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Pub Talk: Sven comes to Canton

Plenty to talk about in the pub this week, with Sven Goran Erikson the latest big name to enter Chinese football – the lads give their views. There’s a review of the big game between first and second last weekend – Shandong come in for praise. The national team’s prospects in an upcoming trio of friendlies are reviewed, and are two particular young Chinese stars good enough to play in Europe? Verdicts are given. Meanwhile, Shenhua’s Zhu Jun is jeered as makes another appearance on the pitch, and the drinkers wonder who will be the next big name to come to China. All that and more, pull up a stool. Mine’s a Stella.

B: We’re once again in the pub and let’s get straight to it, a lot of drama last weekend as number one took on number two and played to a stalemate, eh?

S: Yeah I caught the last half our or so, looked like a lot of chances. Not to be anti-Evergrande but I think everyone wanted Guangzhou to get beat that night to keep things open, but it wasn’t to be.

B: Right, I even saw similar comments from one or two Evergrande fans. For Shandong fans, and CSL fans in general, a draw is better than Luneng losing.

S: Am I right in thinking its the first time Evergrande have failed to score in a match at home this season? If so that was a pretty solid achievement on Shandong’s part.

B: You would be correct, in fact it’s the first time anyone has taken points from the Cantonese side at home this year.

S: I think we said last week Evergrande’s steamroller-type form has hidden the fact Shandong are only a few points off and have been quietly lethal also. Guangzhou is where the other big story took place as well, step forth Mr Sven Goran Erikson,

B: We’ll get to Sven later. It’s true that I think Shandong’s quality is under-appreciated, I think even by us sometimes. If not for a questionable call at Hongkou, they’d be on level terms with Evergrande.

S: Yeah Shandong were very unlucky to get beat by Shenhua, and they still aren’t far off Evergrande.

B: I think a lot of the it stems from the fact Shandong had a very odd season last year, flirting with relegation for awhile. When you look at their talent, especially their young players, plus what they brought in during the last transfer window, there’s no reason why they can’t keep pace with Evergrande over the course of the season. I think the only place where they are obviously weaker is when looking at their foreign contingent in comparison to Guangzhou.

S: Yeah, last season was definitely a weird one for them, they had no business being at that end of the table. The foreign players aren’t of the same calibre, but I would single out Ryan McGowan, an Aussie international and a very solid centre-back who used to be at Hearts in Scotland, he’s definitely helped Shandong shore up at the back and is as good a defender as anyone in the CSL.

B: Yes, all around they have some quality players. I think they have arguably three of the most talented young players in the league, Wang Yongpo led all Chinese scorers last season and already has seven this year, and with Han Peng and Yang Xu, they have two of China’s best strikers.

S: I definitely agree with that, and Wang Yongpo is looking a bit skinnier this year if it’s not my imagination.

B: Wang Yongpo is one of these guys from the Shandong academy, so he’s been around forever, it’s easy to forget he’s only 26. He’s always had potential, but it’s never come through, for whatever reason, last year he decided he’d lose the extra weight he was carrying and he turned himself into a hell of a footballer. I’m not sure of his background, I know with Wang Dalei, another player who showed vast improvement last year, it was the birth of his first child that seemed to mellow and change him. Not sure what did it for Wang Yongpo, but whatever it is, it’s great to see.

S: Yeah footballers everywhere seem to have kids early, especially in China. It’s probably a good thing and has a maturing influence on them. I remember Wang Yongpo had a fantastic first-time shot against Shenhua earlier this season, great technique which forced a great save from the other Wang you just mention, Dalei.

B: Alright, so enough of the Shandong love, what else caught your fancy from last weekend?

S: The other Shanghai Derby, if we can call it that, was a shocking result. I didn’t catch the game, but some friends were there and said Shenxin didn’t play that bad, East Asia just took their chances.

B: Yeah, having watched the match, it just all seemed to go right for East Asia, what a day for Wu Lei with three goals and two assists.

