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Pub Talk: Drogba and Anelka have gone, but the Pub is back

Pub Talk is BACK after a long winter hibernation. You’ll be glad to know the pubsters have lost none of their wit,  insight and usual nonsense as the drinking pair of Bcheng and Ultra boldly look back on last year and look forward to the coming season. There’s a lot to talk about what with the pub having lain empty for a while. Professionalism is this weeks buzz-word, and inevitably Drogba and Anelka come up – what can we say of the famous pair? Also under the microscope is the Chinese national team, very briefly anyway. We look at who has arrived in China over the close season, and examine silly official statements by certain silly club owners. All that, and some other stuff, in the pub this week. Pull up a stool and join in the conversation in the comments at the foot of the post.

Bcheng: It’s been a long time away from our beloved pub, but with the season approaching and opening ACL matches in a little less than a month, we’re returning to the pub for (hopefully the final) Shenhua-centric pub talk.

Shanghai Ultra: Famous last words mate. But it’s good to be back, where we belong.

B: So let’s get right down to it. A little over a year ago, Nicolas Anelka joined Shanghai Shenhua, followed by Didier Drogba, who arrived just in time for the China derby match. Now they are both gone, where does that leave us?

S: I think lessons must be learned from their short stays.

B: Lessons to be learned? Like paying your players is a good thing?

S: Yes, this simple fact must be observed in future.

B: I joke about it, but honestly what do you think should be learned from it? To me, their departure is not a surprise in any way, you have plenty of players who sign 1.5 year or 2 year contracts in the CSL and then leave after only a year. It’s just their names aren’t known worldwide.

S: Yes, that is a very good point, foreigners come and go like busses in the CSL, its only now since its big names the international media gives a shit. However, there are lessons to be learned, that is, the lack of professionalism in the CSL is clearly a big issue and played a part in Drogba and Anelka not hanging about.

B: Professionalism in the CSL or professionalism at Shanghai Shenhua? I think there’s a big difference between the two.

S: Of course there is, Shenhua clearly are a dysfunctional club lacking professionalism, other clubs might not be so prone to chaos and bizarre decisions, but the Chinese media talks about this lack of professionalism all the time. So when you have such two big stars coming here, and then they leave not even half way through their contracts, the only positive thing that can come is to look at why they left, why the CSL is in the internatonal news for the wrong reasons, and to let this be a very big and public reminder of the work that needs to be done.

B: See I think we differ on this, maybe it’s because you’re hurt because it’s your club, but I don’t see it as being something that is all that important. Anelka has always been very nomadic (and a little bit weird), I’m not at all surprised he only made it through a season.
Perhaps it’s because they are leaving with “good reasons” (ie non-payment of salary), but I think there is already too much focus on their departure. Players pull this stuff all the time, look at Conca trying to get out of his contract in Guangzhou, for example.

S: I believe I’ve always been very objective about Shenhua, my personal connection to the club doesn’t really come into it, everyone can see it is not run in a manner befitting a professional football club and I have always just said it like it is when it comes to Shenhua. You are right about Anelka, he’s an oddball, and I do agree that this is not the big deal it’s made out to be. Lack of professionalism is a big issue for all clubs and I believe that is part of the reason why so many foreigners don’t stay so long.

B: I think it’s easy to talk about “lack of professionalism”, but I don’t think it’s really all that lacking. There are some unique aspects of Chinese clubs, and, for example practice facilities and the like vary depending on the club, but I don’t think it’s all that bad. A lot of time the lack of professionalism is on the player’s part. Again, using the Conca example, he signed a long-term contract in China and then got bored and wanted out, though it seems Lippi talked him down from the ledge and he’ll be staying with Evergrande.

S: There are individual players who have personal issues or whatever, but the bigger picture is that there isn’t enough professionalism, the Chinese media constantly highlights this, Evergrande boss Xu Jiayin even said out loud at the People’s congress the whole systems lacks professionalism, the CFA is always staffed by some bureaucrat who knows nothing about football so it’s never going to be sufficiently professional when it’s led by some engineer or career politician, its a serious matter that needs improving.

B: Xu Jiayin’s an interesting one to quote. Again, “professionalism” covers so much and is such an easy watch word to throw around, and now you’re talking about issues within the CFA which leads us into a wholly different topic. Yes, I hope the CFA is overhauled and there are reasons to be slightly optimistic it will happen now that Wei Di is out and there seems to be a closer eye over what’s going on at the CFA.

S: Your point about Xu is a good one, but in turn his point is correct. This is why some Shenhua fans support Zhu Jun and private ownership, they think the alternative, being owned by the government and run along “sports bureau” lines means they will not be “professional enough” – their words not mine. It’s just a pity they can’t find a more responsible private owner than Zhu.

B: It obviously depends on the system. Guoan is owned by the “government”, but it’s one of the more professionally run clubs. If we’re talking about facilities, the day-to-day life, etc. I don’t think the experience for players is very different from being at a European club in one of the “lesser” European leagues.

S: You’ve been around European clubs training facilities have you?

B: You’ve been around a number of CSL club training facilities?

