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Pub Talk: The CSL 2012 countdown begins here

The Chinese Super League is back and so are Bcheng and Shanghai Ultra who make their long-awaited return to the pub after a seemingly endless close season. There’s so much to talk about this week, and with the start of the Chinese Super League barely seven days away, the pair can’t seem to find where to start. However, a certain Frenchman doesn’t take long to make the agenda, odd and strange team moves during the off-season are discussed, as is the upcoming Asian Champions League, and other stuff. Meanwhile, the newly promoted teams’ chances are rated, as is the fact the Chinese Super League has gone from having no city derbies to three in the space of one season, despite the Chinese Super League having a two-down, two-up system… only in the Chinese Super League as we say here at … but anyway, the CS L 2012  countdown starts right here, in Pub Talk.

Shanghai Ultra (Shanghai Shenhua): So B. Here we are back in the pub at last. It’s been quite a long time since we were last here, and so much has happened and there is a great deal to discuss. Where on earth do we begin?

Bcheng: (Beijing Guoan): That’s a tough question, but I’m guessing you want to talk about one of your club’s foreign signings.

S: Yeah… I think Guoan fans are still raging about Griffthis leaving….

B: Haha, I think most rational fans are okay about it, though seeing him in blue is still a little jarring. That’s not the foreign signing I was thinking of.

S: No me neither, just some pub banter to get things underway. About Anelka – a lot has already been said, not least on itself, what are your general thoughts on his arrival now the season is only a week away from kicking off?

B: I think it’s going to lead to a lot of excitement this year, we’re going to see a big attendance boost in Shanghai, but it’s hard to judge the move, it’s about marketing/promotion as much as it is football.

S: Yeah I agree with that. Anelka looked quite bewildered when he made his first public appearance at the Firefall launch event a few weeks ago. I think Anelka coming is great for Shenhua, great for the Chinese Super League in general – but it’s not the long-term answer to China’s football problems.

B: Definitely not. It’s going to be great for Shanghai for sure, fans are going to come out again in Shanghai, even if it’s just about one player. Whether or not this is good for the Chinese Super League is hard to say, on the positive side, it puts the league in the limelight overseas, but if Anelka doesn’t enjoy his time here, it could turn off others from coming.

S: I think Anelka is going to be a success, he is the kind of awkward character who will enjoy being appreciated and I think he will benefit from playing in a different environment and country. I also think Anelka is going to push up attendances when he plays on the road – what do you think?

B: It’s going to definitely help in some of the cities with lower attendances, though without Nanchang, Chengdu, and Shenzhen in the league, I think we’d see a big attendance boost anyways. The Anelka factor will play a part, but this is going to be one of the best attended Chinese Super League seasons in a while.

S: I think we will see the attendance record being broken again. You know what. There’s so much more to talk about I just can’t think what to say. I’m like a rabbit in headlights. Any suggestions.

B: Honestly, I feel the same way right now, but I think its time to talk about a subject that divides instead of unites. There were a few changes in the Chinese Super League this year.

S: Right. Well frankly, I think it’s a joke. Shaanxi moving to Guizhou, no matter what the reasons, it undermines the credibility of the Chinese Super League. When your league is so young, you need to work hard to build tradition. This is what gives leagues personality and the power to attract more fans.

B: It’s hard to talk about tradition when the team spent six years in Xian and changed ownership six times. Despite the massive fan presence, it was never well backed until Renhe came along. I’m conflicted, in one sense the move is good, we get a team in Guizhou, an area that’s underserved by the Chinese Super League, but the Xian fans are great and its hard to see them lose another club.

S: It proves Renhe simply doesn’t care about the fans. All 30,000-odd of them. Chinese fans are treated even worse than those in Europe. And that is pretty bad. How can Chinese football hope to improve when the fans are abused like this? It puts fans off from supporting clubs if they think their team might suddenly move, like some stupid soulless franchise.

B: I think the Chinese Super League, and Chinese football as a whole, has plenty to worry about, when all is said and done, a club moving cities is really a minor issue. Xian fans are unique because they’ve been burned twice, but that’s always a problem when management has no connection to your city. In that sense, it segues perfectly into the Nanchang move.

S: I agree it’s not the most pressing issue, but it is a serious one in my view and I think there should be rules in every league to prevent teams being moved from their local communities and their fans abused to suit the interests of those with power and money. For Nanchang, their move is even more stupid, for a lot of reasons. But their new name amuses me.

B: But if Xian and Nanchang didn’t move, they probably fold, so the move is still the best thing for them. Anyways, yes, the new name, Shanghai Shenxin, is great, it’s a massive F-U to Shenhua.

S: I think it’s a massive F-U to themselves, they are now known as Shanzhai Shenhua in Shanghai, how stupid they are to try to copy the 申 (shen) from Shenhua’s name, its pathetic.

