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Pub Talk: Elephant and ACL Castles

The lads are back where they belong, in the pub, yet again. With the season drawing closer, the Asian Champions League is closest and the blethering pair offer their knowledge, or in some cases lack of, on Chinese team’s chances against exotic opponents. Other exotic creatures are in the pub, notably a huge Elephant which B is better than ignoring than Mr Ultra. The pair eventually discuss the huge beast, and how Shenhua find themselves up to their necks in its dung before a ball has been kicked. There’s time for a light moment, as always, as front pairings in Shanghai attract the pair’s gaze away from the Elephant. Groups of death are also on the agenda, and once again the pub fails to come up with any rational explanation of CSL decision making processes. That’s what’s going on this week in a very crowded and pungent pub, mind your step.

Bcheng: The season’s growing ever closer, but first we have some Asian Champions League action to talk about, so it’s time, once again, for your two favorite drinkers to go down the pub and talk some footy.

Shanghai Ultra: It is, and its not before time. So what are you thinking about the ACL?

B: I’m excited for the first look at four of China’s top teams, but I fear it’s going to be a tough run for Chinese teams once again.

S: Yeah I don’t see anything which suggests they are going to do any better than usual. Although I’d expect Evergrande to make a decent fist of it.

B: Yeah, plus Evergrande got off with, arguably, the easiest of groups among the four Chinese teams. I think if there’s one other team that I think could do okay, it’s Guizhou, who also have a relatively easy group, but I’m not sure about the managerial situation down there.

S: I disagree, Urawa have a lot of experience at ACL level and have won it before, Jeonbuk are no pushovers and Guangzhou already know about Thai teams after last year. Guoan’s group is easier I think Sanfrecce may be J-League champs but they have little experience in continental football.

B: Guoan’s group is easier? You’re having a laugh! That’s hands down East Asia’s Group of Death.

S: You’re so disagreeable B. There is a Team from Uzbekistan in there, I can’t remember any team from that country featuring heavily in the ACL in recent years…

B: Dude, you’re joking right? Bunyodkor were semifinalists last year, they’ve been in the ACL the last six years, have been semifinalists twice, with their worst result finishing in the Round of 16. They are a serious side, though this is their first time switching from “West” to “East” Asia.

S: Ah, brain fart, I didn’t realise they played in the western half before – what’s up with them switching over?

B: Who can understand the inner workings of the AFC? Actually, I’m wrong, they were in East Asia last year…

S: I know Uzbek football is pretty strong as their national team has come close to qualifying for the world cup before, but club sides, I’m not so familiar with.

B: Let’s just put it this way, Bunyodkor is arguably the strongest side in the group, they have plenty of ACL experience, and they are one of the reasons many are deeming this group the “Group of Death”. I get what you’re saying about Urawa, but they’ve been an average team the past few years, and Jeonbuk, well, they aren’t what they used to be.

S: Why does everyone always want to look for a “group of death” ? It’s a bit of a cliché and does a disservice to the other 12 teams in the Eastern half of the draw.

B: That’s a fair point, these are all the top teams in Asia and so no group is outright easy, but you have to look at Guangzhou’s group and see it as easy in comparison to what Guoan and Jiangsu have.

S: I’m glad to see they are spreading the teams out a bit, and Thai sides are getting in. Before it was pretty much a quadrant tourney between Australia, China, Japan and S Korea.

B: I’m not sure A-League fans are happy their clubs are down to two spots, while China’s at four.

S: I think that has got something to do with the number of teams in the A-League, has it not?

B: I think so…Well, we’ll see how those Thai teams end up doing, Buriram gave it a go last year in a very tough group, but I would be surprised if either Thai side gets out of the group stage.

S: I read somewhere that because the A-League only has 10 teams, 4 of them qualifying was deemed overkill. Yeah, Buriram gave a very respectable account of themselves last year, Thai football is booming, about time the hordes of plastic EPL fans there got some proper local football to get into.

B: They’re definitely headed in the right direction, but they have a long way to go. I see Guangzhou and Guizhou going through, while Jiangsu and Beijing probably finish last in their groups.

S: Yeah. Guizhou and Sainty are tough to call, especially as they are both in their maiden ACL campaigns. But you are probably right about Guangzhou and Guoan.

B: How important do you think ACL experience is to a team?

S: That’s an interesting question. I think it must be a significant factor. But in general, I think continental football in Asia is a strange beast. The travelling distances are way greater compared to Europe, and it would seem that sometimes teams aren’t always motivated to win as the tournament still has a bit to go in terms of prestige.

