There are, on occasion, stories of inspiration coming from Chinese football. This season has one potentially in the making. In a nation where the professional sport has been branded as tarnished with corruption, vanity projects, and organized chaos there are indeed moments when professionalism and commitment hold true in the face of adversity. Japanese Coach Takeshi Okada, and his staff at Hangzhou Greentown FC have been through a trying rollercoaster and off the field this year and are on the brink of finishing the epic script. Currently one point above the relegation zone, one month remaining in the season, and a storm of politics brewing between the coaches’ host and home nations there is potential for an Asian football legend in the making.
Arguably the most high profile Japanese person to ever work directly for a Chinese company, coach Okada was already a brave soul to commit to Hangzhou Greentown last December, 2011 his first job since leading the Japanese national team to a round of 16 penalty kick defeat in the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Regarding the history of Sino-Japanese relation Okada was quoted in February 2012 as saying “I hope to experience and learn the culture of the two countries differences and conflicts, and I believe that the bilateral friendly ties lie in the hands of every ordinary person.” Such diplomatic positions would be increasingly necessarily. With anti-Japanese sentiment consistently under the surface of Chinese society there was always the risk for one knucklehead of making a global incident. Then, accordingly with Murphy’s Law, this decade’s most virulent public demonstrations of tension between Sino-Japanese relations broke out across China in September following a territorial dispute of islands in the East China Sea. Numbers are estimated in the hundreds of thousands over one weekend. The protests led to one of Greentown’s matches being canceled (along with several other Chinese Super League matches) and another to be played behind closed doors in the Chinese FA ‘straining head quarters. No official reason was given by the CSL, but can only speculate that the league wanted absolutely no risk for Okada and co’s well being. Meanwhile, hundreds of Chinese netizens called for the support of Okada online and stated the importance of separating sport and politics. Yet, one can only imagine the realities felt during the sensitive times at the Greentown FC training grounds.
Yet, out of the ashes of the political storm Okada has emerged with the most unlikely of news. Recent reports state that Greentown FC management supports Okada and his staff more than ever. Furthermore, it’s been stated by Greentown that if Hangzhou avoids relegation then Okada will sign a new contract, while the Zhejiang Sports Daily reports that he’s even offered a new transfer kitty worth 40 million Rmb ($6.34M) to sign new foreign talent, and an expansion of Japanese coaching staff a Greentown with Hideoka Nakata even rumored to be coming. The bold move comes at a time when both the political and football environment for Okada is intense with the club enduring almost season long relegation battle leaving Greentown fans with little to celebrate this season.
Flash back to preseason of this year and coach Okada so confident in his new Hangzhou Greentown squad he held no limits for success and that Hangzhou Greentown, refusing to rule out a victory over Barcelona FC in the 2013 Club World Championships. After a rocky start to the season and the team adjusting to playing possession and not typical Chinese football (physical and long ball) Greentown started to gain positive momentum. Just before the half season break in May Greentown was riding a four game win streak and even on points with third place. Then upon the restart in July things went south. Following a controversial 3-2 home defeat to Changchun Yatai (leading 2-0 at half to concede the first home defeat of the season) Greentown center back captain, former Chinese national team player, and fan favorite Duwei was suddenly sold to rivals Shandong Luneng, reportedly against the wishes of coach Okada. From the 2012 preseason it was clear Greentown was strapped for cash after selling another national teamer Ronghao and only picking up three relatively unheard of Brazilians, all under the age of 24 and without significant first team experience in any top flight league. Still Duwei’s departure was a bitter pill to swallow and many in Chinese football expected Okada to leave Greentown when the contract terminated this year. Subsequently, Greentown’s results went from mediocre to worse, taking nine points from the last ten matches.
As of this article’s writing Hangzhou Greentown is sitting thirteenth (out of 16teams) in the CSL with 27 points, two points above the ‘drop zone’ where Shanghai Shenxin and Henan Jianye are even on 25 points. Two points ahead lie Shandong Luneng and Liaoning Whowin. Having just lost to Liaoning 4-0 in the match behind closed doors, the entire season now rests in the upcoming matches against, you guessed it, Shanghai Shenxin, Shandong Luneng, and Henan Jianye (the former two home, the latter away). To add to the tension to the three matches will be happening during the national holiday marking the 63rd anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. A traditionally patriotic time in China amidst an already galvanized nationalistic and anti-Japanese (the two often going hand-in-hand in China) environment. Furthermore, Hangzhou Greentown has not played a match at home (or away) in over five weeks due to the relocated and cancelled matches, preceded by the three week break from CSL play.
The next week may very well be make or break for Okada and Greentown, and its due as much drama as is possible in the CSL. The homecoming against Shanghai Shenxin will be a test for both Greentown fans considering recent events and the desperate need for points. Then the rescheduled match against Shandong Luneng marks the return of the talismanic Duwei to Greentown for the first time. And Shandong Luneng’s recently appointed interim coach is Wu Jingui, who was Greentown’s 2011 coach before resigning late in the season after a fall out with Greentown FC management involving the financial situation of the club. By the time Greentown reach the third match in eight days against Henan Jianye their season may well have been decided.
For now, Greentown FC and Okada can take confidence from the recent commitments from one another for a brighter future together. But first both ship and captain are aiming for the same island, avoid sinking the ship, amid a season of storms.