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Pub Talk: Deep inside the Shanghai Twilight Zone

Sparks fly in this pub this week as B&C get involved in an unseemly squabble over Shenhua’s chances of being relegated this year. Shenhua dominate the agenda once again, as the strange goings-on at the club follow them on the road to Dalian. Anelka is under the microscope this week also, and Tigana is slammed. Meanwhile in other news, discontent also mounts in Beijing, and the Chinese Super League table is shaping up, as Guangzhou are rated and certain big-name Italian managers chances of coming to China are written off. Elsewhere, flying around in the pub this week are green and blue glasses, and possibly, ostrich eggs. All in this week’s only internet Pub Talk about Chinese football, in English.

Bcheng: We’re once again in the pub and as usual, there’s a lot to discuss. So Cam, where do you want to start?

Shanghai Ultra: I think we should talk about the corruption trials. It’s such an awkward subject for us, right?

B: Yeah, we’re here trying to tell foreigners that Chinese soccer is worth watching and as many converts as we get to our side, something like this makes it so much harder because it’s all the western media cares about.

S: Yeah. Bad news sells, and I think there are many who take a lot of satisfaction about of China’s failure in football so far.

B: It’s kinda hard when you have so many big names, from CFA officials to China’s “top” referees to national team players involved in the scandal.

S: It’s a microcosm of Chinese society. Everyone knows that there is a lot of “invisible tax” here.

B: For the most part, yes, players bribing coaches to get spots, coaches bribing administrators to keep their jobs. This behavior is morally wrong, but anybody whose been in China for a while knows all too well. The real problem is the match-fixing.

S: Yeah it’s that which hurts the integrity of the competition. But the only way I can go on this subject is going on my own experience of watching the Chinese Super League. I can honestly say I have never seen any game which looked any more dodgy, decision-wise, than anything I saw back home in the UK. That is not to say it did not did not happen, and clearly some games were fixed in the past. But I can only go from my own experiences.

B: I’m not going to keep going down that path, hehe, but I will say, it’s important to note that all of these incidents took place before 2008, many of them date back to the early 2000s, so I think (hope) this is all in the past, especially after these trials, which should serve as a real deterrent.

S: Yeah. There is corruption in other leagues, Italy being one example, in fact it’s happened in many places, just that the scale of wrong-doing in China has been extreme.

B: So with that out of the way, how bout discussing the previous weekend?

S: I think the Chinese Super League is starting to take shape. Evergrande are on top, Qingdao and Aerbin are sliding downwards, Beijing and Jiangsu look like challengers, and Shenhua are mid table.

B: It’s interesting you bring that up, this was something I was thinking about today. We’re almost a third through the season, “early days” and all that, but even though only 11 points separate the top and bottom of the table, I think it’s easy to already write off some teams, Shenhua being one of them.

S: Maybe Shenhua will step up their game after the new coach officially comes in, whoever that is. There’s just so many unknowns hovering around the club just now. I wouldn’t write Shenhua off totally, there are still 23 games left to play.

B: There is a lot of football left to be played, for sure, it’s just hard making up points. If Evergrande’s foreigners keep playing like they did last week, it’s going to get even harder.

S: Yeah they are looking impressive it has to be said. It shows how much difference signing the right foreign players makes.

B: Which is why I find it hard to believe they are going to make a change during the summer transfer window. I don’t know how you can dump Cleo and risk whoever comes in isn’t up to it.

S: It’s insane. Evergrande should realise that a football team isn’t a real estate project, you don’t build shitty houses on purpose so you can knock them down again and make more money, you have to think of the long term and find other ways to re-invigorate things instead of headline-grabbing transfers every six months.

B: I’d agree. I like that they’ve rubbished these Lippi stories every which way possible and yet the Italian media is still pushing it. I’m all for “the devil you know is better than the one you don’t”, I know Guoan is dealing with calls to change some of the foreign players, but I don’t think the club is going to make too many changes. Of course the situation at Shenhua is a little different, what happens when Manset’s loan deal is up?

