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Pub Talk: China’s not there but going nuts for Brazil anyway…

With the CSL now on its summer break, Bcheng and Shanghai Ultra take a look back at the season so far as we are more or less at the half way point. What happened of note in the first half? What didn’t? Your brave, alcohol-consuming correspondents offer up their views to all and sundry. On the agenda in the pub today: CSL players going abroad, exciting moments this year, company CSL fans, and other more even stupid things. There’s an interesting discussion about fan identity and why the Chinese fans adopt national teams the way they do, Ultra scratches his stupid traditional old head, Bcheng speaks for the new countries, and together B and S live up to their joint ancronym as always. That’s it in the pub for a while, enjoy the World Cup everyone see you next month!

S: Greetings B, the pub is welcoming us like an old friend, how are things looking this week?

B: It’s been an interesting week, now we get a chance to rest for a short while and enjoy the World Cup.

S: We do, the World Cup’s something I always look forward to. And now we find ourselves at the half way point of the season in China.

B: Well, just short of it, but yeah, its been an exciting start to the season.

S: We’ve played 14 of 30 games just to let everyone know. I think its been decent so far, the best I can say is the title race isn’t already over.

B: Yeah, unfortunately it seems like it’s only going to be a two way race, but there’s plenty of action for that possible last ACL spot.

S: Remind me – the 3rd place CSL team goes into the ACL preliminary round right? Along with the CFA cup winner? They’re always messing around with the allocation.

B: I believe this year third place will likely go into the qualifying round, I think China’s likely to once again have 3.5 spots in 2015.

S: Ok. For me I don’t have that much to say about the ACL spots, till half the season left, any number of teams could snatch a place, Guangzhou R&F I could see making it for the first time.

B: The bastard child of Guangzhou is likely the safest bet right now, I just can’t see East Asia or Jiangsu continuing as they have and I think the implosion in Jinan will continue. Also confused as how the f*ck Tianjin are so high…

S: Tianjin are one of the CSL oddities, capable of pulling off giant-killing results one week then falling to relegation fodder the next.

B: Then again, they are in 8th place, but they are only 4 points from 3rd, that’s just how things work in our odd little CSL world.

S: That’s interesting. The league is usually pretty tight in the middle. Somehow there’s a fine line been excellence and mediocrity around here.

B: Yeah, with the exception of Harbin at the bottom (despite all the well wishes, doesn’t seem they’ll get out of the basement), and Evergrande & Beijing at the top, there’s very little between the rest of the sides.

S: I think so. Harbin for me are a sure fire bet to go down, that’s probably the most certain thing we can say after the first half. They will pick up wins here and there, but, not enough.

B: Their home run to start off the season will be interesting, they might be able to get back into the competition, only 6 points away from the other sides, but its going to take a lot of work.

S: Yeah I’m sure that will help them, from a neutral point of view would be good if the relegation dogfight keeps going longer. So what about the action in the past couple of weeks? I was dissapointed by the Guoan – Evergrande clash. In the past this has been a showpiece fixture for the CSL, but this time I was a bit disappointed entertainment wise.

B: That kinda surprises me, because I thought there was plenty of reasons to be excited, it was a tight match, both teams had plenty of chances, though Guoan had the edge and neither side sat back and just defended. I think for a 1st vs. 2nd match, it was better than a lot that you’d expect to see.

S: I think I’m maybe spoiled by the high standard set in previous games. But I thought Evergrande were pretty disappointing, Guoan were the better team. Other than that, the game was kinda meh for me.

B: As a fan I got what I wanted, but then I’m a fan so…The big thing was that Guoan didn’t lose, which was crucial, because it means there’s still a title race.

S: Yeah and there was a magnificent atmosphere which was good to see. And speaking of good to see, Evergrande’s fans were actually able to see all the pitch, unlike Hangzhou.

B: The atmosphere was indeed unbelievable, Evergrande had a massive number of fans there as well, funny arm motions and all, though many of them didn’t speak Cantonese…

S: China real estate fans. I heard one of our number was looking for an Evergrande shirt, I told him if he didn’t mind doing a spot of bin-raking around the stadium after Evergrande’s next ACL away fixture, he’d likely be able to pick up some discarded Evergrande shirts. But seems there’s no need to travel so far.

