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Pub Talk: Guangzhou Evergrande invade the bar

The boys mix it up this week with a special guest – contributor GZ Biffo storms the pub, and by popular demand, Guangzhou Evergrande get some beer-lovin as the Cantonese giants are discussed in minute detail. Star names are assessed, Ultra cracks his tired old Guangdong food jokes, and following Beckham’s golden balls in the pub last week,  Biffo keeps his stones in his pocket this time. The big game of the first half of the season dominates the agenda – B and Biffo give their views on tonight’s massive clash – Guoan v Evergrande. There’s a bit of time to briefly lap up some good news for China’s national team, before B leaves the pub early to go to abuse a certain ex-Beijing player who is now wearing red, Biffo and Ultra ruminate over the rest of the week’s news and other general malarkey. Join in the fun below, in the pub, this week, on .

Shanghai Ultra: Welcome to the Pub everyone – we’ve got something a bit different this week. is pleased to add some Cantonese element to the mix, in the form of a rare species – an Irish Evergrande supporter. Welcome GZ Biffo!

GZBiffo: Hello there, nice to be in the pub for a change rather than loitering outside throwing stones. Though I have a few in my pockets just in case.

Bcheng: Welcome Biffo, it’s great to finally have a Evergrande supporter with us and now that we do, it’s perfectly okay for me to say things like, Huang Bowen, if by chance you are reading this, eat shit and die.

GZ: Poor old Huang, forever scorned for committing the unforgiveable sin of moving to a job that offers him more money. Not totally sure what all the fuss has been about. He’s a handy player but hasn’t exactly established himself as an essential element of the squad. How good was he really at Guoan?

B: I guess I got us started off on the wrong subject. We should talk a little about the national team before we get into the topic of that traitor…

S: An exciting last-minute victory for China and a much-needed one too. The game itself wasn’t all that great but China got the late goal and I think they were due a break so all is good for the time being. Had they only drawn, I would have been fearing that it might be too steep a hill to climb to get to Australia in 2015.

B: Camacho’s job appeared to be saved by the weather. China played a decent game, but Iraq looked dangerous, an odd red card at the end of the first half changed the dynamics and killed off Iraq’s push forward, that and the downpour changed the second half. The goal was a bit of luck, but with how things went in the first match, China deserved that luck.

S: So, Biffo, I was going to ask if you were part of the usual mob booing about the endless Shenhua and Guoan banter. But it is really good to have an Evergrande fan in the house – I’m eager to hear your take. So Biffo, you’ve been on the staff for a while, but you remain something of an international man of mystery – can you tell us a bit about how you came to support Evergrande?

GZ: I’ve been down here almost four years but only started going to see Evergrande play when I moved pretty much next door to the stadium. That was two years ago, and I’ve tried to make all the home games I can since then, but still haven’t been to even a single away game. I’m Hoping to go to the upcoming ACL match against Muangthong Utd though. On the national team, was on a flight back from Huangzhou when the match was on but having seen the goal and read the report, I can’t say I feel I missed out on much.

S: How do you feel about Evergrande’s start to the season?

GZ: The Super Cup loss was a bit annoying, but it’s a fairly meaningless trophy and the players certainly didn’t seem to care very much about winning it. Since then though – what more could we possibly have asked for? Muriqui seems to be back on top form, and Elkeson’s been a revelation with five goals in his first two league games. I’m really looking forward to seeing if he can keep up this run in his first away game in China – and what an intimidating ground to go to it is!

S: Indeed – a huge game so close to the start of the season. From where I’m sitting it looks as if Guoan might be the most serious challenger so far. B – what do you think?

B: At this point, it’s not even worth talking about anything down the road. Guoan are one of the sides, if not the only side, that has been able to go head-to-head against Evergrande and hold them. The four times these teams have faced off we’ve had two draws and each team winning once.

S: Beijing’s definitely been one of the few teams to really give Evergrande a game on a regular basis. Last season both your teams gave what was voted as ‘s game of the season. Biffo, you’ve seen Evergrande play most of the teams in the CSL, how do you think Guoan rank in comparision?

GZ: Games against Beijing have been definitely among the most intense I’ve seen Evergrande play. A lot of teams seem to give up against us quite easily, but Beijing don’t. Their home win last year was pretty meaningless though, being on the last day of the season with the title decided, so I don’t think much can be read into that. I expect a tough game and I’d happily settle for a point from in advance, but I’m not sure Guoan are as strong as their opening results suggest, and we’re going to be a real test for them.

