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Pub Talk: ACL final and CSL relegation special

We have a special guest in the pub this week as Guangzhou Evergrande correspondent GZ Biffo pulls up a stool to enjoy a beer and let the banter rip with Ultra. The gents discuss Evergrande’s ACL first leg final – will Evergrande be sitting on an Asian throne after the second leg? We also talk of cling-on gloryhunters dumping real fans out of the Tianhe bowl  final. Will FC Seoul’s chances go down the swanny? Later the pair’s number two becomes three as they are joined by a straggler – Bcheng makes a late entrance to the pub, leaving skidmarks in his haste to arrive, before Ultra briefly gets off his stool to deal with another stool. He’s flush this week so the drinks are on him. Your all-star trio also kick up a stink about national pride in Evergrande – is it really necessary or justified? Thoughts are given and nationalism laid to waste. And with the CSL relegation dogfight going right down to the wire after a thrilling penultimate round with several sides bogged down, Qingdao, Sainty and Changchun are put through the mixer. Who will drop one? Are Evergrande to blame after sending a sausage to the seaside and getting Zheng Long for peanuts in return? Let’s hope for a fair contest and no foul play, and can Evergrande push through a continental and domestic trophy deuce? Excitement all round as it hits the fan. So just relax and let it go this week in the pub. Ahhh, that’s better!

Shanghai Ultra: Ok this week in the pub B’s stool is empty and instead sitting in it is our special guest from the far south, Mr GZ Biffo. Welcome Biffo!

GZ Biffo: Cheers Ultra, it’s a while since I’ve been down to the pub. Not a whole lot has changed bar the empty stool, any chance of it being filled later in the night?

Shanghai Ultra: I think our man from Beijing may stagger through the saloon bar doors at some point. But for now let’s get the ball rolling. Evergrande are on the verge of history, what’s your view of the whole shebang?

GZ Biffo: The lads have done great. We were all expecting them to improve on last season’s performances a bit with Lippi having had time to bed in, but I don’t think anyone was anticipating this kind of utter dominance. It was actually a bit of a shock on Saturday to come up against a team that grew better than us as the game went on – those were a very nervous last fifteen minutes against FC Seoul!

Shanghai Ultra: I’m afraid to admit that I missed the first leg of the final due to unforeseen and unfortunate matters. Were Evergrande good value for a share of the points, as it were?

GZ Biffo: Yeah, a draw was a fair result, though if I had to pick one side as the better I would say Guangzhou and not just out of bias! They had more shots than us but most of them came towards the end when Guangzhou were trying to protect the lead and I think Evergrande had the better quality chances overall. Unfortunately, they spent a bit too much time passing the ball around the edge of the box waiting for the perfect shooting opportunity, a bit like Arsenal at their most frustrating.

Shanghai Ultra: I think bias in the pub is perfectly acceptable, just ask B. Ahem, so, the second leg is still a week and a half away, but since you are here lets grab the chance to hear a GZ fan’s views. How do you fancy your chances? Will Evergrande be the pride of China?

GZ Biffo: FC Seoul are certainly very dangerous but Guangzhou were a bit below par – there was a lot of sloppy passing going on, which is unusual for them in big games. Nice to have a meaningful second leg though! I think they’ll have learnt from it and with the home support and the tweaks to the set-up Lippi will make between now and then, chances are very good that they’ll claim the title for Canton. As you point out though, they have become quite the national phenomenon of late, so there’ll be a lower proportion than usual of Cantonese supporters there to celebrate it if it actually happens.

Shanghai Ultra: What have you heard about ticketing arrangements for the final? Have you gotten your hands on one?

GZ Biffo: No, and hardly anyone I know has one either. They vanished almost as soon as they went on sale online and touts were out with their wares near the stadium shop within hours. Prices are ridiculous too – a limited number of 400 to 600 rmb tickets, which is ok, but mostly from 1000 up to 8000rmb. For comparison, the most expensive ticket for the World Cup final in Rio next year is about 6000rmb. I expect to see lots of rich event junkies filling Tianhe on Sunday week – maybe some of those Shanghai Evergrande fans you mentioned have snapped all our tickets up!

Shanghai Ultra: Yeah this is a part of football I find which sickens me. Real fans support their team through thick and thin, playing a vital part in getting teams to big event finals. Then when their team makes it to the grand stage, its bye bye and fuck-off to real fans. A two-fingered salute those who stood in the rain watching Evergrande playing group matches against far from glamorous opposition whilst the rich hipsters aren’t interested until the big final.

