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Pub Talk: Huan Wo Shenhua!

Down in the dumps Shanghai Ultra tries his best to get up to mischief with regular drinking partner Bcheng gone, but he’s pulled into the dramarama of Shenhua’s name change. Rather than sit in silence outside the pub, he can’t help but come inside for a pint with Chris Atkins who is occupying a stool this week. The lads give their views on what is what – some big ACL wins for Chinese clubs, and the usual unusual Chinese football nonsense is observed and dissected, no need for any more guff here. Read on.

S: Hello there Chris, welcome to the pub. It’s been a while.

C: Hi Ultra. Indeed, it has been a while, but the refurbishment is looking good ahead of the 2014 campaign.

S: It is, there were a few cob webs on the bar when we got back in the other week. So Bcheng is not here, I feel like the headmaster is away and we can misbehave.

C: Let’s do it, especially after Guoan’s comical last 10 minutes of defending the other night. I’m sure Bcheng wouldn’t mind.

S: Yeah let’s talk shit about Guoan. Some dire stuff, they let the motherland down badly with their keystone cops back line.

C: I think it’s only fair to point out, to start with, that they actually played very well against a good FC Seoul side. The midfield combination of Piao Cheng and Ha Dae-Sung, in particular, were excellent. Their first choice defence, though, was left unstrengthened again this season and, with Xu Yunlong out, they look fragile

S: Xu is getting on a bit. In fact I think he’s the same age as Jiang Kun at Shenhua, there or thereabouts. I bet he can run faster than him though.

C: That’s not too difficult, is it? What do you make of Guoan’s chances in the Champions League?

S: They’ve gotten off to a reasonable start, I think all of China’s teams in fact have done pretty well so far except Guizhou. Shandong made ammeds for their awful start with a very nice win in Japan as well.

C: I think that has to be the story of the week (we’ll get to Guizhou). Shandong were excellent against Cerezo and will have gained a lot of confidence. That was on the counterattack, though. We still need to see them boss a game against a lesser side.

S: Winning in Japan is not something that happens too often in the ACL for visiting teams, but yeah let’s see how they cope with games they are expected to win.

C: To Guizhou, then. Real issues there it seems. They messed up their squad registration, with neither new foreign player in the ACL squad. Both Bosnians have been injured and, off the pitch, it seems there’s a bit of a power struggle between Zhu Jiong and Gong Lei.

S: What a shambles. It’s amazing how many bureaucratic errors occur when it comes to the Asian Confederation. Can’t people read around here? Or perhaps there’s just too much paper work.

C: I think the paper work is extensive, but they get it done quickly when it comes to deadline day. I think too much just gets left to the last minute.

S: Well especially in Chinese football, it’s a dogs dinner a lot of the time when it comes to last minute moves – Perrin being made national coach a week before a huge match a case in point. You’d think they don’t want to be successful.

C: I read a funny tale this week. To his credit, Perrin has been at a lot of games over the past week or two and seems to want to be hands on. He shocked the CFA by asking for a desk at their headquarters and even more so when he rejected sharing a private office for a free space in the main open-plan office. He eats in the canteen also. Apparantly the CFA chiefs can’t believe it.

S: That’s because they are proper old school and can’t help but only see things though their own hierarchical perspective. Why would the boss want to mix with others and learn about Chinese culture and help him do a better job, when he could just sit in an office and shield himself away from the underlings and just pick up a pay packet?

C: Yeah. Fair play to him, I say. Anything that helps him understand Chinese players better than his predecessors. I suppose, then, we should add that Guangzhou Evergrande secured an away draw in Japan also, meaning all four sides have played in Japan with only Guizhou losing. The CFA chiefs will be more content with that.

S: Yes, lots of face for em. Well done.

C: How did you see the opening week of the CSL season, then? I suppose we’d better discuss that, albeit it was a bit of a let-down overall.

S: I read in the Chinese media it was the highest-attended opening round of the CSL ever, so I was pleased to see that. What else…. hmm I think most games went the way we expected them, although yes the CSL’s strikers are obviously a bit rusty.

C: I guess we should start with the game you were at, it was interesting for the storylines on and off the pitch—yet was the lowest attended. How was the trip to Jinshan?