S: No, but I think in European countries where football has a long and developed culture, where it is not meddled with by people and organizations who do not understand football, are bound to have better training systems than what exists in the CSL.

B: I’ve been around the facilities in Beijing, seen plenty of pictures of the facilities at a few of the other clubs, they are very impressive. There are some Chinese aspects to how things are run, but you’re painting with way too thick a brush. What does training systems encompasses? Are we talking about day-to-day operations? Are we talking player fitness? Are we talking about youth development? If so, from what level?

S: It’s easy to build impressive “facilities”, it’s just bricks and mortar, but it’s another matter to put in place training systems, with the right people to get the most out of these facilities. There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that the CSL is seriously lacking in this respect,

B: At some clubs, yes. At some clubs, no. Look at league champs Evergrande, you have Marcello Lippi in charge, he has a full staff of foreigners, we’re talking weight training, daily fitness, nutrition. All this is being addressed.

S: Which “lesser” European countries are you suggesting are not that different from the CSL?

B: I get your point, overall the clubs that are doing things “right” in China are in the minority, but there are clubs — look at Evergrande, look at Guoan, look at Shandong — who have developed things to a fairly high standard.

S: Yes they are going in the right direction and deserve credit, but Chinese clubs can’t even compete in Asia let alone Europe, it stands to reason training systems even at lower level European clubs are above CSL level in general.

B: Perhaps its the lawyer in me coming out, but when talking about “professionalism”, we’re talking about something that encompasses so much, if we’re not defining what we’re talking about, it’s just another “buzz word”, it’s another saying “China needs more professionalism” and we’re not going to get anywhere. See, now that puts us down another very deep rabbit hole. Why is Chinese football struggling? Hit home once again by the loss to Oman.

S: Yeah I would agree with that, it’s some word that people throw about and its fashionable and is an over-simplification. Yes the Oman result was another shocker, how low can we go?

B: Exactly mate! I’m just sick of talking in generalizations because we’ve seen what happens when you start doing that too much, it’s easy just to keep repeating that generalization without addressing the important issues. It’s sort of like talking about “revolution” in the CFA. We heard that when Wei Di came in and nothing changed, in fact in a lot of ways things regressed.

S: What do we know of Wei Di’s replacement?

B: Very little, he has a bit of experience in football and he’s saying all the right things, but we just have to see how he’ll actually act. He’s talking revolution, but we’ve all heard that before. In a perfect world, he’d divide the CFA from the General Administration of Sports, gut the organization for the most part, and then hand things over to a “football” person, someone like Xu Genbao or Hao Haidong.

S: You’d think that surely a football person needs to be in there somewhere, and if not at the top of the command chain, very close to it.

B: Obviously the first step, making the CFA wholly independent, is never going to happen, but I’m somewhat optimistic that we’ll see some of the changes that need to be made.

S: Yes fully independent organizations don’t really exist around here. But there is plenty of potential for change even without re-structuring, its more about having people with the right knowledge and ability in the right place I think.

B: Yes, removing the bureaucrats who’ve been getting fat off the organization and bringing in new people, new ideas, and those that know and love the sport. Wei Di was not a football person and I never thought much of him. I think, his legacy if anything, will be what he did with School Football. That said, why I’m optimistic, after so many years, is that firing him shows that there are people higher up in the government, and whether that includes Xi Jinping or not, who knows, are looking closely at the CFA and looking for action and not just talk.

S: I think there is a feeling that the decisions made in the past, at top level, have not worked. And there’s no shortage of evidence to back that up. So, staying on the national theme, dare we look forward to China’s AFC cup game against Saudi next Wednesday?

B: Absolutely not. I’ve been very down ever since the draw, I know China hasn’t done much in the Asian Cup since it was held in China, but this time around, I’m predicting China fails to even qualify for the Asian Cup, and Wednesday will be the first step in that failure.

S: I’m afraid you could be right. However, the Oman game was just a friendly. Saudi aren’t as good as they used to be by a long way. Iraq are not great by any means even if they got some results against China in the World Cup qualifying last time. And Indonesian football is in an even bigger mess than China’s right now.

B: The Saudis are good enough, though, and Iraq has dominated China, but anything is possible and when the match begins on Wednesday, I’ll be watching and cheering like I always have.

S: I think I may tune in also and my fingers will indeed be crossed for China. So, how about we move onto the CSL, how is 2013 shaping up in your eyes?

B: I think there is plenty to be excited about regarding the upcoming season, even though there haven’t been any of the “big names” we expected joining the league.

S: Right, although I’d say Hoarau is another big, big signing even if he’s not Drogba level.

B: On that point, you can talk about Elkeson as well. These aren’t “names”, but they are another level of quality, from top clubs that we haven’t seen many players coming from before.

S: Yep, definitely. The transfer market has been quieter than expected really, Guoan have been very slow.

B: Yes, but we have plenty of time to discuss that in a few weeks as we get closer to the season. Let’s finish off by returning to the original topic. What’s the legacy of Drogba/Anelka in China? Should we be looking at the good or the bad? Or more directly, was it good or bad?

