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Pub Talk: Dominance

Bcheng is reunited with his old drinking buddy Shanghai Ultra, who returns to the pub after his recent abscondment. The pair relent the non-existent nature of the CSL title race this year and try to seek other sources of interest. Evergrande dominate the picture again, what is ticking down there is looked at in great detail, as is the foreign / Chinese player dynamic. The transfer window is open – who are the more interesting individuals climbing through it? There’s also time to talk about who might be taking over the poisoned chalice that is the national team coach’s position. All that, and more, this week, in Pub Talk.

Bcheng: It’s that time again, we’re back in the pub, but this time around it feels slightly weird, Shanghai Ultra’s actually here

Shanghai Ultra: Yes, I’m very pleased indeed to be joining you again at last B, unfortunately I was struck by a number of unexpected things in recent weeks, most notably being under the weather.

B: Well, we’re hoping you’re finally feeling better, and now that you’re back, where would you like to begin?

S: Yeah this beer tastes very good. Well I just think the CSL has become rather boring this season. Evergrande have it in the bag at the half way stage, the ACL and relegation races are all well and good, but its the championship that matters most.

B: True, Chris and I talked about this last week as well. I mean, most people expected Evergrande to win the title, but now they have a huge lead and it’s not even interesting.

S: Yeah here in the Pub, and at in general, we of course love Chinese football for all its faults and I do hesitate a bit to say anything too crappy. But, gotta call a spade a spade… it just makes the whole thing feel underwhelming.

B: Well, in football from time to time you get runaway winners. The CSL seems to alternate year after year between a tight race and a runaway.

S: In recent years yeah, but it was only last year we had the first repeat winners in the CSL, competitiveness has been a major strength of the CSL. But I don’t want to get on the anti-Evergrande bandwagon, the fact is they are dominating for a reason and the bottom line is it’s up to everyone else to up their game.

B: Yeah, they’re dominant because they can spend money in ways few others can.

S: I know. I wonder where all this will end? We’ve talked a lot before about the sustainability or lack of for the Evergrande model, what has disappointed me is the willingness of clubs to sell their best domestic players to Evergrande, this is the crux of the issue I think. Money talks of course… but it’s kind of like giving up your title ambitions if you punt your best players to your rivals, especially in the CSL because of the foreign player limits.

B: Trust me, there’s not a lot of willingness involved.

S: Then why do they sell?

B: Zhang Linpeng and Zhao Peng both came from sides that were in the lower division, so they were looking for money. Then cases like Gao Lin or Feng Renliang, the offer was too great for the club to accept. When you have a club come in and offer prices that nobody else is willing to pay, you gotta do something. The alternative is you keep the player and let them walk on a free.

S: Indeed, plus the money they are paying is way more than what these players would be worth on the international market.

B: Right, and players know that at Evergrande, there is a reward system where they can make a shitload. It really puts these other clubs in a tough position, because they often can’t compete with what Evergrande’s offering financially, so they have a choice, get something from Evergrande or hold out and let the player go there anyways. Not an easy decision.

S: It’s not at all. Plus the fact is if there was more Chinese talent, it wouldn’t create such a big impact if one club signed up loads of national team players. That is not to say that there aren’t talented Chinese players in the rest of the CSL, but the evidence strongly suggests that there simply aren’t enough.

B: You also have to remember that Zheng Zhi, Sun Xiang, Huang Bowen, and Feng Xiaoting were all signed from overseas clubs. As to your point about Chinese talent, I don’t think Evergrande is head and shoulders above all the other clubs in this regard. Evergrande’s not winning because they have Gao Lin or Zhao Xuri, they’re winning because of Muriqui, Conca, and Elkeson.

S: I don’t think you can disregard the Chinese players here, I think Evergrande are winning because they have the best foreigners and best Chinese players. You only have to look to Shenhua to see how having two Premiership stars didn’t mean shit if the rest of the team wasn’t up to much.

B: But Shenhua was never a team loaded with talent. I’m thinking more a side like Beijing Guoan, Shandong Luneng, Dalian Aerbin, teams with talent in every position.

S: “I’m thinking more a side like Beijing Guoan” hahahah.

B: Laugh all you want, but outside of Evergrande, is there another team that has been consistently strong over the past 5 years?

S: Heh heh. I think that’s fair to say, but its funny that you say it. Anyway back to the point, you agreed with me without agreeing, that was impressive.

B: Since 2008, they’ve finished outside an ACL position once, and that was by 2 points.