GZ Biffo: Bang on. Then again, just to be entirely fair, the club has spent a fortune on players and players’ wages to get to this stage, and has been flying fans to ACL (and some CSL) away games and handing them free tickets in a lot of cases – I got one gratis when I went to see them play Muangthong Utd in the ACL group game. I was angry at the prices but in fairness I can’t begrudge them trying to make back some of their losses on this. The whole Zhongguo Hengda thing is very very irritating however.

Shanghai Ultra: That is a reasonable point, but this being China I’d be sceptical of how much of the ticket money actually reaches the club. Ticket touts in China are known for either using under-the-table connections to get their hands on tickets before anyone else, or simply camping out days in advance and buying huge wads of tickets before selling them at vastly inflated prices. Yeah China’s Evergrande. What’s your view?

GZ Biffo: There’s probably some of the former going on yes, though it’s not really provable. It is understandable that Evergrande’s success would be appropriated on a national level like this, and that was probably the idea from the start anyway. It’s kind of ironic though that it’s happening with a team from probably the least nationalistic province in the republic – Guangdong has always considered itself somewhat different from the rest of the motherland.

Shanghai Ultra: Is that so. Wait, I can hear some noises outside, someone is singing a Guoan song. Hello, B, is that you strolling through the saloon doors?

Bcheng: Yeah, glad to join you lot before things ended.

Shanghai Ultra: Hello there B, you join at an opportune moment.

GZ Biffo: Welcome B, we’ve kept your stool free in anticipation.

Bcheng: Cheers.

Shanghai Ultra: Biffo and I were just talking about “Zhongguo Hengda”. I believe you may have something to say about this.

Bcheng: My favorite subject….

Shanghai Ultra: Please indulge us. I think the jist of Biffo’s take is that it’s all a bit silly.

Bcheng: Exactly. We’ve talked about it before, supporting a Chinese club is one of the few ways to publicly show city or regional pride. Despite the feel good stories, nobody in, say Chengdu is going to start seriously supporting Evergrande. There’s also the issue of nationalistic pride and so a lot of people are jumping on the bandwagon, though I don’t think many of them will be serious, longterm supporters.

GZ Biffo: I wonder if Evergrande’s success might start the trend here though. Plenty of Chinese people will happily follow clubs from other countries – why not another city in China? Not that I’m saying it’s a good thing, but if Evergrande can solidify their success it’s at least plausible that they establish themselves as an Asian powerhouse in the long-term.

Shanghai Ultra: That’s a good point Biffo. And to take the comparison further, there are plenty of people in England who support the likes of Manchester United who have zero connection with Manchester. So shallow footballing agencies are not unqiue to China.

Bcheng: I just don’t see it. Chinese like a winner, if Evergrande can win the Champions League and follow it up with an excellent showing in Asia next year, maybe they have a shot, but without that, it’s all going to go away. People will hop off the bandwagon just as fast as they are jumping to get on it. I think the reality is quite different from the way the media is portraying it, it’s a lot of flag waving going on.

GZ Biffo: But any major powerhouse in the world has become such a club by virtue of a period of sustained success – it goes without saying that you don’t get a disproportionately large fanbase any other way. People become invested in the club over time, bring up their kids supporting them, etc. It’s a matter of whether Guangzhou can deliver that or not.

Bcheng: It’s also a matter of access. I don’t see them winning over many fans in cities with CSL clubs, and in cities without them, how often are they going to see an Evergrande match? Will they search them out and watch online? Every time a Chinese team does well in Asia, like Shenzhen a few years ago, it attracts support from football fans across the country, but only because the club these people support isn’t involved.

Shanghai Ultra: Sorry lads I had to go to the gents. Give it ten minutes before you go in there, let the air clear a bit.

GZ Biffo: Jesus I can smell it from here! Someone open a window!

Shanghai Ultra: *splutter*

GZ Biffo: Anyway B, the previous Chinese successes were blips. If this is a blip, it will go the same way. The level of investment, not just in the first team squad, but also in youth development, makes me think this will not be a blip. So, who’s joining Wuhan down the toilet end of the CSL this year do we think?