S: I hope he leaves and doesn’t come back. He’s shite. 900,000 Euros for that loan deal? Reading saw Shenhua coming a mile off.

B: The Drogba talk continues, but I can’t see that happening, why join the sinking ship? And if he’s looking for views on Anelka as a manager, perhaps talking to Joel Griffiths would be enlightening.

S: I have no idea if Drogba is going to join or not. Who is going to pay his wages? Zhu Jun keeps bleating about selling up.

B: Well, it took a late goal for Shenhua to get past an equally struggling Shide team (full of its own ownership problems) last week, but it’s going to get a lot harder this week with Shandong heading to the Bund.

S: I think Shenhua rode their luck against Dalian last time round. Shandong are picking up..but how times change…. two years ago this match was a battle between first and second in the Chinese Super League.

B: Last season was a rebuilding year for Shandong, and coaching issues didn’t help. They have the league’s youngest side this season and they’ve been playing decently.

S: So who have Beijing got this weekend and what’s your prediction?

B: Beijing has a bit of a “break” this week, with Shanghai Shenxin coming to town tonight.

S: Ha. Famous last words mate.

B: True, but Guoan have taken down far better teams during Friday night matches at Worker’s Stadium and Shenxin have three players, including two foreigners, forced out of the lineup.

S: Why’s that?

B: Mostly due to the aftermath of Antonio Flavio’s cheap shot.

S: Ah of course, that rush of blood to the head.

B: If Guoan managed to find a way not to win this match, the calls for Jaime Pacheco to “xia ke” will be very noisy.

S:This week the bizarre department has been very busy. Seems a female reporter was beaten up by a Dalian football official in full view of the Shenhua squad after the Dalian-Shenhua game.

B: I kinda feel this is a non-topic, it was wrong of the Dalian FA official to touch the Shanghai reporter, but we don’t know what went down. It just shows the abuse of power that is so common amongst officials in China.

S: Why do you think it’s a non-topic?

B: Because we only know that the Dalian official touched the reporter (she and others say choked, though he denies it). What started it and what actually happened is unknown and it appears it will remain so. Like I said, it’s not news that Chinese football officials view themselves as above the law, as the trials across Liaoning province prove.

S: That’s not the point, a reporter was assaulted in broad daylight in front of everyone, I think that’s shocking come what may, indeed its all over the internet. Shenhua even made a statement on their website about it, can’t really say its a non-story.

B: Well, this wasn’t in “broad daylight”, it was in a back room area and supposedly she wasn’t wearing (or didn’t have) a media credential. The Dalian FA official’s actions were wrong, we can all agree on that, but this has little, if anything,to do with football.

S: The statement on the Shenhua website said the whole team “witnessed this barbarous incident with their own eyes” whilst sitting on the team bus, that sounds like broad daylight to me. I’d say whoever did it is fucked.

B: The incident happened in the press area inside the stadium and appears to have continued to the private parking area. In any case, I’d say you have way too much faith in the Dalian FA and the CFA, I’d be surprised if he gets anything more than a slap on the wrist.

S: Haha. What was funny was a newspaper report saying “Niclolas Anelka has been with nine clubs in 10 years, but he’s already seen more strange things in five months in Shanghai.”

B: Well, strange things happen when you throw your manager under the bus.

S: Things have gotten so strange recently it’s almost become a real-life edition of the Twilight Zone, especially around Shanghai.

B: Yeah, I think a lot could have been saved if Zhu Jun would have just had the balls (or the wallet) to come right out and fire Tigana. That’s where all the problems stem from.

S: For the game against Tianjin, the Shenhua bench was practically empty, against Dalian, I think the would-be new coach was lurking around the sidelines, but not actually allowed on the bench since he’s not officially the coach.

B: We’ll see when things are finally going to change. Shenhua’s just a great soap opera to enjoy, and I don’t think we’ve seen the worst yet. The Griff is simmering…

S: Why?