S: I’m starting to think this guy could be the real deal. But we’ve seen so many talented players emerge then fade into obscurity. Do you think he’ll be any different?

B: It really depens on if he can get to Europe within the next year or two. Then again, Zhang Linpeng is a Genbao grad and he’s been able to keep improving in the CSL. Interesting side note, Wu Lei scored the highest on their high school entrance exams, Zhang was at the bottom.

S: I remember you showed me that scorecard that was posted on Weibo and I remember Wu Lei being top of his class in almost all subjects. Bai Jiazhun and Cao Yunding were in there also. Wu Lei looks a bit smarter than Zhang Linpeng don’t you think? Haha.

B: Haha, Zhang’s a hell of a footballer, but from looking at him, he doesn’t scream “genius”. I think Wu is the guy who is most likely to go abroad. East Asia can’t be paying him very much, but from what I’ve heard the Shanghai FA don’t want to see him go to somewhere else in the CSL and I don’t think anyone other than Evergrande can offer enough to attract him.

S: Yeah going abroad is surely Wu Lei’s next move and I’d like to see Zhang follow him too. I just hope their clubs are realistic about their transfer fees and let them sign for clubs where they are likely to get a game. I think both have the talent to succeed overseas, particularly Wu who frankly has done well to florish in an attacking position which are normally hogged by foreigners in the CSL. Wu will most likely move within a couple of years, Zhang is less certain since Evergrande may offer him silly money to stay.

B: I think that’s the problem with Zhang. The money available at Evergrande, especially considering their bonuses, is in many cases higher than what he’d be making in Europe. The Evergrande money attracted Zheng Zhi back from Europe and Feng back from Korea. It convinced Gao Lin to play in the China League. It depends on how personally motivated Zhang is.

S: Yes, it could be a serious issue. It’s clear Evergrande are paying money comparable with the world’s top clubs for the likes of Conca et al. How much Zhang is on is another matter, of course it won’t be as much as the foreign players, but he’d be better off going to a mid-level club in a top European league, and this kind of club may not think Zhang is worth as much as what Evergrande would offer him to stay.

B: Anything else you want to talk about from last weekend or is it time to get to Sven?

S: I think its Sven time, what say you?

B: It will certainly bring some attention to R&F. Maybe even some locals and Hongkies will come out to watch one or two matches. However, post-England, Sven’s been a nomad. Plus, after his time in Italy, he really hasn’t won anything. He’s just famous for managing England.

S: I agree. It reeks of keeping up with the Joneses, R&F and Evergrande owners Xu Jiayin and Zhang Li are typical filthy rich, with massive egos, Zhang got envious of looking over town and seeing Marcello Lippi, Sven seems to be the biggest name he can attract. Note “biggest name”, as you say he’s not done an awful lot since Italy.

B: Right, the only thing that is on the positive side is that he has a previous relationship with Yakubu, so maybe the two can team up to get R&F on the right page.

S: If Sven can put bums on R&F seats that is great, he did work with Yakubu before as we know perhaps that helped his decision to join. For this to be worth anything, Sven has to leave behind his skills and experience in the R&F stable and with the younger Chinese players there. Otherwise its just yet another face exercise.

B: I would agree. I’m doubtful about butts in seats, at least beyond the first few home matches. I think you’re exactly right on the second point, and I have seen Sven taking tours and helping out at R&F’s youth facilities.

S: Yeah and I think Sven has something to prove, he’s famous for managing England, but his achievements with them weren’t all that great with a side that was more talented than the current one. Still he is a charismatic fellow, there is good he can do, it will be interesting to see what foreign players he brings in.

B: Yes, I think that will show us a lot. Farias had Brazilians, I think Sven’s going to try and bring an English touch to the CSL.

