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Pub Talk: Shanghai Derbies, Dario Conca, and Stadium woes

It’s that time once again as ‘s wildly-popular Pub Talk returns for another round of irreverent irrelevance. Bcheng and Shanghai Ultra tuck into this weeks morsels with gusto, but pass up on a strange-looking starter dish marked Dario Conca’s suspension. For the main course, a funny tasting New Shanghai Derby is chewed over, with defeat for Shenhua surely a hard prospect for Shanghai Ultra to swallow. The pair also digest Beijing Guoan’s season so far, spitting out a few titbits here and there. For dessert its crumbly old Gongti stadium being served up, and, unappetizing though it appears, your intrepid diners chow down on it manfully as they make a meal of this week’s Chinese Super League offerings. That’s what’s on the menu today, in Pub Talk.

Shanghai Ultra: It’s good to be back in the Pub again. This week, I have a desire to discuss Evergrande. What on earth is going on down there?

Bcheng: It is madness, Conca’s suspended, Muriqui’s injured, and yet they’re both travelling to Thailand. Plus there’s the looming need to dump a foreigner for Lucas Barrios. And if that isn’t enough, the annoying Lippi rumors just won’t go away.

S: I found Conca’s suspension strange to begin with. No matter what his misdemeanours were, it just seems odd to suspend your own player from playing. Talk about cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

B: Yeah, especially if it means keeping him out of an absolute must win match.

S: Surely giving him a hefty fine is the only sensible punishment? Unless there are limits on how much the fine can be. In any case, Conca is on silly money, Evergrande fining him is like taking sand away from the beach.

B: Right, well there is a precedent for this, last season Renato was suspended for less. I think Evergrande wants to keep their foreigners under wraps, remember at the start of the season Conca was fined for showing up late to training camp.

S: I think Paulo and Muriqui were also punished for their late coming. But back to the mystery, why is Conca on the squad list for the ACL match in Thailand? I read in the media that Evergrande have back-tracked.

B: It is a strange situation, perhaps with Muriqui looking like he won’t play, the club knows they need Conca. I think it’s a wait-and-see situation, no idea what’s actually going to happen. This whole Conca affair has me less sure that Cleo’s going to be the odd man out when Barrios joins on June 1.

S: Yeah, it’s very interesting. Perhaps the club is even playing on that.

B: I think it’s also important to note that Cleo’s an assistant captain and has taken up Zheng Zhi’s captaincy two or three times already this season. That doesn’t seem like a guy you’d let go of.

S: No it doesn’t. It’s a bit of a conundrum though. Because Cleo and Barrios are both strikers. If Conca left for Barrios, that would leave Guangzhou with three big money foreign strikers, including Muriqui. I think only Shenhua are stupid enough to do that.

B: Right, who knows what’s going on down there. That’s an issue of the Chinese silly season, unless you’re Shanghai Shenhua, everyone else is very low key about it.

S: Right. Well seems like a neat seagueway  about the Chinese Super League’s most headline-grabbing team. But I’m almost afraid to discuss Shenhua these days.

B: Well, they’re only grabbing international headlines, but yeah, I can understand your fear, especially with what’s coming up this weekend.

S: Yes, the Shanghai Derby. I thought about putting derby in inverted commas. But actually Hengyuan were originally a Shanghai team before they moved to Nanchang. And much as I think they should have remained there, rather than move back to Shanghai, I’m glad that at least there is some substance to this derby. In fact I have a feeling Shenxin may have more Shanghainese players on the pitch than Shenhua, but I’d have to check that.

B: Right, its close. As I said from the start, Shenxin’s a Shanghai team, the ownership, the manager, the players, all Shanghainese. They’re a hard team to play against, they don’t give up a lot of goals and from time to time they go crazy on a team, like they did last week.

S: Right. This game has “banana skin” written all over it, and lets not forget Shenxin, in their previous incarnation as Nanchang, won at Hongkou last year and the year before. So the signs are ominous to say the least.

B: Yeah, though with the new derby status, a loss would surely be hard to take for Shenhua. The two sides sit on the same amount of points right now, it’s going to be an interesting, low scoring match.

S: Yeah. The word on the street in Shanghai is that this match is going to be the biggest attended this season, possibly close to a sell-out according to some sources. I can’t see the sell-out, but I do think it could be a good 25,000 or so which would be the biggest crowd this year. It’s an interesting sociological factor at play – the last time I saw Hongkou almost full was for a derby against Zhu Jun’s Shanghai United in 2006 – a team which had zero fanbase basically.

