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Pub Talk: Corruption, Anelka and Glamour…

In another periodical close-season Pub Talk, regular drinkers Bcheng and Shanghai Ultra are joined by contributor Andrew for an off-beat discussion about what’s been happening so far. Anelka, corruption, and who might be the next big star coming to the Chinese Super League are some of the subjects covered. With two of the three Pub Talk participants being Shenhua fans, no surprises for what club dominates the agenda this week – and naturally, this is all a bit much for Bcheng who’s left spitting into his beer in disgust at several points during the chat, as things descend into random chaos along with Yang Zhi’s hukou.

Shanghai Ultra, (Shanhgai Shenhua): So we are joined by a third virtual drinker in the pub this week. How’s it going Andrew?

Andrew ( contributor,
Shanghai Shenhua):
I’m good, thank-you. A little cold in Shanghai but I’m just about surviving.

S: Yes, the good old Shanghai winter. I should be “enjoying four seasons like spring” Kunming but I was taken in by the hype, what kind of spring has 4c at night?

Bcheng (Beijing Guoan): Southerners…Cold? Come up to Beijing and experience real cold.

S: Yes indeed – too cold for superstar players like Anelka.

A: London isn’t too warm these days either. His mum will have to make sure she backs her son some gloves in his suitcase before she puts him on the plane to Shanghai.

B: But Shenhua will probably do their winter practice in Kunming or Hainan, and since you lot aren’t in the ACL, he won’t have to worry about Shanghai weather until April.

S: Alright. So, opening banter aside, Andrew, can you tell us a bit about yourself, your Chinese football alligience, and how you came to join the team?

A: Sure. Before I moved to China, I lived and worked in Nairobi in Kenya where I worked for the Nairobi City Stars as their press officer/content writer for two seasons. When I arrived in Shanghai, I soon found myself at the Hongkou to see Shenhua beat Chan-Ba 2-1 in a sloppy but very loud game. After the celebrations in the metro, I knew I was a Shenhua boy.

B: I feel sorry for you.

A: As for , I gave you guys an e-mail seeing if you were looking for writers and you were good enough to let me aboard. The rest as they say is history.

S: Why do you feel sorry B-dog?. I think China’s Glamour Team is surely irresistable to all.

B: You’re going to make me puke two weeks in a row. Shenhua is far from China’s glamour team, even if there’s been a bit of a Gallic wind these days in Shanghai. They never were and still aren’t.

S: Hahahah. Remind me who did you guys sign last week? I forgot the wikipedia URL…..

A: The silence is deafening Bcheng. Keep that ACL spot warm for us and we’ll collect it from you this time next year.

B: Don’t kid yourselves, we’re much closer to winning the title than you are, and we’re going to go into complete sell off mode either. Anelka’s a great signing, but he’s a small patch that doesn’t hide all the problems the side has.

S: I think Shenhua will make a few more decent signings yet. But I do note Zhu Jun said Shenhua aren’t going to buy any big name domestic players.

A: Yeah, this does worry me. Throwing a load of foreigners in a team with a new manager and hoping they all click could be disastrous. I don’t know who is in the transfer war room but hopefully they’ve been watching the Chinese Super League this year and have some local talent on the shopping list.

B: The majority of the starting XI will always be domestic players and Shenhua just doesn’t have the talent, while their best players are likely to be leaving. If Zhu doesn’t go shopping, you’ll be at the bottom of the top 10 next year.

S: I don’t know why you are always going on about Shenhua’s best players leaving. Do you really think Cao Yunding is going to want to play for Jiangsu Sainty instead of providing ammunition for Nicolas Anelka?

B: Yes, for the right amount of money, I can’t see why not. I think Shanghai football is in the doldrums these days, not just Shenhua. This is the first time in awhile that when you look at the main players on the squad, almost none of them are locals.

S: Cao Yunding, Yu Tao, Jiang Jiazhun to name but three first team Shanghainese players.

B: Enough about Shenhua, let’s talk about something relevant. Football corruption trials started this week in the Northeastern cities of Tieling and Dandong, as of yet the big fish (Nan Yong and Xie Yalong)haven’t been brought before the judges. What do we think about this? Oh wait, this is Shenhua related, since you bought one of your two titles and this is a major part of the trial.

S: Hahah. Well, what can we say really. There’s not a lot of doubt a lot of shady things have gone on in the past at every Chinese Super League club. And as you know, under-the-table payments are not unusual in China, never mind in football. As for what it means for the Chinese Super League, it is fair to say that the situation in the last five years or so generally appears to have been better.