S: Alright, alright, enough Greenism.

B: On the topic, I don’t think I agreed with you at all.

S: I said, Chinese talent matters, look at Shenhua, then you said, Shenhua isn’t loaded with Chinese talent, then listed teams which are.

B: I think we’re talking apples and oranges here. Yes of course, even the best foreigners around absolute crap Chinese talent isn’t going to work, the foreigners only account for 4 guys out of 11. There needs to be Chinese talent around them, but my point is Evergrande’s advantage over the clubs I named has nothing to do with their Chinese players and everything to do with their foreigners.

S: Ok so you are saying Evergrande’s Chinese players are of similar calibre to Guoan’s, Aerbin’s and Shandong’s?

B: To say it in another way, there are a handful of teams that can compete with them when it comes to Chinese talent. I don’t think anyone can compete with them when it comes to their foreigners.

S: Yeah when you put it like that, I think that is a pretty reasonable argument. Expect the inclusion of Guoan of course, hahaha.

B: Why does this feel like a conversation we’ve had before?

S: Because I have a habit of making jokes at Guoan’s expense, which are all the more amusing because you don’t find them funny at all, ha ha!

B: You’re a funny guy, eh…So on the topic of Evergrande and their very rich foreigners, what do you make of Lucas Barrios’ accusations?

S: It sounds all rather serious… who knows what’s really going on. All I can say though as if FIFA looked into what was really going on with contracts in China, a lot of people would find themselves banned from having any involvement in professional football.

B: Of all the clubs who are doing things dirty, it wouldn’t surprise me if Evergrande is one of them, however I find it kind of surprising there are issues with paying salaries.

S: I think its unwise to single out clubs in China for alleged wrongdoings… but Evergrande seem to have a leg to stand on, seeing as that German publication agreed to retract allegations Barrios made. If its worth anything, I spoke to a German journalist a while back and he told me a lot of interesting stuff he gleaned from a face-to-face interview with Barrios… suffice to say he was not happy in China at all. I tend to stand with Evergrande on this one, but lets see.

B: Yeah, Barrios was completey open for a long time about his unhappiness in Guangzhou. Now he can finally get out.

S: I also think Evergrande are pretty serious in their aims to become Asia’s premier club. You can’t do that if you are cutting corners with contracts and what not…it’s not like at Shenhua where Zhu Jun brought Anelka and Drogba just because he could, but clearly had no long-term plan or arguably even any intention of paying their contracts for the duration. You’ve got guys like Lippi there, he’s a world-class coach, for sure he’s not going to accept any farting about like there often is in China when it comes to deals. Look at Muriqui, he likes it so much he even talked about becoming naturalized. They had a lot of problems with Conca… but its clear Conca was being a dick, although not as big a one as Barrios I would venture to suggest. But again…. final judgement is best reserved until a more appropriate time.

B: So I think that’s enough Evergrande talk for the time being, what subject do you have in mind next?

S: Yeah enough of dog-eaters. I know neither of us don’t like transfer speculation, but the window is now open as of a few days ago. Anyone interesting to fly through it?

B: Peter Utaka moving south to reunite with Stanojevic at Guoan seems to be the story of the moment. Right now, I think over half the sides have only 1 spot or less for domestic transfers meaning we won’t see much on that front. As for foreigners, not really sure what we’ll see, but not too much going on yet.

S: Yeah I’m a bit in the dark as the transfer rules, 5 domestic player moves per season, is that it?

B: 7 foreign spots, 5 domestic spots, and then I think 2 or 3 U21 spots.

S: Utaka moving is indeed an interesting one. It’s said Lima is leaving, but whats the situation at Guoan with forwards? Seems you’d have Guerron and Kanoute still, can they all play at once?

B: Obviously not, it will be very interesting how Stano decides to use them. I’m not sure if I had this conversation with Chris last week in the pub or elsewhere, but I would think Utaka and Kanoute will play together up top. Guerron isn’t a striker and its unfortunate Guoan has played him as such. I don’t think Utaka would be coming if he was just going to be part of a rotation.

S: Right I’m wondering would someone be played but perhaps out wide? I’ve always noticed over the years how players positions in the CSL seem to be more fluid than elsewhere. I remember Shenhua had a Bulgarian defender about five years ago, his name escapes me right now, but he played upfront a few times.

B: I don’t see that being the case, Guerron sometimes pushes out that way, but he has the speed to do it. Not sure it would work with Utaka or Kanoute. I don’t think you even have to go back that far, I remember last year we had a number of discussions about how odd Anelka’s positioning was at Shenhua.