B: It’s surprising to hear that, especially considering how little Shenxin’s attendance has been so far. I’m guessing all the Inter Shanghai fans are going to come out of the wordwork for this one.

S: It’s surprising to outsiders, but not to those in Shanghai. For some reason, Shanghai derbies are always well attended compared with regular Chinese Super League games. I am not sure why. But I think the answer to why the Shanghai public doesn’t get behind Shenhua in regular Chinese Super League games lies in there somewhere.

B: Well, I’ll be pulling for a Shenxin victory. Was going to say upset, but I don’t think many would be surprised if you lot lost.

S: Shenhua have looked a little bit more steady in their last couple of games… but basically… yeah. It’s going to be an interesting game come what may.

B: On the topic of Shenxin, what the hell happened last weekend? They sure went off on R&F. Plus there was Guizhou handing Jiangsu their first defeat of the season. I think outside of Evergrande, who just seem to keep cruising along, we’re looking at a real topsy-turvy league situation.

S: Definitely, there were some surprise results, especially Jiangsu’s. As I said last week, it’s looking a bit ominous that Evergrande are starting to pull away. I hope someone can at least keep up.

B: Well, we talked a little about their recent problems, however they just keep plugging along. They play Shide over the weekend, but after that, their schedule’s going to get considerably harder with matches against Shandong, Jiangsu, Liaoning, and Beijing to end the first half of the season.

S: Right, those are challenging games, at least they aren’t going to be too far ahead at the half way point. So we have talked a lot about Shenhua in recent weeks, but not so much about Beijing, is the pressure still on Pacheco?

B: The pressure was always just coming from the fans, he never faced anything from management. I think the fans are coming around lately as they liked the fight the team has shown in the past few matches. Unfortunately, in both cases the team didn’t start playing until the second half.

S: But it seems Guoan can’t turn it on away from Gongti. Is this a recurring problem since they moved back after the Olympics?

B: Not really, but it’s definitely been a problem starting during the later half of the 2011 season. This year it’s gotten far worse, Guoan’s in 4th place and yet has failed to win a single match on the road.

S: Damn. Even Shenhua have managed one of those. So who is playing well, and who is playing not so well this year?

B: The defense has kept its form from last year against everyone other than R&F, but beyond that, it all falls to the midfield, much like Shenhua. The club brought in two new strikers, but if the service isn’t there, they can’t really be blamed. The problem is at home our midfield plays a very organized, tight attacking game, but on the road it just goes to shit.

: How about Piao Cheng. How is he doing this season?

B: He started out like gangbusters and has been a calming influence in the midfield, but the problem is that he can’t do it alone and he’s at his best when he knows he’s covered in the back and he can slot right behind the striker, but he hasn’t always been allowed to play that far up.

S: Sounds indeed like the midfield is where the problems are, same with Shenhua as you say. Back to Shenhua briefly if I may, looks like Drogba might be coming after all. I’m tired of reading about him to be honest, I wish he would either sign, or be done with it.

B: We were saying the same thing about Anelka. I always used to complain how these signings always happened out of the blue, well Shenhua have done everything they could to make the whole thing more public and its doing my head in.

S: I think its tedious, Zhu Jun just wants in the limelight, he’s more interested in himself than his club as he has proven time after time. But, I think we are both on the same page here, this endless transfer talk is so banal.

B: Right, especially because so much of it is pie in the sky or just to try and talk up a player’s contract in Europe.

S: It’s annoying because we are only two months into the season, it seems that as soon as the winter transfer window disappears behind us over the horizon, the summer one is subject to a media feeding frenzy already.

B: Right, that’s just a reality of the April-October season that the Chinese Super League uses. I’m not sure but it also seems that this season it’s starting earlier than usual, though the season started early this year.

S: Right. So what’s happening this weekend that has you excited. Your choice pick of match?

B: I think Sainty vs. Yatai has some interest, just to see if it was just a minor misstep or if Sainty starts to struggle. The Shanghai derby will be interesting as well, but I think for the pick of this round, it has to be Guoan against Renhe.

S: Yeah, all those games are worthy contests, Guizhou are really moving up the table also.

B: They’re a solid team and their foreign players are really performing for them. Guoan has always struggled against them so its sure to be an exciting match.