B: I agree, though it seems some of the accusations go all the way up to 2008 or so. I do find it interesting that it is coming out that in some cases it has little to do with the clubs and more to do with the gamblers. Why else do you fix a friendly between Manchester United and Shenzhen? The match ended 6-0, I wonder what it would have been if the fix wasn’t in.

S: Yeah I noticed that the dirty money seemed to switch towards friendlies in recent years. You must be right about gambling. But what I don’t understand is that who would gamble on such games, knowing what has gone on in the past?

A: What I’m intriqued by is what will happen if and when naughty deeds can be pinned on clubs and what the CFA decides to do about it. I don’t think you’ll see Calciopoli-style forced relegations but do you think teams will be docked points if it was proven that they were being bought out, even for friendly games?

S: I think that would be a useless punishment and would only penalise players and fans who had nothing to do with the wrong-doings. The plain fact is, the guilty individuals should be locked up for a long time.

B: I think we’ve seen all the punishments we’ll see for clubs. It’s one thing in the Guangzhou and Chengdu case when it was proven to have taken place a year or two before, it’s another thing to go back and punish a club for things that happened eight years ago.

S: Exactly. I find it quite hard to sum up how I feel about all this corruption stuff. We can’t pretend it didn’t happen. But I always find it so hard to know exactly what did happen, who did what. We only have the world of the Chinese media to go on, the legal process is not open to inspection. So it’s hard to say anything specific.

B: I feel the same way as you. This is an odd situation, I’d like to think things have been cleaned up since then and just move on. I think that the media has played close attention to this trial and its meant to be a show, especially doing it this time of year when there isn’t much other news. Let’s just hope its taken seriously. The General Administration for Sports says that they will separate the CFA from that body and that the Chinese Super League will be run more like a real business in the future, this is all good news, but it’s a case of “I’ll believe it when I see it” because the people in GAS also hold positions in the CFA.

S: Agree. But I believe nothing is totally separate from the government in China, because of the way things are set up here. Theres a strong focus on everything being set up to serve the national interest, especially in football – Chinese Super League games re-arranged to give up to two weeks of preparation for national games, but, it actually defeats the national interest in my opinion, because it weakens the Chinese Super League. I think within football, there needs to be more debate so that people can realise a separately run Chinese Super League would actually be in the national interest of the sport in the long run. But the way its run now, its relegated to an irrelevance compared to the national team.

A: I’m singing from the same hymn sheet with a lot of what you guys are saying. What surprises me as a recent arrival to Chinese football is how seemingly little soul searching goes on why the national team doesn’t achieve its goals, or perhaps more candidly, what has to change at an administrative level because it seems obvious that the raw resources are here.

S: Well, that’s just the Chinese gift for ignoring the elephant in the room. Everyone knows the change most needed to be made is least likely to be made. Meibanfa.

B: I think the problem is that there is a serious culture of failure surronding the national team and so there is no surprise when they don’t qualify. There has been plenty of soul searching over the years, ideas tossed around, but after all these years, at the end of the day it’s just yet another failure. What needs to be recognized is how momentus the failure has been this year. BOTH the men’s and women’s sides at national level AND the Olympic level. This year has been an unmitigated disaster for Chinese football.

S: You’re right. There is really no other way to look at it. There are some positive signs that quality players might be coming through. But the short term outlook for the national team isn’t good, there just aren’t enough kids playing the sport here at organized level. I really do think though that the resurgence of the Chinese Super League can inspire a new generation.

A: Should we move to some more positive stuff?

B: Do you Shanghai fans have any recent information about Feng and Spain?

A: I’ll be honest and admit this is the first I heard of it (although I’d previous seen him linked with Spurs) but I did read recently about the CFA’s plan to send 90 boys aged between 12-13 to the youth teams of Athletico Madrid, Valencia and Villareal for three years. It all seems to be approved and looks like an interested approach at coaching the next generation of Chinese players.

B: I haven’t been paying close attention, so I hope Cam can help out, but I know Feng (Feng Renliang) was headed to Spain for a trial. Not sure with which side or when he’s going.

A: It would be interesting if he did end up in Spain. I might be wrong but there hasn’t really been a history of Asian players in Spain for whatever reason but it would be an interesting development.

B: That is a good point, I can’t really remember any in Spain. So Shanghai Ultra, what’s the story?

S: I don’t know anything other than he is suppoed to be going for a trial. There has been so much speculation around Feng over the past year, infact we found an article in the Chinese press from a year ago talking about which domestic players would be leaving their clubs, (including Feng), but I found a similar article in the media again this year, covering mostly the same players who are all still at the same clubs.

