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Pub Talk: Thoughts on the CSL’s New Season

beers lined upWe’re just three weeks into the new season is about to begin, what is your hope for your team and the league as a whole going into the season?

BCheng (Beijing Guoan fan ): I still see the league as being wide open this season. I don’t think there is any side that is hands down the likely champion and on paper, what it comes down to is potential for injuries and depth of squads. This isn’t the EPL with a “big 4”, I think any number of sides has a legit shot going into the season and the summer transfer market also helps to strengthen teams a lot. For Guoan, I don’t realistically see them as being serious title contenders, but they may stay in the race for awhile. I’d like to see them in an Asia spot, but they might fall just outside of that again. I hope the league will have an exciting finish, keeping things close, and maybe attract some of the aging star power that the MLS has been able to bring in.

Shanghai Ultra ( Editor, Shanghai Shenhua fan): I disagree with you when you say there is no “big 4”. There might not be a definate four teams at the top each year in the Chinese Super League, but the statistics show that historically, Shandong, Dalian, Shenhua, and Guoan have been the teams which are there or thereabouts come the end of the season. Indeed, check out for proof of this. However, the Chinese Super League is definately more competitive than the EPL, since 2004 we have seen five different teams win the championship in the last seven seasons. This year could see yet another new champion. I should probably, er, refrain from using gambling idioms, since we are talking about the Chinese Super League, but think Guangzhou look a good bet to win the title this year having spent a record amount of money to acuqire what appear to be some impressive singings. Don’t forget that with Zheng Zhi, Gao Lin and Sun Xiang already on their books, they are surely a shoe-in for an ACL place.

For Shenhua, as usual hard to predict. Things are definitely going to be tougher this year, last year expectations were very low after something of mass exodus of key players and no big name replacements. Despite this, Miroslav Blazevic’s astute management saw Shenhua look like champions for the first half of the season. Despite falling away in the second half, last year was considered a success. But with Blazevic leaving to coach the Chinese Olympic team, and Xi Zhikang being promoted to manager from withing the club’s existing backroom staff and not an awful lot being known about him, its hard to see Shenhua challenging for the title this year. We have the prolific Riascos back, and China’s great young hope Feng Renliang a year older and wiser, but those two were not enough to win the league for Shenhua last year, and the foreign signings are all unknowns really so we will have to wait and see. Shenhua have played a four games in the ACL so far without a win, and have only won one out of three in the Chinese Super League to date, so this hasn’t given much cause for optimism. That said, Shenhua rarely finish outside the top 4 we discuss above. I think qualifiying for the ACL again would represent a successful season for Shenhua, anything more, a definate bonus.

What about your rivals?

B: For Shenhua, I don’t see them as serious title contenders, but they also are one of those 4 through 7 sides, maybe they go on a good run and end up a little higher. Tianjin has looked good in the Asian Champions League, and our mutual rival Shandong isn’t a bad bet to repeat.

S: Agree that Shenhua aren’t serious contenders this year, but Beijing certainly won’t be either, losing Huang Bowen to Jeonbuk Hyundai of the K-League does not bode well for your chances. I have to agree Shandong will be up there again, this time, along with Guangzhou. Outside bets? Maybe Tianjin, Li Weifeng joining them is a real coup.

Who are you looking forward to playing against the most?

B: For me, the China Derby is always the most important game on the schedule, especially this year when winning the big derby matches may be the most comforting thing Beijing fans have as a trophy doesn’t look likely.

S: The China Derby is of course the biggest match for Shenhua. Unfortunately, the powers that be have again delved into their huge spanner collection and thrown one into the Blue Devil’s travel plans for the Beijing leg – can’t see many fans making it up to the capital in July for a Wednesday night game. However, Beijing at Hongkou Stadium in Shanghai on the last day of the season is a blockbuster.

Has the “China Derby” (ie Jing-Hu) lost something over the past few years?

B: I think so, the last few years, the Beijing-Tianjin has really picked up steam as both have become top sides, equally in Shanghai there are a number of close rivals that have diluted the bigtime derby between Beijing and Shanghai. I think its just as likely that Beijing fans will tell you that Tianjin is our biggest rival.

S: For Shenhua, if anything the last few China derbies at Hongkou have been more intense than in recent years. I am not sure why. Shenhua haven’t had any big rival since the days of Inter Shanghai. However, I personally witnessed a real rumpus at the Jiangsu-Shenhua game in Nanjing last year when they tried to get in our end after the game, and we returned to our bus to find the windows smashed. Similarly, Hangzhou have become a proper local rival for us – there was a fight after the match when we went to their place last season.

Inflation has been a major issue this year, how much was your season ticket?

B: In Beijing, the ticket prices were raised RMB90, to RMB350 this season, not a major deal, compared to what you’d pay overseas, but sort of a shock considering there will be 3 less games (as Beijing didn’t qualify for Asia) and the ticket may not include FA Cup matches. In comparison, the China League teams in Beijing are far cheaper, Beijing Baxy is RMB100 for a season ticket, whereas BIT is FREE. As an expat, I’m not complaining, but I know some Chinese are feeling the burden more.