Shanghai Ultra: Just let me have my tuppence on the Hengda China thing. I think if Evergrande make a habit of winning ACL finals, they will soon have fans all over China, or at least, fans in the same sense that China has “fans” of Barcelona and Man U, etc etc. Because that is what happens anywhere else. In fact it is more likely to happen in China because, the vast majority of people in China interested are not hardcore fans such as ourselves, they are casual fans who B and on occasion myself, berate regularly. There’s also the small matter that without a strong and deep footballing and tradition or culture, there’s less reason for people to stick to their local club here, if they even have one.

Bcheng: Yes, but you’re right, it will require sustained victories in Asia, because that’s when they alone are on the stage and while I’m pretty much ready to concede next year’s CSL to Evergrande, I don’t know if they’ll be able to reach the ACL finals again next season.

GZ Biffo: Will be interesting to see, particularly if they do lose Lippi, as the rumours have it.

Shanghai Ultra: I think at this point only the most reckless gambler would put money on any club on Asia reaching the ACL final next season, that’s a big prediction. So, Biffo mentioned the relegation fight, I think that’s the only outstanding issue in the CSL with one game to go. Biffo – your take please.

GZ Biffo: It’s very hard to call. Obviously if Changchun fail to beat Liaoning, they’ll go down, but they arguably have the easiest fixture of the three in danger. If they do beat the Shenyang team, then they need either Beijing to beat Qingdao at home or Shanghai East Asia to beat Jiangsu away. Qingdao are relegated if both they and Jiangsu lose and Changchun win. I would have put my money on Qingdao to go down but after their win over Jiangsu and Beijing’s win over Shandong that guarantees them third, I’m not so sure. I think we could be in for a big shock and seeing the Super Cup winners go down.

Shanghai Ultra: A fair summary. I have a feeling Qingdao will survive, they always seem to do so despite being perennial relegation favourites. I think it would be a tragedy if Sainty get relegated, one of the best supported teams in the league but certainly not one of the worst. It’s a very hard battle to call and its going right down to the wire. B?

Bcheng: Yeah, well, first off, I really have to say Hangzhou have shocked me. With their schedule I thought they may end up being the side that went down, but they’ve earned 4 points off the 3rd and 4th place sides. Look, Changchun’s in the relegation spot right now and even if they beat Liaoning, they need the other two sides to lose, because even if Jiangsu and Qingdao only pick up a point, Changchun loses the tiebreaker against both sides, so the odds aren’t in their favor.

Bcheng: You also have to wonder who Guoan will play. They have third wrapped up now and so maybe they won’t play the starters, but there’s no reason to “rest” them, considering they won’t be in action again for three weeks.

Shanghai Ultra: You’d have to fancy Guoan to beat Qingdao at home. Failure to win would be a poor show.

Bcheng: I don’t disagree, but then Qingdao have everything to play for and all they need is a point to stay up.

Shanghai Ultra: Good point. Sainty at home to East Asia, not the easiest of games but you’d have to fancy them to take the point which would guarantee safety.

GZ Biffo: Yes, Qingdao were fairly abject at Tianhe the other week but their other results of late have been quite positive. Then again so had Jiangsu’s until last night. I think Shanghai East Asia will be very dangerous opponents for Jiangsu – they should have beaten Evergrande the other night and I’d fancy them for the win.

Bcheng: I think we should explain, in Chinese football, the first tiebreaker is head-to-head, Changchun lost & drew their two matches against Jiangsu and Qingdao. After that it goes to goal differential in matches against the other team(s) that are tied, then most goals scored in matches against the other team(s) that are tied.

Shanghai Ultra: Yes, good call B. I think what you have to say at the end of the day is that Changchun is up against it. They need to win a game in something of a dongbei derby against Liaoning, and rely on at least one other team getting beat. I’d say Changchun are favourites to go down, followed by Sainty, then Qingdao, despite the fact they clearly have the toughest final fixture.

Bcheng: At least there’s something to hold interest on the final day, it’s going to be an interesting one.

GZ Biffo: Yes, strange to have even the order of the top three finalised before the last game! Changchun definitely are in the most precarious position, just have a feeling they’ll get out of it. Then again if you were to look back at my predictions at the start of the season you’d know what to think of my feelings.

Shanghai Ultra: Ha ha it will be interesting to compare our forecasts with how things actually went. I think this relegation clash is going to be very exciting, and I’m certainly glad my team is not involved. Speaking of which, Changchun is in the thick of it thanks to yet another comeback victory which was the result of a one-man demolition effort. Giovanni Moreno drives some Shenhua fans spare (myself and Mr Crook’s included) with his South American theatrics, but his late winner against Changchun is a contender for goal of the season, did anyone see that?