S: Elsewhere, I heard Guangzhou R&F have to leave Yuexiushan stadium, apparently they are going to some university stadium on the edge of town instead.

B: Wow, you’ve aped me on this one, I’ve not heard this, is it a permanent thing or a temporary scheduling issue?

S: Let the aping continue! I am not sure, I believe it was in the China, so insert your mocking remark here

B: We’ve talked about Yuexiushan before, the stadium looks like an awesome place to see a match (I know you’ve been there), but it’s so annoying to watch a televised match played there.

S: Yeah the angles aren’t great. But its right in town, I hope the stadium can be renovated and brought up to Chinese Super League standard, whatever that is. And we know how much they like to “renovate” things around here.

B: It’s not the angles that bother me. Maybe because it’s where the entrances and aisles are, but throughout the entire game, you see people walking around. It never stops.

S: To get into the away end requires a bit of a hike up the hill, but that adds to the fun of going there. Certainly its great to see stadiums with character, such things are becoming less and less unfortunately.


B: Stadiums with character don’t really exist in China. I think as much as we both love our sides’ home ground, we’d both admit neither have much character.

S: I think both Gongti and Hongkou have a bit more character than a lot of the utterly boring cookie cutter out-of-town soulless bullshit all-seater stadiums which have been built in the UK over the past 15 years or so.

B: Umm…They have character to us because of their history, their location, what’s around them, etc. But the actual stadiums are just large, soulless concrete edifices.

S: If you look at it that way, then a lot of stadiums all over the world fit into that. If Gongti has character to you, as a Guoan fan, that’s all that matters.

B: I mean, that’s a tough call. I love Gongti’s location and I love Gongti, just because it’s what I’ve always known, but the place is an absolute shithole.

S: I just wish they had done the new lower tier of seating properly and lowered the pitch, rather than the totally half-ass way they did it, plonking seats down directly on top of the running track.

B: It’s actually not as bad as I’d thought it was going to be. They are trying to make minor improvements where they can, I think the reality is that it’s literally falling apart in places so they can’t do too much to it.

S: Was it not “renovated” for the Olympic Games in 2008?

B: It’s gone through a number of different renovations over the years, basically nothing has changed, though they’ve done what they can to make sure it’s at least safe.

S: So that means the chance to rennovate it yet again still exists! Surely they can give it a proper makeover once and for all?

B: I think anywhere else in the world, if you brought in architects to do what they could, a “proper makeover” would be the wrecking ball. I can’t see that happening in China, after all its one of the “10 Great Structures”.

S: I’m afraid I’m about as much an engineer as I am an acrobat. I just hope the site can be preserved and the history respected, the Chinese Super League needs to hold on to whatever continuity it can.

B: I don’t think that’s going to be a problem. I’m guessing I’ll get hate mail from Guoan fans for what I’ve said about it here. I do love it, but it IS a dump.

S: It was kinda ramshackle when I visited. I think it would be acceptable to most parties to basically raze it and build a proper football specific stadium in its place, if money was no object.

B: True, but like I said, the venue has historical importance, so I can’t see them razing it. I think in China, because the lack of permanence of clubs and their lack of ownership over venues, its hard to really have those unique elements that let you know you’re going to a certain teams home stadium.
Only recently have they started putting up Guoan flags and ads outside the stadium, its part of Guoan’s march toward a more “professional” fan experience.

S: I’m glad to hear that. But unfortunately at Hongkou, the ultras are banned from draping flags from the upper tier. I know they annoyed some who stood in the back couple of rows by obscuring their view, but I think tifo is an important part of the culture with the Blue Devils, I’m not sure why the flags are banned, but they shouldn’t be, it was fine for about 17 years, now, as of the end of last season, suddenly it’s not ok.

B: We have lots of problems at Worker’s Stadium with flags and banners being “harmonized”, this season with the addition of a private box behind the Yulinjun, we’re now struggling with the same issue of draping banners, we can no longer do it from the back row.

S: Frustrating considering quite a few areas of Gongti are unused.

B: Such is life being a football fan in China.

S: The football fan is the last individual to be taken into consideration in China, sadly.

B: It’s not that different from anywhere else, but here its especially the case.

S: True, football fans are roundly abused and exploited ruthlessly just about everywhere. Well, I’m getting towards the bottom of this beer, how about we raise our glasses to the weekend’s forthcoming action knock these bad boys back?

B: Sounds good. Cheers, my boy.

S: Cheers B. Take it easy…. or easy takes you.

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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