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Whose merger is it anyway?

Xiamen Lions travel north tonight to take on Shanghai Shenhua with the home side hoping to put their Asian Champions League woes behind them and get back to the mini-run of form they have enjoyed of late in the Chinese Super League.

Seasoned observers of Chinese football have been left scratching their heads at at the somewhat schizophrenic character of the two-time Chinese champions this season. The much publicised merger of Shenhua and Shanghai United has created a rather confusing picture in an environment where matters are invariably clouded at the best of times. Confusing because, although the teams merged, the new team, on the surface, looks exactly the same as Shenhua did last year. Same name, same badge, same jersey, same fans. Shanghai United’s solitary season in the Chinese Super League meant they did not have time to build up any kind of fan base to be outraged by the merger. Quite the opposite, of course, to Shenhua, whose fans continue to demand merger mastermind Zhu Jun, one of China’s richest men, sells up and “gives back” Shenhua.

The team’s performances on the pitch have also been of the Jekyll and Hyde variety. Excepting their opening day debacle against Beijing, Shenhua have now won three games on the trot to share top spot in the Chinese Super League. But in continental competition, their record is dismal — three defeats out of three in the Asian Champions League, their latest slip coming in midweek against Japanese Champions Urawa Red Diamonds in front of 30,000 fans. Failure to beat the J-League side in the return fixture in two week’s time will see Shenhua exit the competition with two games still to play.

Spokesman for the Blue Devils supporters club, Frank Ding, said he was still too depressed by the merger to have much other to say other than “Shenhua is dead.” Being a football lover, Shanghaiist can certainly sympathize with Frank’s emotions, but ultimately, Shenhua is the biggest name in Chinese football and as long as that isn’t changed ultimately everything else will fall into place around it.

In Chinese, and indeed, Asian football it is customary for teams to take their name from a corporate sponsor. When Shanghai Shenhua was bought out by SVA in 2001, fan pressure resulted in the club retaining the Shenhua name — the club is the only team in China to have kept the same name since professional football began in China in 1994. So perhaps all this identity confusion is just a transitional phase.

Youtube clip: Shenhua in happier times — the Blue Devils mob the team coach as it leaves Hongkou Stadium following their 2-1 victory over last year’s Champions Shandong Luneng last October.

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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