S: Good points – Guoan definitely underspent in the transfer market. But I think this game will be a good indicator of how things will go up till the midway point in the summer. What’s your take on the upcoming match B?

B: I think it’s the first real league test for both sides. Guoan has put in some mediocre performances so far but have found a way to win in the end. I don’t think Guoan can keep Evergrande off the board, but I also can’t see Evergrande dominating this match. It’s looking like a 1-1 draw to me, though Guoan will hopefully come up with another late winner to make it 2-1.

S: As a neutral I will definitely looking forward, its the biggest game not only this weekend but I think for the first half of the season.

GZ: What kind of approach do you expect Guoan to take in the game B? Do you think they’ll attempt to frustrate Evergrande with a tight defensive perfomance as Jiangsu did in the Super Cup, or do you think they’ll play more like a home team and go on the attack?

B: It’s still hard to know exactly how Stanojevic is going to play these things, but I don’t think he’s going to be afraid of Evergrande and have Guoan sit back. That’s not Beijing style football.

S: So should be a bumper crowd at Gongti for the game – are there any bizarre crowd restrictions inplace this time around?

B: No restrictions now that the two meetings are over, and tickets sold out in five minutes. I’m expecting a massive crowd and it should be a special atmosphere.

S: Will it be sold out? What is the actual capacity these days there, 65 k?

B: Well, okay, they can’t sell out the stadium completely, but I would expect it will be at least 40,000, potentially even more than that. The actual capacity of the stadium is something like 70,000 or so, I believe.

GZ: If 70,000 came, would they all be allowed in, or is there a lower limit for CSL games? Like the “39,99x limit” they pretend to have at Evergrande.

B: No, if they put 70,000 tickets on sale, they’d sell out the stadium, however Beijing being Beijing, there are serious restrictions placed on crowd size by the local constabulary. For a big match like this, I’d guess the attendance will be 40-45,000, maybe more.

S: What’s this 40k limit at Evergrande Biffo, I read that the crowd now roundly boo the announcement at the stadium because its so obviously low.

GZ: Ridiculous but there you go. Yes, Tianhe Stadium is a 58,500 seater, and in 2011 the attendance seemed to be being accurately reported, with regular attendances of around 50,000. However the last two seasons every game has been reported as attracting less than 40,000 even though the stadium is often very obviously much less than one-third empty. I guess being so far from the central government, Guangzhou can get away with just paying lip-service to attaendance restrictions, but in Beijing they’re forced to actually follow them! Or something like that, it’s all guesswork.

B: Yeah, I’ve found estimating crowds in Chinese stadiums a very random thing. It can be extremely difficult due to the size of the stadium, the amount of noise, and the large number of empty sections.

S: I have to say I did notice the drop and attendance figures, even for the big games there was somehow always less than 40k. It’s a bit like the summer temperature in Shanghai. It’s never, ever reported as being over 40c, because then everyone is allowed to stop working, aparently, if it goes over that.

GZ: I suppose you’d have to see it to believe it but there’s a reason the crowd boos the announcement of the attedance figures. If you know the capacity of the stadium, it’s just impossible to believe when you look around the ground.

S: Yeah I think dodgy attendance figures are commonplace in many countries. In Scotland, Rangers, when they weren’t cheating the taxman, were also found to be cheating everyone over attendance figures. Someone used the freedom of information act to reveal that the attendance amount reported to the police was often 15k less than the amount reported to the media, which included season ticket sales figures since these seats had been paid for even if the buyer didn’t turn up to watch the match.

B: Perhaps Evergrande only counts the tickets they actually sell….

S: Yeah maybe the Cantonese are eating their way in through the walls or gates?

B: Umm…

GZ: Lol

S: Actually, that’s not possible, since the walls don’t have legs. But if the walls had ears. Then we might hear some interesting things. So how’s Conca, Biffo. I thought Elkeson was a similar kind of player to him. But seems Elkeson is being played upfront?

GZ: Well that was the story when Elkeson was bought – that he was an attacking midfielder or winger and basically being lined up as Conca’s successor. He’s been used as a frontman so far though and has been phenomenal. He’s a whole lot better up there than Barrios, that’s for sure.