B: I think the travel is going to be a huge issue for Guizhou, as I doubt there’s a direct international flight out of Guiyang, meaning they’ll have to fly through Guangzhou or Shanghai, but at the same time, at home it’s going to be an advantage.

S: That’s true, I hadn’t thought of that. Plus the visitors will have to deal with the inevitable delays at Chinese airports.

B: Beyond that, the Australia trip is always a pain, but travelling to Korea and Japan won’t be any harder than a lot of their domestic trips. The football is different, obviously, but I don’t think it takes that much more and it seems that China puts a greater emphasis on the ACL than some other countries. I’m talking about travel for the teams not named Guizhou.

S: Yeah. China definitely is more enthusiastic about the ACL than other countries, you know how much they like to keep up with the Joneses around here.

B: I just think its excitement over the “international” competition, plus Chinese fans are going to come out to see their club in big numbers.

S: I think its very interesting to see these exotic clubs from other countries come to compete against your team, I’ve always enjoyed ACL games.

B: I would be more excited if Guoan wasn’t in the group it’s in. I fear it’s going to be a long, six matches.

S: You don’t think Guoan will make a better stab of it than they did last year?

B: Honestly I can’t see how they could, this group is even harder than last year and the club has shown no ambition when it comes to strengthening the side during the transfer window.

S: It must be frustrating to see the club doing so well at the turnstiles, but the monies not being invested in better playing staff.

B: It is! Financially, they are likely bringing in more than anyone else, plus CITIC’s far from poor, but it’s kind of similar to Arsenal, it just looks like they’re happy to finish near the top, maybe slip into an ACL spot most seasons, but not seriously compete for the title. They’ve not added a single domestic player during this transfer window. Even with their foreign signings, its disappointing, they bring in Andre Lima only for the guy to fail his physical, no idea why Guoan can’t find decent Brazilians, unlike every other CSL side.

S: Another failed medical? Dare I enquire what was wrong this time??

B: No enlarged balls this time, but still, it’s a joke which shows how little effort the front office is putting into recruiting players.

S: Ok, so he wasn’t spotted trying squeeze a pair of gigantic bollocks through the front door of Gongti again. There’s definitely a lack of thought going into signings up your way. Although, I only wish Matthieu Manset failed his medical.

B: It’s just so freaking disappointing because the team is maybe two good signings away from being a real title contender, instead I’m just hoping they can get back into the ACL next year, and the front office seems perfectly okay with this. Anyways, this is just getting me depressed. I’m going to break a little news, a story I’ve already mentioned on our twitter, Guizhou has reached a deal with Qingdao’s midfielder Zheng Long and just waiting for the Chinese international to put pen to paper.

S: That is a big signing, surprised he did not goto Evergrande.

B: I’m not, Evergrande has way too much in center mid, a youngster like Zheng is going to want to go where he could play. I’m impressed with what Guizhou has, quietly, done during the transfer window, nobody is talking about them but if there’s another club that can compete with Evergrande and Dalian Aerbin, it’s Guizhou. My only concern is that they haven’t replaced Gao Hongbo, kind of shocking, but good to see a club give a chance to a Chinese manager.

S: Yeah I think Guizhou might give Aerbin and Evergrande a run for their money in the top 3. I’d expect those three to occupy the top three spots come November. Speaking of certain managers, I think its time to address the huge elephant in the room….

B: Go on…

S: Well Aerbin suddenly find themselves out of a manager, since he was banned from football for life. What say you?

B: Well, I know we’re going to go deeper into this topic, but when it comes to Aerbin, I think it’s going to be hard at first to adjust to a new manager, but the talk is they’ll get Lee Jangsoo or possibly even Jaime Pacheco (which would be hilariously ironic) and so I think they’ll end up even stronger.

S: Right. But *cough* The elephant?

B: Haha, it must have really hit home today with the new jersey release and your kit with only one star on it, huh? I found it totally hilarious…

S: Yes, I saw that today and it did hit home. But its only right. I don’t have a problem with it at all, I wish it hadn’t happened, but misdemeanours of the past mustn’t go unpunished no matter how far back they initially occurred.

B: As a Shenhua supporter, what do you think about the punishment?

S: I think stripping the 03 title is unavoidable given the findings of the investigation, and frankly I have no problem with it. But the -6 point punishment seems harsh, the people being punished by this act are not those responsible for the crime.