S: Season tickets went up from RMB300 to RMB350. I think it would be churlish to quibble over this raise. I believe a Shenhua season ticket is the best value entertainment purchase in town – for such a modest outlay, I just can’t think of anything else which even comes close.

What do you think of the “new money” in the Chinese Super League? Shaanxi spent a lot last
year and couldn’t get into Asia, can Guangzhou do it this year?

B: In a way it’s a good sign, more competition, more parity, break up the 5-6 teams that always seem to end up at the top of the table. But while Shaanxi spent a lot last year, it’s childs play compared to what Guangzhou dished out this season. As much as I like Lee Jangsoo from his Guoan days, I really hope they don’t win the title and I’m not sure if they have the offense or the goalie that will put them over the top, not getting Yang Zhi will hurt them, but I think they’ll be in contention all year and probably make it into Asia.

S: I think its a good thing. It appears big bosses are finally learning to invest money in building squads, rather than in referees’ pockets. Next step, is putting that cash into things like football-specific stadiums, (like the MLS), community football facilities and grassroots programs.

What about Nike’s deal with the league, this year we’re already seeing more products out, including the official jerseys?

B: I like the Nike agreement and I prefer their designs to adidas’ more template-ish style, but I have to say this could be the worst Guoan jersey ever. I’d consider 800 kuai for last year’s kit, but no way for this year. They are also doing a little too much experimenting with some teams. That said, more Guoan gear on offer is always a good thing.

S: I’m not completely familiar with the terms of Nike’s deal. As I posted on recently, there’s no official mention of this on the english internet, as far as I can see, which seems odd given that Nike is a US company [editor’s note: the story was picked up by some of the wires and China Daily, here’s an example of those stories]. I’m not a fan of Nike, I believe their corporate social responsibility to be suspect. But that’s another story. But if a big western firm is paying the Chinese Super League give provide it with kits, then I think that is probably a good thing in terms of the CSls credibility.

Any predictions for the season?

B: I hate to say it, but I think Shandong will probably win the league again, or I could see Dalian’s Bank of Dalian bonus money getting them to play harder. The two Guangdong sided are going to be interesting to watch this year. Wouldn’t be surprised if Qingdao and Chengdu go down.

S: I think your predictions are fairly sound. Although as we discussed previously, I think Guangzhou will surely snatch an ACL place at least. Shenhua and Guoan may fight for that 3rd ACL place. Don’t forget the 4th place goes to the CFA cup winners this year, which has
been resurrected after an absence of four years. I think the cup will provide an interesting diversion, not sure why it was but on hiatus for four years, but a few extra games to watch wouldn’t go amiss.

And what do you think is the best reason to support a Chinese Super League team this year?

S: There is no substitute for watching live football, regardless of the level involved. Being in the stadium, the atmosphere, the fans banter and humour, the buzz around the stadium before the match, being part of the crowd, being a fan, being part of a local community, this, for me anyway, is what football is all about. I don’t mind going down the pub and watching the Champion$ league or whatever. But its not as good as being in the crowd at a match. Plus the big European leagues are over-rated in my opinion anyway. Of course they are better than the Chinese Super League. But that’s not the point. The atmosphere in most Chinese Super League grounds
is electric.

The other thing is that, as a foreign fan, going to the games is such a good way to make friends with Chinese. And its a good way to see them get passionate, excited and enjoy something in their life outside the mundane existance of the office. Going to the game I think also offers them some rest time away from their family obligations. At any rate, football really is a universal language, and its spoken as fluently in China as anywhere else. Embrace it.

B: This is one area where we definitely agree. I didn’t grow up going to Prem level games, I can remember attending professional indoor soccer games in the US, and when MLS started, then I started going to those. Therefore, I’m used to average soccer. That said, even if you did grow up watching Barcelona or Arsenal, there’s nothing better than being at a live match, especially at a place like Worker’s Stadium that gets 40,000+ a number of times each year.

I also think your second point is right too. As a sports fan, whenever I spend an extended period of time in a city, I like to go to see that city’s team play, maybe start following it a little, it’s in this way you can start conversations. As a foreigner in China, being a Chinese Super League fan definitely starts conversations, not in the best way perhaps, as many Chinese will think you are crazy, but for me it definitely makes me feel like I’m part of the city.

Brandon Chemers aka B. Cheng aka A Modern Lei Feng – is a name which may be familiar to many in the Chinese blogosphere. He currently serves as Editor-in-Chief for Wild East Football and is one of the lonely souls writing about Chinese football in English for the last 10 years. Chemers' credentials are second to none – his former blog focused not only on the fortunes of his beloved Beijing Guoan FC, but a multitude of other aspects of Beijing life. He’s deservedly built a reputation in the Chinese blogosphere as an insightful observer of not only Chinese football, but also the wider picture of life in modern China and its many layers. For WEF, beyond writing about Guoan, he often focuses on fan culture and the business of Chinese football.

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