S: I heard Barrios is bored as hell and wants to go back to Germany.

B: It’s certainly been an impressive opening few matches for Elkeson, especially after all the harshness he received after the Super Cup. With that in mind, I’d be a little more patient about his future.
We’ve talked about that before, he came to Evergrande to be a star and now he’s part of a rotation. There’s not really much reason for him to stay here and I think he’s disappointed with the level of play, to be in a league like this and not playing every match.

S: Yeah he must be. I would imagine he regards his move as a mistake. Does anything think that, since he was basically the first high-calibre player to come from a big European team in his prime, to play in China, that there will be a knock-on effect in the future for players of similar stature coming? That is, guys who are not past their sell-by date?

GZ: Barrios has done much here to deserve the star label – maybe nicknaming him “The Terminator” before he’d kicked a ball in China was a bit of a mistake…In fairness though, Barrios hasn’t made too much of an effort here and hadn’t done a whole lot in Germany since his injury. I suspect he’s had his peak.

B: Wouldn’t Hoarau be considered an example of a player who has done so? I still think we have to be realistic, very few players in their prime are going to consider moving to China, for most of them competition is always going to win out over a somewhat bigger payday.

S: Yeah Hoarau is very similar in stature to Barios. So it will be interesting to see how he does. Dalian is also a different kind of place to Guangzhou, that might also be a factor. Although I once read in lonely planet years ago that Dalian had the biggest number of intellectuals in China, and that it was the “beard stroking” capital of the country. What, one has to ask, will Hoarau make of that?

B: Well, he is French…

S: Do you think French people are intellectual B?

GZ: Hoarau is coming from a somewhat similar situation as Barrios too, having been the star and then finding himself pushed aside. I hope he settles in better. The fact is that life in China is not for everyone, and if you’re not happy with where you are that’s likely to be refected in your work.

S: Perhaps Barrios isn’t keen every since he found out the cats and dogs on display in GZ were not in pet shops.

B: Barrios joined a stacked Evergrande side, only being allowed to play three foreigners and having four, one is always going to be the odd man out. I don’t think he’s really been given a chance, but that’s just how things go. Muriqui and Conca are almost automatic picks and so its harder for Barrios to get consistent playing time. Millions of euros can only satisfy you for so long, a footballer’s going to want to be on the pitch. With Hoarau, he’s not really going to have that problem, we’ll see how well he adjusts to China. We say it at least once a month on here, not everyone can adjust to China, it’s not all that easy.

S: Indeed, but we just see so many odd things around here which cause us to say it again. One thing I’m curious to ask Biffo as a GZ fan, what do you think of the foreign player restriction?

GZ: Yes. but Barrios has been given plenty of playing time when fit – Cleo was kicked of the ACL roster to make room for him when he arrived. He was improving towards the end of last season, but he didn’t look fit at the start of this one, and his immobile play was dragging the whole team down – it was something of a relief to see him go off injured in fact. Conca is also clearly not content here, but still manages to put in an effective shift almost every time.

B: Guys, I’m outta here, gotta go welcome Huang Bowen

GZ: On the foreign player restrictions, it seems to be an Asia-wide thing, probably because of the ACL rules. It has its positives of course, encouraging grassroots development, but there’s not much of that here either way. I just think it should be the same worldwide, one way or the otther. Cheers, Brandon! Hm, this has all been very Evergrande heavy.

S: Sure, that’s the point. So how have you found watching the CSL in general since you started following football in China?

GZ: Though it’s not like I could say much about anything else anyway, haha. I think the standard is higher than a lot of people credit, the fans are great, and it’s well worth getting into. I wish they’d clamp down on the play-acting a bit though, it can be painful.

S: That’s something that winds me up no end. It gets worse and worse towards the end of the game. I don’t know why they don’t use video evidence to retrospectively punisher fakers. It needs to happen soon since too many of the players are big sissies.

GZ: Yeah, the stand out moment for me was a match against Tianjin (I think) where the ball struck a Tianjin player on the leg – not very hard mind – and he went down and needed to be taken off for treatment. That aside, you don’t normally get any amusement out of it, and it’s something that surely turns off neutrals.

S: It’s pretty bad. I heard they even do it in training also.

GZ: Really? I don’t why I’m surprised, it makes total sense. It’s a problem that’s getting worse and worse in football everywhere, but I don’t know why it’s so especially bad here. Any theories?