B: Because he’s sitting on the bench. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be in the starting XI, but it seems Anelka’s freezing him out.

S: He was a late injury against Tianjin so sat on the bench, and was injured in the last game, according to the media.

B: I think he’s said otherwise to Australian media. I just think things in Shanghai have yet to hit rock bottom. There’s a month before the first break in the season and I can see them in the relegation zone when we get there.

S: I think your green glasses are obscuring your view of news reports again B.

B: I think your blue glasses are keeping you from admitting the truth. I actually don’t want to see Shenhua go down this year, but I can’t see them getting much better over the next month, the schedule isn’t getting much easier.

S: Hahaha. I didn’t see Griffthis say anything in the Aussie media. Shenhua wont be relegated – I’ll bet you a year’s supply of Beijing Roast Duck.

B: I think they’ll survive, but it’s going to be a fight for them to stay up.

S: I think that’s a very biased comment, Shenhua aren’t going to win the league, but there is zero chance of them being in any relegation fight, they have the same team that was a few points off top of the league at the half-way point last year, with Anelka instead of Riascos. Mid-table at worst.

B: If you look at how they’re playing and their next five matches going into the first break, I’d say they’ll have five more points. I think that’s realistic. Despite where they were last season, they didn’t remain there for very long and they just don’t have the talent of their competition. Most of all they don’t have the confidence. I’m not optimistic that Anelka as manager is going to be what gets things back on track.

S: Anelka isn’t the manager though. You’re right about confidence, but there is no lack of talent at Hongkou. The team has been through a lot of changes which are still ongoing, they can’t under-perform all season, plus to be totally frank, Shenhua haven’t been that bad, it’s just they have failed to meet expectations.

B: I think you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think Anelka is in charge at Shenhua. I also think it’s really wrong to think Shenhua are somehow more talented than their competition. There’s talent at Hongkou, but more than in Beijing? Jiangsu? Liaoning? Shandong? I think it’s hard to say.

S: I’m impressed with your ability to work out what is really going on in the Shenhua coaching department. But I didn’t say Shenhua were more talented than the opposition.

B: Wait, you don’t think Anelka is running the show? You don’t think he’s picking the lineups?

S: I don’t know.

B: Haha, okay, I think we’ve touched a nerve. Fair enough.

S: I’m just saying, it’s a bit foolhardy to say who is really picking the team. Granted it looks as if Anelka has some input, he might be picking the team, but the situation is so unclear.

B: So if you don’t think Anelka is, then who is? The guy who just got off the plane? Tigana? Zhu Jun? I think we can rationally rule out a number of those options.

S: I said he isn’t the manager. Frankly, it would not surprise me, nor anyone else I imagine, if it was Zhu Jun was picking the team. It would certainly explain a lot!

B: Zhu’s mad, but I don’t think he’s that crazy.

S: It’s a mad and strange situation all round. I honestly don’t think I have enough info to say what is what, all will become clear later.

B: I’m just saying, from everything I’ve read, if I have to guess, Anelka is directly or indirectly (through the new hire) in control.

S: I think that’s fair comment. But for many years, Shenhua’s team line-ups always have strange quirks, regardless of manager. In fact, shenhua have had something like, let me think, nine managers in the last seven years, but there’s always been an odd pattern, suggests that persons unknown have influence over the team, there’s always someone behind the scenes meddling, is it Zhu Jun, is it Chen Liang, the veteran player now on the backroom staff, who can say? Certainly not I.

B: I think there’s some of that with any side, its a reality of Chinese football.

S: That’s true. Well the Shenhua soap opera goes on and on, its certainly giving us plenty to talk about in the pub, is it not?

B: Yeah, this certainly has been one of the weirder pub talks.

S: Yeah Shenhua dominate again, but there’s just so much bizarre stuff going on its unavoidable.

B: Bus toss the coach and then have a cheap owner et viola, that’s what you get.

