having a developed country involved in the Asian Champions League is seen as bringing great benefits to its competitiveness and credibility. The competition is never going to rival its over-hyped and money-obsessed European counterpart, dominated by the stinking greed of the G14, but Australia joining the Asian confederation is long over due and will push up standards for all.
Football in Australia has come a long way since its “wog ball” days. But it still exists in a land where Aussie Rules, Rugby League, Rugby Union, and even to this Scottish writer’s bemusement, Cricket, are more popular. Surprising then that the round ball game, rebranded and re-launched as the A-League in 2005, has attracted record crowds and generally seen as having made a great start. Without a doubt, the league was boosted by Australia’s qualification for the World Cup last year, before their unfortunate exit to the cheating Italians.
Ground: Hongkou Football Stadium, Hongkou District, Shanghai
Capacity: 35,000 (26,000 for football)
Honours: Chinese top-tier league champions: 1995
Chinese top-tier league runners-up: 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2006, 2008
Chinese FA Cup winners: 1998
Chinese FA Cup runners up: 1995, 1997, 2015