S: It was a fun trip for the most part. I had very little sleep the night before, and frankly a few too many beers. I planned to eat breakfast at Burger King next to Hongkou before getting on one of the supporters buses, but unfortunately it had closed down. The SEC guys gave me a beer instead. The rest of the day sort of followed in that vein. The crowd I think was not bad all things considered. Jinshan Stadium is a dedicated football ground, but its situated in a rural part of Shanghai municipality with few public transport links and it’s not even in Jinshan town. Something of an oddity really, just like Shenxin themselves.

C: Haha, that’s a fair assessment. There was a fair amount of media coverage regarding the Shenhua protests and a lot of pictures of printed signs and banners. How was the atmosphere in that sense?

S: There was a lot of “Huan Wo Shenhua” chants and the atmosphere was a little bit weird. It’s clear many of the fans are conflicted, myself included. The performance on the pitch was surprisingly good. I don’t think Shenhua will have any worries about staying in the CSL. Gao Di was on fire and could have easily scored four goals. This could be his breakout year. Elsewhere on the pitch, some odd decisions, including playing Wang Changqing *cough cough cough cough* ahem *cough cough* at right back, when he’s not a right back, and leaving our new proper right back on the bench. But that’ Shen Xiangfu for you.

C: It would be good to have a Chinese striker breakout, they are desperately lacking throughout the league. Despite the low-scoring start to the campaign, though, there were some predictable elements—Wu Lei scored, Evergrande scored three in the second-half and Shandong (eventually) overcame Harbin.

S: Yeah the opening round’s results were pretty much a bookie’s dream. Not that many talking points, quite a meh opening round to be frank.

C: Yeah, I think we covered more games on than we ever have before, so the content’s available if people want to read more. There really wasn’t much too the opening week though.

S: Yeah I think did a great job. What an tremendous bunch of guys we are. Does Chinese football deserve us? Discuss…

C: Oh, that’s a barrel of worms right there. By the way, did you see Alessandro Diamanti’s latest ACL stunner?

S: Actually I didn’t to be honest. How was it?

C: A free-kick from around 20-yards, in off the angle of the goal. I’m sure we can embed a link in here for anyone interested.

S: Good stuff, I have some catching up to do. I think Diamanti is good for the league as a whole. It’s going to be interesting to see if he indeed makes the Italian World Cup squad, seems to be every indication that he will.

C: Yeah, that will be a coup for the CSL. I guess he, Kim Young-Gwon, Ryan McGowan and maybe Guizhou’s Bosnians could be there. That’s a big indication of how the league has grown in stature since the last competition. Next task, get China to the World Cup! (n.b. This may take some time).

S: That’s a good point – this year may see a record number of CSL players appearing at the World Cup. Who would have thought that?

C: I would imagine so, given that the ’02 World Cup that China reached was before the CSL’s formation. It’s good news, indeed. Also, something for our legion of Evergrande fans, I read that the forthcoming Under-15 national team will have 10 players from their academy involved. There was a really interesting piece on the setup on Sina this week, saying the Spanish coaches initially had problems persuading the Chinese that less hours and more on-the-ball training was the answer. The Chinese wanted intense physical training.

S: Yeah, that’s the typical backwards old school Soviet style mentality which has failed the CFA for many years now. Yet they still cling to it like headless chickens.

C: It’s always the excuse in defeat also, that the other team were fitter. The coaches quoted said that technically the best at the school are no different to those in Spain, but they lack decision making ability. They are used to coaches shouting instructions at them in training and then struggle in match situations. I hope the advice is read by some of those at other clubs.

S: It should be. It’s really obvious China needs progressive and fresh approaches to training at all levels. Concentrating on fitness is very unimaginative to say the least… it’s like, if you have a house with a leaky roof, just hire a team of guys to run around putting buckets everywhere to catch the water rather than fixing the roof. Is that a good analogy or am I just slavering a load of pish?

C: I think that’s about right. Working on the theory that the more water you can catch, the less the leak is a problem.

S: Anyway, shall we turn our attention to this weekend’s games? What’s the standout fixture for you>

C: I should be attending both Evergrande-Harbin and Fuli-Liaoning this weekend, although that’s not certain. The best game on paper, though, appears to be Aerbin-Guoan.

S: Two games in one weekend, good going. Aerbin Guoan looks like an intriguing game, Aerbin are my tips for dark horses this year.

C: Interesting. Be a good test against the boys in green then. Anything catch your eye?

S: To be honest, not really. The CSL has managed to pick two fairly benign opening rounds fixture wise. Forgive my lack of enthusiasm. Evergrande v Harbin.. not much to say about that, outcome predictable to anybody who knows anything about the CSL. The other games, nothing stands out, but perhaps we’d have some interesting outcomes. Good games can come from anywhere.