GZ Biffo: No – have a link?

Bcheng: I can’t say I did either, but I was thinking Changchun was going to pull it out, or at least get a point. Shenhua certainly didn’t do them any favors.

Shanghai Ultra: Here it is. Everyone have a good look at this.

Bcheng: A goal worthy of relegating a side…

Shanghai Ultra: It’s just a pity that for every goal Gio scores like that, there’s 30 wasted chances on goal from him trying to pull such things off every time.

GZ Biffo: Beautiful goal, thanks for that!

Bcheng: I know we talked about tiebreakers, I just wanted to mention the craziness in the China League right now.

Shanghai Ultra: Yeah I read your piece on the site. I think the permutations down there have evaded my mathematically challenged brain.

Bcheng: Right now, it’s down to the 5th tiebreaker, which is most goals scored, with Guangdong aping Harbin by 1. We could see who comes up to the CSL decided by which side received the least amount of cards this year.

GZ Biffo: What would you think of another Guangzhou side entering the CSL?

Bcheng: Six of 16 sides in 2 cities would be a fucking disgrace.

Shanghai Ultra: Harbin must have been sick to lose to Yanbian, they’re a team who have been at the wrong end of the CL1 for the last few season anyway. For the Guangdong team I think this team has moved to Foshan. I have to admit I agree with B, the geographic spread of the teams is pathetically small for such a big country.

Bcheng: For all intents and purposes, Foshan is the same thing as Guangzhou.

GZ Biffo: Guangzhou, Foshan, hard to tell where one ends and the other starts. My colleague was there today for work, a 40 minute drive.

Shanghai Ultra: Yeah its a bit like Jinshan and Shanghai. That’s why I was rooting for Shanghai Shenxin to go down and Harbin Yiteng to come up. It may still happen. But let’s hope there isn’t a repeat of what happened back in the bad old days when teams relying on goal difference to get promoted were winning 11-1 on the final day of the season in the second division, back in circa 2000.

GZ Biffo: The spread is what it is. If teams down here are successful enough to have three promoted in four seasons, then that’s just the way it is. Success in Chinese football has long been too centred around the Northeast and ‘greater Shanghai’.

Bcheng: That’s what implementing head-to-head tie breakers was supposed to prevent. Though in their head-to-head matches, Guangdong won 3-2 in the first, and Harbin won 1-0 in the second. So on points, goal differential, and goals scored, it’s all even. Thus, needing other factors to break the deadlock.

Bcheng: I think the issue is that nobody is supporting these promoted sides.

GZ Biffo: I’ve heard that Sunray Cave aren’t too excited about the prospect of their club going up alright.

Shanghai Ultra: That’s interesting they have arranged the tie-breakers this way to prevent any funny business. It’s unfortunate that by the time it comes down to which side has the least yellows and reds, that is an area which potentially is ripe for fixing.

Bcheng: It’s going to be a crazy day all around. What I do know is that pretty much every Chinese football fan is rooting for Harbin to go up, that’s an away trip everyone is looking forward to.

Shanghai Ultra: I agree with that. Well, this time next week we will know the identities of who is up and who is down. And I’m looking forward to discussing that.

GZ Biffo: Well, the more games I can get to easily the happier I am, so I’ll disagree with every other Chinese football fan!

Shanghai Ultra: Ha ha, away games are more fun!

Bcheng: That’s what high-speed trains are for!

GZ Biffo: Guangzhou is substantially further away from the majority of other CSL grounds than Beijing.

Shanghai Ultra: I think we have to sympathize with Biffo here, Harbin is about as far away as one can get from Guangzhou without leaving China. The alternative is another game via a metro stop.

GZ Biffo: That’s it Cam. We’re a bit isolated down here. Well, there was Nanchang a few years back. But Nanchang…., brrrrr….

Shanghai Ultra: Well, I think its time to wrap it up fellas.

GZ Biffo: Yes, it’s getting very late and they’re scraping the floor with the chairs.

Bcheng: Cheers mates,its been fun, only 90 minutes left to the 2013 season.

Shanghai Ultra: Indeed. Thank you for joining both, and goodnight.

GZ Biffo: It’s been fun, goodnight. Safe home.

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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