S: Yeah that’s a distinct possibility. I think its interesting, for a while there it looked like the big name to China train had run out of steam, but up pops Sven, he’s sure to bring a few more recognized names behind him. With the summer transfer window upon us very soon, we could see some early action.

B: Let’s be happy that it hasn’t started ramping up yet…I have a feeling we’ll be hearing a lot more in the next few weeks.

S: Yeah, argh. Transfer speculation. The window is from July 1-31 is it?

B: It starts on the 1st, but I think it only goes to the 25th or something like that.

S: Ok, well let’s not speculate about speculation, there will be plenty of that coming very very soon elsewhere as we know. So onto lighter, well, sort of lighter matters, Shenhua played an exhibition match against Daejeon of Korea last night, Zhu Jun played the entire 90 minutes….

B: Haha, hilarious what he’ll do.

S: It seems much of the Shenhua support regards this as something amusing. I suppose that is the Chinese response to “meibanfa“, may as well laugh about something you have no control over.

B: Before we close, the national team has a trio of games coming up, any thoughts?

S: Yes I’m excited to see some new names in the squad, particularly Wu Lei, surprised Feng Renliang was included, he’s barely played for Evergrande. I still believe he can be a very good player for China but he needs to deliver for his club first.

B: I’m not surprised by Feng (or Zhao Peng’s) inclusion. I talked about it with Chris a few weeks back in the pub, it just shows how uncreative Camacho is. There were a few new names, but not as much as I think everyone was hoping for.

S: Camacho reminds me of Scotland managers, sticking with mediocre players even when there is nothing to lose rather than pushing the boat out.

B: We’ll se a lot of the national team this month, with these three matches and then the East Asian Cup, this is the time to experiment. The Holland match is just to sell tickets, which it is failing miserably at, but the other two matches before and after it will be real tests of where China stands in Asia.

S: Yes all these friendlies, then the East Asian Cup which I fear other sides may not take as seriously as China.

B: Right, I don’t think we can expect the same level of intensity from Japan and Korea in that. However, I think Uzbekistan and Thailand will bring all they have and both sides are quickly rising in Asia, so we should have something to watch.

S: Japan just qualified for the World Cup two days ago, they will have nothing to prove, but Uzbekistan are still in the World Cup hunt it will be interesting to see what they bring to the table.

B: And then there’s Holland. It’s funny, I’m slightly surprised by the indifference Beijingers have to the match, but I think there’s a lot of anger over the CFA’s refusal to play in the capital for 9 years.

S: Is that refusal linked to the 2004 Asian Cup final post-game fracas do you think?

B: That’s a big part I think, but still, 9 years is a long time to not play a single men’s or women’s national team match in the nation’s capital. Plus, the Asian Cup was a different situation and it was mostly “outsiders” who created the ruckus.

S: I think its very ironic for many reasons, but lets not get into politics, especially around this time. I think most will find it surprising the Chinese national team hasn’t played in the capital for so long, I reckon they worked out the pollution offers more of an advantage than the altitude of Kunming, ha ha.

B: They’ve been waiting for a “big” opponent and they have one in Holland, however honestly, like I said, I’m much more interested how they do against two of Asia’s fastest developing sides than against a top European one.

S: Yeah, the Holland game won’t tell us much I fear, seems they aren’t going to sell it out, is it at the Bird’s Nest or Gongti?

B: Worker’s Stadium.

S: Are you going?

B: I’ve yet to decide. I’ll go deal with the yellow cows on matchday and if I can get them down to RMB50-75 or so (which I fully expect will be possible), I’ll go.

S: Seems a more reasonable price than the starting level which is 150rmb or so right?

B: RMB180. Yeah, the price points really turned off a lot of people who might otherwise be willing to buy tickets. I’m confident that wilth a little dealing, it will be easy to get tickets well below face value.

S: Should be not a problem since demand seems not too high. Well, speaking of demands, is it time for bottoms up?

B: I think so, cheers!

S: Nice one, until next time!

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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