B: Yes, the big names in the transfer window this year, Feng and Yu Hanchao are once again on the blocks this year and are two of the main targets.

A: Is there anyone else who could be a transfer target during a cash flush preseason? I have nightmares about Shenhua selling Cao….

S: There’s a load of big names mentioned. Ballack is the latest one. Although I think he is past it. Drogba is in the news. Plus we still don’t know what’s happening with Salmeron, Angulo has left, but I haven’t seen news of Salmeron.

B: This isn’t addressing Shenhua’s weakness in defense and in net. I think it will be interesting to see how all the chips fall in domestic transfers after we get to January 1.

S: It will be. We will find out if your nay-saying about Shenhua’s top players is correct. Feng will leave at some point before too long, anyone else, can’t see them giving up the chance to play alongside Anelka unless its stupid money.

A: I would love to see a decent centreback coming to Shenhua; Chinese or not. I think that’s the big target. I’ll leave it for you to name your Christmas wish list but for me, I’d love to see a double hard bastard (as we say in the UK) lining up in the centre of defense and midfield.

S: That is what Shenhua needs without a shadow of a doubt. So what about Guoan, B ?

B: Not much happening up north, the club’s being pretty quiet. They have four names of Asian strikers who they are negotiating with, but nothing more has been released to the public. It looks like Mao Jianqing will come to the club, though I’m still holding out hope for someone better. They are rumored to be connected with one of the Olympic side’s goalies.

The club has layed low, which isn’t bad. The big question is what will happen with Yang Zhi. The manager wants to keep him, but I think the club isn’t convinced he’ll stay in Beijing. It’s a very Chinese Super League style problem, in part there are hukou issues, then there are also issues with salary, it would piss off a few of the players if the club offers Yang a massive salary that surpasses them all.

S: It’s a joke that Guoan can’t get a hukou for Yang Zhi. Can you explain to our readers what the significance of this is B?

B: I’ll be going into it in more detail next week, but to put it simply, this is a Chinese residence system, he and his wife aren’t considered residents of Beijing and because of this, their daughter will have difficult going to school in Beijing next year.

S: With all the funny goings-on and general shenanigans that happen in Chinese football, tou’d think getting a Hukou for your top player would be a piece of cake for Guoan.

B: In reality, CITIC, the company that owns the club only has a certain number of hukou openings they can use each year. This year they’ve agreed to give a number of them to Beijing to help out in situations like with Yang.

A: For people reading outside of China, this will seem strange to think that the resident of a country couldn’t get the right residence permit in one of its cities. Has this happened before to football players?

S: I think it probably must have done but I can’t think of any examples, B?

B: It’s a fact of life for many Chinese, but it rarely happens in football because wives and kids don’t always move to the city where the player is located.

A: I was reading that Shanghai’s points system Hukou is so orientated around personal wealth that only 0.1% of migrants are able to apply. Although, I guess Anelka won’t have that problem.

S: Indeed, he won’t since he isn’t Chinese, haha.

A: Well that too (spot the new boy in China).

S: So Andrew what are your thoughts about the Chinese Super League becoming the hot ticket for big names getting towards the end of their career?

A: I’m both excited and worried. I think its great to see players like Anelka playing for ‘my’ team and I also think that the attention its bringing to the Chinese Super League might force some of its owners to be be less, well, douchy, because of the focus they find themselves under from overseas (although this could be wishful thinking). However, as a fan, I also want to know how these transfers are going to be funded and will ticket prices going to be put up and so on. Also, going back to what we were talking about earlier about developing youngsters, can the big clubs resist the urge to move funds away from their youth development to have more money to throw at transfers.The last thing I’d like to see is the Chinese Super League become an elephants graveyard for over the hill players but if Anelka can be used to garner interest in the league and then they can find a couple of Chinese players to keep the passion going, then it could be a fantastic move.

S: Yes. A lot of this money could be better spent on grassroots projects. But there is still an upside and it’s still good news overall for the Chinese Super League I think.

A: Absolutely.

B: I think we’re jumping the gun saying the Chinese Super League is a hot ticket. I can’t see it getting the number of players the MLS will anytime soon for a number of reasons. Anelka’s coming, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he turns out to be the only one. There really aren’t that many clubs who have the money to buy these players and almost no club is interested in the purchase for the “marketing” they’ll get. I’m not trying to rain on the parade, but I just don’t see that many others coming.