B: To see how pissed off you and other Shenhua fans are about this is exactly why it’s so perfect.

S: I’m not really pissed off by them, I just have contempt for them for leaving Nanchang. Anyway they will be right at home in Jinshan – a fake Shenhua team next to Jinshan’s fake beach! Hah ha ha hah ha.

B: Hahaha, until next season when they share Hongkou with Shenhua!

S: I don’t think we will need to share our stadium with a second division club – they are going DOWN.

B: That is an interesting point, after having survived the drop two straight years, I’d put them on the inside track for going down this year. But it’s nearly impossible to say who else will head down. The two newly promoted clubs are looking pretty strong. Henan and Dalian both have better managers and foreigners than they did last year. Outside of Shenxin, there isn’t really an “easy” game in the schedule this year.

S: Agree. In fact the league as a whole is going to be pretty difficult to predict. How do you see it playing out?

B: It’s really hard to say, I can see Guangzhou being the first ever repeat champion in Chinese Super League history, but they aren’t going to run away with it this year.

S: The championship is hard to predict. But I think it is going to be between Guangzhou, Beijing and Shenhua.

B: I don’t know, I just don’t see how Shenhua’s going to keep the goals out. They are going to be a much stronger team this season if for no other reason than Tigana’s sure to get them mentally strong, but the defense and goalkeeping is just too lacking. I say its going to be Guangzhou, Beijing, and Shandong.

S: Hopefully Shenhua’s new Brazilian can help plug the defence, and Dai Lin can find his brain, since he is a good player who just can’t seem to control himself. In fact Dai Lin is a very classy defender, but he needs to get a grip of himself and stop getting involved in stupid bust-ups, like he did in the friendly against Shenxin.

B: Dai Lin and brain don’t really seem to go together well. I fear how Mao Jianqing will fit in at Guoan, is part of the problem at Shenhua the north/south divide?

S: It could be. Qiu Tianyi is a northerner also I think and he is a good up-and-coming defender who is very popular with the fans, he seems to have his head screwed on. I think we could see him emerge this year, I don’t think Tigana will tolerate any nonsense from anyone. So what about your lot. What do you think your chances will be?

B: Top 5 for sure, with a lot resting on how well Andrija Kaluđerović (that is such a long name, I’ll use AK15, which is what Chinese media has been using) does, there will be a lot of pressure on him and Reinaldo to produce goals. The schedule is highly unfriendly, though, with a lot of tough games right off the start on top of the ACL. Then down the stretch, we have three straight road matches before ending at home against Evergrande. It’s not going to be easy.

S: I think Beijing’s trump card is hanging onto Pacheco – continuity is under-rated in the Chinese Super League it seems, but he’s clearly a good coach who has grasped the essentials of managing a Chinese club.

B: Though he’s yet to grasp “football with Chinese characters”. I can only hope he’ll keep his emotions slightly more in check and will be on the sidelines during every match this season. He’s a hell of a manager and has put together a good team, there are some weaknesses, but I think we should be able to contend.

S: He is a rather animated fellow – I remember him being sent to the stands for making a rude gesture last season.

B: Yeah, he had two multigame suspensions last year and ended up watching 10+ matches from the stands.

S: Oh well. At least he got a better view of the action from there.

B: We’ve talked a little about the domestic league, but the Asian Champions League is a big deal and Guangzhou have really set their sights on it, what do you think are everyone’s chances?

S: The ACL is also a tough one to call. But for different reasons, Japanese teams and Korean teams have been very strong in recent years, whereas Chinese ones have struggled to make it out of the group stage for the most part, so its difficult to know what kind of impact the higher standard of foreign talent coming into the league will have. I can see Guangzhou making the quarter-finals or semis perhaps.

B: I don’t know, Guangzhou has the team they need and from the bonuses, it seems like they are taking it seriously enough, but they are in a very tough group. I think that’s the biggest problem, getting out of the group stage. For Guangzhou, they have a tough group, but they don’t have to make an Australia trip, for Guoan it’s a different story, plus the Australian match is on the final matchday.

S: Anything could happen, but I think Guangzhou will find J-League, A-League and K-League teams a bit tougher than most of the rest of the Chinese Super League.

B: It’s going to be exciting, for Guoan, they really need to get a point in Korea next week to get off on the right foot and get some help before their tough March Chinese Super League fixture list begins. My biggest concern is them needing points on matchday 6 and Pacheco deciding to play a weakened side because he’s more focused on the Chinese Super League.

S: I think Chinese Super League teams have it pretty easy compared to most european teams. Let’s compare it with the EPL for example. They have 38 league games to play, numerous European Champion$ league matches, and some teams may even have to play qualifiers. Then there is the FA Cup, and even the league cup. Chinese Super League clubs just have 30 league matches, no league cup, and a bye into the later rounds of the CFA Cup, especially for ACL teams.