S: That’s a tough one. Frankly, I think in China there is a lack of a sense of “fair play” in real life, so this spills over onto the pitch also.

GZ: That’s a good point. Anyway, am hoping to finally catch a game at YueXiu Park this weekend, when Guangzhou R+F take on Shandong Luneng on Sunday afternoon. Shandong have won their opening two games, including beating hotly tipped Dalian Aerbin, so I’m looking forward to seeing them play. And to see if R+F really are as hopeless right now as I’ve heard.

S: They have made a pretty bad start. You haven’t seen them play before?

GZ: I have, last season, but they were doing a lot better then. And haven’t seen them at Yuexiu, Evergrande’s spiritual home, so that’ll be interesting. The university stadium was fine but was too big for the crowds they get.

S: Right indeed. I went to Yuexiu to see Shenhua play Guangzhou pre-Evergrande, I think it was in 2009. What a fantastic ground it is.

GZ: I’m surprised that Wu Ping Feng hasn’t even made the matchday squad for them yet, and that Jiang Ning is only on the bench. Those are both good, hard-working players.

S: Were you dissapointed to see them leave Evergrande?

GZ: Both are players I liked to see play for us, but in fairness their chances to play were very limited because of our foreign attacking options, so I thought this was a good move for them, especially for Wu as he’s a local Cantonese. I’d say neither are particularly happy to have been largely ignored so far.

S: The way R&F are going, it looks like they shouldn’t have to wait long for their chance. Did you get to either of the derbies last year? How were they?

GZ: I didn’t unfortunately. I was away for at least one of them, think it was too hard to get hold of a ticket for the other. Hopefully will make both this season.

S: Such a shame you couldn’t get your hands on one of the 20,000 odd tickets that must have gone unsold, haha.

GZ: Haha! Yeah, I think that one I was away for. Did hear the queues for tickets stretched out of the stadium though.
Glad to have a season ticket this time around so as not to have to deal with the touts for big games. So, want to talk about Shenhua’s chances against free-scoring Liaoning Whowin or did you cover that with B?

S: We didn’t mention Shenhua yet. Maybe it’s better to keep it that way. Ha. But Shenhua face another game they really have to win. Especially because there is talk of yet another 6-point deduction if they don’t hurry up and pay the fine they got for match-fixing ten years ago.

GZ: So why are they stalling? More boardroom shenanigans?

S: Yes, there seems to be an argument over who should pay it, and they are at the same time trying to say its an unfair punishment. My opinion is that, the league made their decision, rightly or wrongly, it should be respected and the club pay the fine and move on.
A further 6 point reduction would render the season fairly meaningless for shenhua I think, given their current predicament.

GZ: Yeah, they got away pretty lightly as it is really, given Guangzhou got relegated for the same crime a couple of years earlier – they really need to suck it up and get on with it.

S: Yeah the probem is, this is China, there’s no real transparency about the whole investigation and legal process so we don’t really know what is what in either case. Certainly I think Shenhua should man up and get on with it. It might have been harsh to relegate them for some wrongdoings which was committed by people no longer at the club long ago, but, punishments for similar offences by other clubs are either much harsher or much more lenient. So who knows.

GZ: True, it’s sometimes best to just not think about the whys here, as you’re never going to find out either way. Anyway, Liaoning put four away goals past R+F, and looked like they were determined to make a better fist of this season than last, so are you sure you wouldn’t take one point this weekend?

S: It’s a home game against a team which will probably finish in the bottom half of the league this year, so we really have to go for a win. Last year we beat them 3-0 at home with goals all coming from domestic players, even although Drogba and Anelka were on the pitch. So, have to go for the win. Shenhua looked good against Shenxin. The new Syrian striker looked much better than everyone expected. Intelligent and hard-running. He could save our bacon this season.

GZ: Shenhua had a disastrous off-season on the face of it, so wouldn’t begrudge ye a surprise bargain.

S: Right. Well its a Sunday game, I hate Sunday games, I like to have the option to hit town after a victory. Oh well.

GZ: Well, all this boozing has made me hungry, but don’t like the look of the Northern-style menu in this pub, so I’m off out to get some barbequed cat. Cheers for the hospitality!

S: Cheers, wash it down with some snake gall bladder, cheers Biffo!

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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