C: Yeah, at least Changchun vs. Henan or Guizho vs. Tianjin should tell us something about the sides’ strengths this year. However, that said, they dont inspire me to watch (although I inevitably will).

S: Actually Shenhua v Hangzhou is probably one of the more interesting games, it’s a Yangtze Delta Derby and one which has seen fireworks both on and off the pitch in recent years.

C: Very winnable for Shenhua that. Two wins to start the season would be a major boost. If they can hang on to near top four until summer, I can see foreign upgrades arriving and Shenhua potentially in ACL next year. All about staying in touch until the summer.

S: Anything is possible with Shenhua. Tomorrow there will be a co-ordinated protest between all Shenhua’s fan groups to protest Greenland’s silly and absurd new badge, and the ridiculous name-change. Details aren’t fully released yet, but word on the weixin is that the fans will sit down in silence for the first 19 minutes of the game. I will be joining in that whole heartedly.

C: You can’t keep quiet for 19 minutes!

S: Hahah. I will be gaffer taping my own mouth. Or my match-going companions will. Plenty of rude words will be uttered from it after the 19 minute mark, I can assure you.

C: Hahaha. Good luck with that!

S: Yeah man. Fuck Greenland, fuck off.

C: On that note, I think we should head home. The barman is getting shifty and I dont want us to get barred.

S: Yeah, you are right. Before I get drunk and abusive.

C: Alright, then. Enjoy your protest, I know it’s up your street. Let’s have all the details next week.

S: Actually you know what. I think we should continue a bit longer. And I have to confess to the rest of the pub, I’m having a hard time at this exact moment. The whole Shenhua name change business just leaves me feeling blank and unmotivated.

C: I’m here for you, man. What’s troubling you?

S: It’s hard to know what to say. It’s just like, Chinese football is sticking its fingers up at the very people it needs the most. The long-standing fans, who are the ones who stand by the game even when it sucks ass. And what are we getting instead? Greenland? Celebrating throwing a huge part of Chinese football history in the bucket, for some fucking real estate company which is just pumping money into the club to do the city government a favour.

C: Well, as you know, I’ve tried to stay disengaged throughout the whole thing. From Greenland’s perspective, it’s the done thing and also deals with any issues the Shenhua name may carry. Also, I believe Zhu Jun still owns the rights to the name, so they would have to pay him to use it. On the other hand, it would be a real shame to lose one of just two clubs never to have changed their name up to this point—the other being Henan Jianye. Guoan, bar one flirtation with Hyundai, have been very settled, while Hangzhou Greentown is fairly longstanding.

C: As a fan, it would annoy me greatly. For Chinese football, the best thing would be a rule about names being altered

S: I read this about Zhu Jun still owning the rights. But as usual, its all claim and counter claim. What really annoys me the most is the lack of support for the Shenhua fans in general. Without these guys, and fans like them who support other clubs, Chinese football really would be absolutely fuck all. Yeah Greenland and other suits who are sitting stuffing their fat faces with prawn sandwhiches, thinking, just spend some big bucks to bring success and fill the stadium… well success is a short-lived phenomenon in all but a few cases, who will be there when Greenland gets bored or its not convenient to be there anymore? Who will carry the spirit of the club? The fans who have been there since the beginning and end.

C: It’s all fair and, of course, it’s those fan bases China needs to help expand football in the coming years

S: I remember the first time I saw a match in China. June 2001, Shanghai Shenhua v Dalian Wanda. Was blown away by the energy of the Blue Devils and the awesome Hongkou Stadium. It was the real deal… if it wasn’t for that, probably would never have been born and there would be some other website covering the game here instead lacking any attitude or passion. And now, there is no Dalian Wanda (or Shide) and for some, there’s no longer Shenhua. So much food for thought my brain hurts.

C: Shide’s demise was truly a travesty given their history, that’s for sure. Shenhua will still exist, in my eyes, whatever the name. It would be a shame if one of Chinese football’s only “brands” were lost though

S: Right. Well. I think we should probably end it there. Let’s see what happens this weekend, come what may I hope it’s a very entertaining weekend of football and bums are on seats.

C: That was the most pleasing thing about last week, it must be said. Alright, enjoy, and see you in here again soon.

S: Thanks Chris. Let’s down these bad boys and head out the the games….

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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