S: We shall see what happens. I hope an ostrich egg cracks against your green glasses before the season is out. If it’s at all possible, I’ll be the one tossing it in your direction!

B: Haha, yeah, I’ll take mine off when you take off yours…

S: I just say it like it is man, even if my pre-season prediction is looking overly optimistic, I wasn’t biased enough to predict Shenhua would be champs. There is a long way to go and its daft to write off any team, especially one with a player the calibre of Anelka, granted he hasn’t set the heather on fire, but he’s a class act, you dont become crap overnight… we shall see.

B: Well, he’s a good player, “class act” is high praise, especially in light of what he did to Tigana. I just think Shenhua are no longer in that first tier of Chinese Super League talent. You call that green glasses, I say it’s reality.

S: I agree – Guangzhou are in a class of their own 🙂

B: I think that’s actually true.

S: But I have to pull you up again – what did Anelka do to Tigana?

B: He was very open with the media about his disagreement with Tigana over certain decisions, there were some inklings of it after the Beijing match and the match before Hangzhou, but after the Hangzhou match he was a little more open with it. If that’s what he was saying in the media, one can only imagine what he was saying behind the scenes.

S: Anelka was one of many, many voices criticizing Tigana, who was the architect of his own downfall in my opinion. His team selections looked random and he appears to have had serious communication issues with the squad. I think there is a tendency to blame Anelka as soon as there is any sign that he disagreed with a coach, and that has followed him to China. I say well done to Anelka for speaking out, and for Tigana, anyone who only lasts 5 games must have had some serious shortcomings.

B: I think everyone’s giving Anelka a pass, most of all Shenhua fans, because they’re hoping he’ll find his game on the pitch and its just easier to blame Tigana. You can get rid of Tigana, but good or bad, you’re stuck with Anelka, so there’s a need to throw your support behind him.

S: Yeah that is logical, but take the logic further and it follows that Anelka will have to come up with the goods also. He hasn’t yet, and if he doesn’t, then Shenhua really are in trouble.

B: Bingo! We’ve talked a lot about Shenhua today, I think the greater disappointment right now is Hangzhou, they were tied with Shenhua for 3rd in 2010, they finished above Shenhua in 2011 (I believe), they brought in a very expensive Japanese manager, and they’re currently sitting at the bottom of the table.

S: Right, yeah apologies to those reading who find the Shenhua circus act tiresome. Hangzhou don’t look too clever, nor did they against Shenhua a few weeks ago. But I think they have it in them to pull away from the bottom.

B: Well, someone has to go down. This week they face off against fellow cellar dwellars Dalian Shide.

S: Again, its too early to say much about relegation, especially since the table is so tight. I hope Shenxin and Aerbin go down, personally.

B: I think the next five matches are going to paint a more clear picture of how things will be. We’re starting to see some separation.

S: Yeah seems so. Any other games worth a mention this weekend?

B: I think the Fuli-Liaoning match is going to be a good one. Fuli came out strong, but I’m still not convinced they’re really title contenders, if they earn all three in this one, it will help convince me.
sorry, R&F.

S: Haha. I can’t see R&F being up there at the end of the season. I mean, they lost to Shenhua, lol.

B: I think the shock so far is that Jiangsu is the league’s only undefeated team so far. Plus, their last home loss was in early April of 2011. Hosting Henan this weekend, I think that win streak is going to continue.

S: I don’t think Jiangsu being unbeaten is a shock – they have picked up from where they left of last year and look like good money for an ACL finish at worst.

B: Yeah, the right manager and right foreigners make all the difference in this league.

S: Jiangsu are pretty much a perfect example of what can be done on a modest budget – get the right players in, some foreigners who can do the business in China, and get a decent manager who can hold it together – and you’re a winner.

B: And with that, is it time to close the pub?

S: I think it is. It’s been a sizzling afternoon of pub debate!

B: It certainly has, cheers my man.

S: Cheers B, until next time mate.

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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