B: I don’t know, I think six points was lenient in light of the punishments in 2009 (Chengdu and Guangzhou being relegated). At the same time Shandong and Changchun didn’t face points deductions or title strippings, so it does seem harsh. The CFA doesn’t seem to have any standards and so I can see why you’d be unhappy about the seeming arbitrary nature of it all.

S: Sure, we can say that Shenhua can consider themselves fortunate not to be relegated. But I think in the Guangzhou (pre Evergrande) and Chengdu cases, the crimes they were punished for were much more recent. Has anyone came up with an explanation of why it has taken 10 years to conclude that Shenhua bought the 03 title? I have a feeling there is no clear answer for this.

B: I think the only answer is that with everything that came out in the trials that took place last year, the facts could no longer be ignored and something had to be done. Why it took the CFA so long to do something, who knows. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons Wei Di was unceremoniously dumped.

S: It could be. But why did the trials not start sooner? I don’t think anyone really knows. Does anyone really know anything? Again, it all goes back to the opaque legal system in China. The process is not open to scrutiny, therefore any analysis of who did what and how verdicts were reached is just informed guesswork based on innuendo.

B: Exactly, not being a witness to the trial, it’s hard to say what came out, it’s hard to understand why a greater crackdown didn’t take place. Everyone “knows” that Changchun bought the ’07 title, just like everyone “knew” Shenhua bought the ’03 title. But they only got fined RMB50,000, it’s shocking…

S: Yeah the allegations surrounding Changchun prove the whole point. But why didn’t it come out about Changchun then?

B: The referee of some of those late season matches is in jail, but maybe he didn’t come forward as to who paid him. I don’t know, all I know is that the punishments for everyone, or maybe everyone other than Shenhua, were incredibly lenient.

S: Yeah so it all comes back to the fact that, things are not run in a transparent manner. The CFA are banning people from football when they are already locked-up, what exactly is the point of that? Talk about closing the barn door after the horse has bolted.

B: It does seem rather odd, at the same time, I’m just glad to see the CFA do something and I hope it makes people think twice in the future, though I fear the penalties were too light to do that. At this point there is no way one can doubt it, match fixing isn’t just a problem in China, it’s a global football issue and it’s good to see the CFA do something, anything.

S: It is good to see the CFA doing something, efforts are being made and indeed, it’s a global problem as we have seen recently elsewhere. But we should point out that, I think all of the individuals involved have been punished by China’s law courts, the CFA’s punishments are supplementary for the most part as I understand it.

B: Of course, while they went easy on the clubs, a lifelong ban from football (or even just a five-year ban) on top of multi-year jail sentences would make most officials think twice.

S: Yes, and the cunning old CFA also has made them aware that, if there was somehow a way for them to continue their involvement  in football whilst locked in a jail cell before, there isn’t any longer!

B: Haha, I get what you’re saying, at first I found it a bit of a joke, but we both know how much things in China are based on connections and how easy it would be for one of these guys to get out of jail, find a friend, and get some kind of job.

S: Yeah, damn connections!

B: So, let’s move on to a lighter topic to close out the pub, as mentioned earlier, today was the first official look at all the new kits and I think your lot are looking pretty damn good.

S: Yeah I like the new strip, it’s better than last years. But when will we finally get rid of red from our top? It doesn’t belong there.

B: I personally like the red accents. Nike definitely did well on it, but I get what you’re saying. Dark green (and yellow) is quickly becoming one of Guoan’s colors.

S: No more “gua pi” ?

B: The xigua pi (watermelon skin) is no more. I’d be fine with Nike slipping yellow more and more into our colors if they gave us a yellow change kit, but instead, once again, almost all the change kits will be white.

S: That’s kinda boring eh? Any other kits attract your attention?

B: I like Hangzhou, as they are the only team that gets that template (I almost wish that would be our kit). I also really like that the stripes are back for R&F, I hope they keep that as a kit element in the future.

S: Stripes are good. Speaking of aesthetic matters, have you seen the wife of Shenhua’s new signing, Patricio Toranzo?

B: Not too shabby, I’m sure Shenhua fans will be watching her if she shows up at Hongkou instead of the crap on the pitch.
And with that are we done with yet another pub?

S: Well, let’s just say if Shenhua had a front pair like his wife everyone at Hongkou would be very happy indeed. Another couple of jugs of beer for the road?

B: You know I can never say no to more beer…Cheers mate! It’s been a long wait, but the season’s finally upon us, some fun times ahead.

S: Indeed so B. Cheers to that!

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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