B: Yes, but we’re talking about players who are at different levels of physical conditioning, the league’s only went to 30 games recently. It’s not that long ago there were only 12 or so clubs in the top flight.
Anyways, there’s one ACL team that nobody has mentioned yet, are they really not worth talking about?

S: Tianjin? I can’t see them going far. But then again, they were the only Chinese Super League team to make it out of the group stage last year.

B: I’m with you, especially after they lost Yu Dabao and Wu Wei’an in the offseason.

S: So back to the Chinese Super League – what about the newly promoted teams, Dalian Aerbin and Guangzhou Fuli? Will anyone support them when they have such illustrious city rivals?

B: I think both have a decent support base set up already. Dalian may have it slightly harder, but they have serious local roots. In Guangzhou, there isn’t that engrained loyalty for Evergrande, it’s still a new club. Fuli has some local heroes, including Wu, and is playing at Yuexiushan, which is the “birthplace” of Guangzhou football, so they should be okay.

S: I hope you are right, but I still think it’s not in the best interests of Chinese football for there to be three cities in the Chinese Super League with two teams, when there are places like Xian who were getting 30,000 fans last season but suddenly have no team this season. It’s not sensible.

B: I completely agree with that, and I really hope we see teams from new locales coming up from the China League next season. We don’t need a third Guangzhou or Shanghai club.

S: Certainly not. Although personally I’d like to see Shanghai East Asia come up at Shanzhai Shenhua’s expense next season.

B: Haha, I haven’t done my China League research to see how realistic that is, but I do think Guangzhou Sunray is probably odds on favorite, alongside Hunan Billows, for entering the top flight.

S: Let’s hope not. So what else do we have to talk about?

B: I think we’ve covered all the bases, we’ve been all over the place, but covered the big topics, haha, it seems we’re like the players, still not in full match condition yet, hopefully getting this chat under our belts will help because next week it’s time to start talking about actual league matches.

S: Heh heh yes, a good analogy. We’ve been away from the pub for too long and obviously these virtual beers have gone to our heads. Obviously we should have drank water instead.

B: I’ll bring my A game upon returning from Korea next week, just hoping Guoan will have theirs for that match.

S: Actually one last issue. I find it bizarre the lack of information on Shenhua’s official site on season tickets and the opening friendly against Shanghai East Asia tomorrow. There’s no mention of season tickets except a link to mypiao which appears to only sell VIP season tickets at 1,500 rmb a pop. Obviously I got my season ticket no problem, but for those looking for regular season tickets, I can’t find any info about it. You’d think the club would have something clear about it on their website. But for some odd and strange reason, they don’t.

B: Yeah, Guoan’s ticketing information is limited to season tickets, which have been sold out for a month. I’ve had a number of inquiries about individual match tickets, but nothing is available yet.

S: It seems to be all a bit random. Anyway this year I expect Hongkou to be sold out for the first few games, after that we will see. I am not sure what the word is on how many season tickets were sold, I just know the North terrace section went up from 350rmb last year to 800 rmb this year. A big jump, but still a bargain.

B: Yeah, prices around the country have gone up, but they are still okay, if they keep going up though, its going to start being too much.

S: I think they have been kept artificially low for a number of years, increases were inevitable. But when you consider the price of a Shenhua season ticket is about the same price as a round of drinks in an upmarket club, I think its still tremendous value.

B: I agree, though I also don’t know how many football fans go to upmarket clubs. When you’re getting close to RMB1000 for a season ticket, especially if you aren’t offering student tickets, you’re making it hard for a lot of fans.

S: Yeah I very much agree with that. 800 rmb is quite an outlay for many people, not only students. Speaking of drinking, do you have the chance to enjoy any prematch beers at a Guoan friendly this weekend?

B: My side has some serious matches on the horizon. I’ll be enjoying soju and makkeoli in Seoul before heading down to Ulsan to watch Guoan’s ACL clash on Tuesday.

S: Sounds good. There are also some big away games for Shenhua this season – hard liquor may be the order of the day on these journeys.

B: I’m sure a date in the capital is high on that list?

S: It most certainly is. Plans are being put in place as we speak. March 15, Friday night, a trip to Beijing and to Gongti to sit in the away end to see Beijing v Shanghai. It doesn’t get much better than that.

B: Yeah, I can’t wait to finally sit down and have a drink with you, though I’m guessing you’ll be drinking with the blue lot that night. Hopefully it will be a great start to my weekend. Though that’s still a talk for another time.

S: Yes, I believe next week we will be back up to full pub speed. Well, is it time to get off these bar stools and leave the pub for now?

B: I think it’s about that time. Cheers!

S: Cheers to the first of many great pub chats this season!

B: It’s going to be a fun time this year, I can’t wait.

S: It is, we were so excited during this talk we blabbered on endlessly about not a great deal. Cheers all!

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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