S: Right exactly, I’m not sure how it is at other clubs, it may be something mainly restricted to dysfunctional FC, but I wonder if foreign players coming in and thinking they are better than Chinese means they are more willing to play in different positions, perhaps simply because they can.

B: Speaking of dysfunctional FC, we haven’t heard more about Greenland’s takeover recently, but Beijing Guoan has just announced a new partnership today.

S: The Greenland thing has gone strangely quiet, I haven’t heard a peep about it. So who is working with Guoan now?

B: The situation is slightly different in Beijing, because its only bringing on a new sponsor. Huatai Motors will now appear across the front of Guoan’s kits starting from the next match. There’s talk that the name used in the media could change as well. All this for RMB500 million.

S: Oh no… the dreaded name change!

B: We’ll see what happens with it, but its crazy to think that next season Beijing and Shanghai would both be playing with different “official names” and Dalian is no more. The only old-timer holding on is Shandong.

S: Yeah, but I think both Guoan and Shenhua’s names will be included in any new names… it’s a risky prediction I know, but I think there’s enough value in both these names now to want to retain them.

B: China’s strange in that each team has the “official name” (I guess that’s the best way to translate it). The team will still be Beijing Guoan Football Club, that won’t change. It would be like if Manchester United took billions to add Dell to its name for 5 years.

S: I think changing names of clubs should be banned everywhere. It’s unnecessary, sponsoring shirts is enough. Fans would still use the teams normal name anyways.

B: Right, during the Hyundai years, everyone called it Guoan, even a number of papers did as well, but when it’s on tv, it was always “Hyundai”. Oh well…

S: Yeah. It’s a sad fact of Chinese football. Back to transfers, I see a former Guoan and Shenhua player, Emil Martinez, is once again back at Hunan Billows down in CL1.

B: Yawn….umm, I guess congrats to him on a new position.

S: Ha ha. Sometime more interesting though about Hunan is they singed Tao Jin from Shenhua. I think its interesting because this is a guy in his prime, I think 27 or 28, who stayed with Shenhua for all his career until now despite playing less than a dozen games since he joined. Isn’t that odd?

B: Yeah, the strange careers of some CSL players.

S: Really though, why would you stay with a club for all that time when you clearly weren’t getting a game? Apparently he was studying at university, but still. I suspect there are players in similar positions at other clubs.

B: So things start all over again this weekend, what will you be watching?

S: Yeah its the first match of the second half. Aerbin v Shandong is an interesting fixture, but not as interesting as it should have been, since Aerbin are undoubtedly this seasons under-performers.

B: I think beyond Evergrande’s lead, that’s the most interesting story out there.

S: Sadly that’s the case. I think you guys covered Aerbin last week. But not only is it too late for them to make an impact on the title this season, that also seems to be the case for Shandong, who would be right in the thick of it were it not for an outstanding Evergrande side. Here’s an interesting theoretical debate – would this year’s Shandong have pushed last year’s Evergrande further than Sainty did?

B: It is an interesting debate, I think you can guess my answer, they definitely would be able to.

S: Yep I’d probably agree with you. Sainty have gotten found out this year without Danalanche’s goals. Shandong this year I think are definitely going to be runners-up. It’s a pity that is difficult to see them pushing Evergrande the way Sainty did last year though

B: I think it’s already a non-starter. Evergrande have an 11 point lead, I don’t see it getting cut below 6 points.

S: Yeah. Arggh. Oh well. Onto something even less positive, the Chinese national team. I believe you think Lippi is going to be the next manager?

B: He’s the CFA’s target.

S: I think it would be a good move in a lot of ways, there can’t be many times before when a world class football manager had Chinese experience already.

B: Right, there isn’t much more to do a t Evergrande, especially if he can win the ACL. I think he’s one of the better options out there.

S: Seems like a good bet, I just hope the CFA doesn’t waste their money again, seems like a good chance to take him on for the reasons above. Reading between the lines it looks as if the move could be on, but seems the CFA aren’t in a hurry, probably a good thing, for now.

B: There’s no reason to be, no matter who they bring on, they won’t have him in time for July, so it just makes sense to wait.

S: It does. Well, seems we will have a few pub talks yet in which to discuss the next coach’s identity further.

B: Right, the appointment is unlikely to come anytime soon.

S: Anything else to cover whilst we are in the pub?

B: I think I’m good, cheers

S: Great stuff B. It was good to be back!

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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