S: Right, well the good was that it showed, once again, the potential of Chinese football. The money is here and I believe stars see China as a new and exciting emerging league, even if it doesn’t have its problems to seek. I think it’s an exciting option for a lot of stars and compares well with other leagues where star names do go such as the oil-funded middle eastern leagues, the MLS, the A-League.

B: Yeah. That is what I’m trying to focus on, it was amazing to see the likes of Anelka and then Drogba. I know when we held internal voting for the awards, there were some jokes about Anelka for the most wasted use of a foreign allotment, and an argument could be made in that respect, but I think an argument can be made that he was Player of the Year as well. His arrival in China changed things, it facilitated Drogba’s arrival and it changed the game. That he joined a club that has been a joke for the way it’s run even before this season was too bad, but I think there’s too much focus on the negative with these players departing now.

S: Yes. And it has to be re-iterated, many of the problems with Anelka and Drogba are more because of Shenhua’s incompetence and not so much the CSL or China. But moving onto the negative side, I saw today a Shenhua twitter account saying “thanks to Nico.”  This winds me up to be honest and this is where my personal emotions come into it. Thanks for what? For taking hundreds of thousands of RMB a week from Shenhua and not even scoring a goal at Hongkou all season? He was a failure, and he ought to hang his head in shame. As usual, it is the fans who suffer the most.

B: I agree his failure on the pitch was shocking, but whether that’s due to his age or his just not caring, we’ll see. What he does at Juventus, if anything, will speak volumes.

S: It will be interesting to see how he does. Drogba I think though is a more clear-cut case. He stuck to his side of the bargain. He signed a massive contract, but he delivered the goods as far as he could in a mismanaged and chaotic team. He scored goals and showed a desire to win in the CSL as if he was still playing in the champions league. Shenhua obviously could not keep paying his wages, there is nothing more to say about his departure, other than Zhu Jun claiming Shenhua still has a contract with Drogba is nothing short of utterly pathetic, and makes the whole affair even more embarrassing for Shenhua than it already is. Disgrace.

B: Everyone’s definitely willing to give Drogba the benefit of the doubt when he says his salary wasn’t fully paid, though there is a sports arbitration center in Shanghai that’s connected to the global arbitration courts for sports. I’m very interested to see if things get to that point, because we could learn some new things about Shanghai Shenhua.

S: Yes, we would, that is one reason why it will not get that far, but the main reason is this: Does anyone out there really believe someone of Drogba’s standing, someone who prides himself on integrity, someone who has stopped a civil war in his own country, someone who gives his money to build schools and hospitals and other charities in the Ivory Coast, someone who has played at the very top level of the game, does anyone really think this guy would sign a contract with another club without first seeking the appropriate legal advice to make sure his contract with Shenhua was null and void? Anyone?

B: I think that’s a good point, again, it’s why everyone is giving him the benefit of the doubt. I think Shenhua is “talking tough” because, despite it all, they were hoping he’d stay in town, whereas they didn’t care about Anelka’s departure.

S: Right. I also read an interesting piece by a prominent Chinese football journalist. He said that Shenhua had lost Wu Xi, Feng Renliang, and Anelka, but they psychologically were able to accept that because they thought Drogba was still coming back. That is a very astute observation, the fans are devastated, again.

B: My take on their “legacy” is that it was a great thing, it made “casual” fans excited about Chinese football again and some will still stick around (though maybe not so much in Shanghai). The media are focusing on this story, but the international media was never going to care about a clash between Liaoning and Changchun, they only cared about Anelka and Drogba. It’s too bad that this happened at Shenhua, but I don’t think it will keep players from coming to China, though I do think some will think twice before joining Shenhua.

S: I would definitely agree with what you just said there. However, I do think Shenhua, no let met phrase that – Zhu Jun, putting an official statement on the website saying how outraged they are that Drogba is leaving does give a bad impression of Chinese football, to the outside world. In fact, I think this is the most pathetic, ridiculous and downright irresponsible thing Zhu Jun has ever done, when the whole world is watching. It sends several messages: 1. Zhu Jun doesn’t understand FIFA rules about what happens to contracts when wages arent paid. 2. China is a fuck-up league who sign big names as PR stunts but can’t hold onto them 3. Chinese clubs don’t play by the rules. At least that is how a lot of outsiders will look upon it, even if its Zhu Jun who is to blame for all of this in my view. And him being Chinese, he should understand perfectly well collective blame and responsibility rather than mistakes being attributed to specific individuals.

B: True, it’s still an uphill battle in China and the likes of Zhu Jun aren’t making it any easier. Well, cheers mate, was great to be back down the pub after so many months of being away. Look forward to our post-Spring Festival pub talk when we start looking in-depth at the transfer market and the 2013 season. Hopefully by then a decision will be made on which 16 clubs will play in the CSL…

S: Yes, there’s a lot for us to look forward to in the coming months, dare I say, despite being a Shenhua fan, I can’t wait for it all to get started again. Stay tuned everyone.

B: Cheers!

S: Cheers 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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