S: I have to disagree there – there will definately be more big stars coming. Not necessarily every club, but there’s no doubt there are going to be players of similar profile to Anelka arriving before long.

B: Maybe over the next few seasons, we see one or two more big signings, but this isn’t the “opening of the flood gates” that some have portrayed it to be.

S: I’m not saying there are going to be loads of big names. But I think a few more at least will be in place before next season begins.

B: Next season as in 2012? I’d be shocked by it. By 2013, if Anelka gives good feedback to friends in Europe, I could see one or two more coming.

S: Have we not seen the media full of names such as Drogba and Ballack? Why would you be shocked?

B: Because we’ve also seen Beckham and Zidane and Ronaldo and Raul and {fill in the blank big name Euro star} linked to the Chinese Super League before.

S: But Anelka coming changes things, and don’t forget Conca was already a huge signing.

A: I think Anelka will probably the biggest name to come out this season myself but if he were to stay for his full contract, that makes the Chinese Super League relevant enough to other players looking to move for at least two years by then, you attract more players who a high pedigree and so on

B: But this isn’t the MLS, clubs aren’t thinking, hey I can bring Drogba in and I’ll sell out the stadium. That’s meaningless to them, the decision, in almost every case, will be influenced by 2 things. 1. The player’s good enough to get it done on the pitch, and/or 2. the owner’s ego; and not necessarily in that order

S: Exactly, which means more stars are on the way.

A: Also, I think there are strands at looking at this

B: Not every owner is Zhu Jun, in fact most aren’t. The majority would prefer to avoid the spotlight rather than be the center of attention. And the players, it’s a cost/benefit equation, the typical Chinese Super League foreigner is probably going to be good enough and cost considerably less than an aging Euro star.

A: Regardless of whether every time gets a ‘star’ player, I still think this will be good news for the Chinese Super League. In the short term, the league has been thrust into the spot light and the fan experience of seeing a well known player on the pitch either playing for or against your team will generate interest. For the football fans that China already has, this will be worth the Anelka transfer. Also, in the long term, even if Anelka is a fad and the flurry of superstars who may or may not be arriving stops after two years, the intense interest in the Chinese Super League within China will be significant.

B: The intense interest in the Chinese Super League within Shanghai, that is. Many places in the rest of the country, Beijing, Guangzhou, Dalian, Shenyang, Zhengzhou, etc already have that interest. It’s true though, right now, Anelka looks like a master stroke and is a great development for the league.

A: Exactly. I mean, before the MLS, there was the NASL and though this was ultimately not a success, the popularity and interest in the league launched the popularity of ‘soccer’ in America. If this is a brief superstar age but lays the framework for a generation of Chinese people from the places you mention into football and then their kids into football, then its worth money methinks.

B: Erm, there’s a lot wrong with that statement, but I’ll leave it alone, hehe.

A: Possibly. I made a brief detour from logic to argue my point but I still feel this will garner long term interest in the league so long as its done right

S: I agree. Football fans in the states remember the NASL, it has a lot of value, hence Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps all being named after the old NASL star-laden days.

B: The general consensus in the US is that the NASL created a very brief boom in interest and that “boom” went away just as quickly, leaving the game completely dormant and ignored for almost 10 years. The game was close to dead in the States after Italia ’90, but the US soccer federation put a plan in place, the US hosted the ’94 World Cup, the MLS began and now after all that time, you’re starting to see the game grow in the States. Haha, sorry for the diversion, but as the lone American, talk of the NASL is not what you want to be talking about when you bring up a successful sports history.

S: That’s all true, the NASL was not run in a sustainable way, but Andrew’s point has some merit, whilst I think grassroots has to come first, star power is invaluable, weather you like it or not. I don’t particularly like it, I would be much happier if Anelka was Chinese and the fans were going nuts over top-rate Chinese players coming back from Europe to play in the Chinese Super League, but its not like that….

B: I’ll agree with that. I think we’re all over the place today, this is the single craziest pub chat we’ve had yet, it may be time to bring this to an end.

S: I think so, its been random fun.

A: Yeah, thanks for having me along guys.

B: Definitely, hopefully you can join us again as we get closer to the season.

S: Yeah. There is definately going to be even more exciting matters to discuss as we get nearer to March.

A: Gents, I would love to. Hopefully by then I will be a slightly less obvious noob with regard to some of the random parts of china but its been a lot of fun.

S: Haaha. Its all good no worries.

A: Great stuff.

B: Cheers all.

S: Thank you and goodnight. Seasons greetings to one and all.

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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