B: Unfortunately, that’s the case…But at least it made it look like an impressive away end, only the second time this season when fans were on the lower level as well.

S: I think it’s a stupid exercise, getting Evergrande’s Beijing-based employees to cheer against their hometown team. It shows the lack of understanding of football culture from Evergrande. Some dumb ass sitting in an office thinking “uhhhh, yeah let’s get the office down to Gongti to cheer on the company,” I find it nauseating.

B: From my understanding, a lot of people in attendance were barely even football fans…I can’t imagine anyone being forced to go to the match and cheer against Guoan.

S: We can’t be sure. But I think a lot of employees would like to score brownie points with their boss by supporting extra-curricular company endeavours. I’d love to think that its a good thing to get more people along to CSL games no matter how, but in this pretext, supporting a company against your hometown team, I think it’s too contemptible for me to condone.

B: I get what you’re saying, the reality is very different though. Then again, to me, there’s nothing wrong with company loyalty if that’s the case. I don’t think anyone sitting in the Evergrande end was a Guoan season ticket holder, probably not someone who has ever attended a match in Beijing.

S: I’m interested in promoting the culture of supporting your local team, not real estate company. The same happened at Guangzhou when Shenhua played there recently, Greenland filled the away end with stooges. Filling your away end with company fans is just lame as fuck.

B: I know where you’re coming from, though I’m happy that more people are at least watching a CSL match, maybe a few will enjoy the experience and come out for their local team, wishful thinking….

S: Let’s hope something comes good of it, at least the local beggars might have some thrown-away CSL shirts to wear.

B: I think that’s enough on that…So now the summer is here and the transfer window reopens, meaning we’ll see some new foreign talent in the CSL, what do you think will be the biggest surprise of the second half of the season?

S: That’s a good question. Although I fear surprises will be thin on the ground once things get going again. I’m struggling to think of anything really, nothing could surprise me that much, maybe Harbin going on a run of home victories with their 7 home games in a row coming up in the second half?

B: It’s a possibility, really…Unfortunately for Harbin their next run of matches is away at Guizhou, then home against Shandong, Evergrande, and Jiangsu. If they get any points through that run, they’d be lucky, but if heads stay up, they have a number of winnable matches as things go on. I think if I’d have to go with something, I think we’ll see a surprise team go down, possibly Dalian.

S: I see they apparently have not paid wages in full for almost a year? That’s certainly a very bad sign.

B: Yeah, I think that’s part of the story behind their struggles so far this year. I know we talked a lot in the winter that we thought we’d see some big name signings and it didn’t happen, but I hold that if it’s going to happen, the summer window is when we’ll see it, when guys are out of contract and looking for a payday. It also wouldn’t surprise me if a few CSL players make a move abroad, though on the subject, Zhang Xizhe and Guoan appear to have come to terms on a contract extension.

S: If so, that’s good news for Guoan, bad news for Chinese football as a whole. Cos these decent guys need to go abroad asap, not hang around longer in the CSL.

B: My feeling is that Guoan will allow him to go after this season, but there was no way they’d let it happen on a free. Whether due to loyalty or, more likely, “political” reasons, Chinese players tend to accept such deals.

S: Sure, Guoan deserve to good compensation if he leaves. But I think players agreeing new contracts in these circumstances is yet another one of the many things wrong with the game here. Why would a player sign a new contract with his club when he has designs on going abroad, as Zhang does, and he’s been the subject of interest from Celtic?

B: I honestly don’t know how the club gets the player to agree to such things.

S: Yeah it is a mystery to me. Don’t get me wrong, I think Guoan should get a decent pay off from any sale. But if the player’s contract is running out, then they should either be more proactive in moving him out, or take a hit and let him leave for less than is ideal. I really doubt a player of Zhang’s talent really wants to miss the chance to play in Europe. Is it maybe some kind of guanxi deal, like, Zhang signs a contract now, and when he’s old, and way too shit to merit a regular full time slot, he will still get a game anyway as repayment for his loyalty? Who knows.

B: Honestly, the only thing I can think of is something like that, because on a free, Zhang’s pretty much guaranteed a European club will bring him over. Not to create any speculation as players are on vacation all over the world right now, but Zhang’s in Spain (with his girlfriend), wonder if he’s involved in any meetings right now?

S: He might be, I hope he can get a move to a good European club and make a name for himself and take his career to a new level. We really need players like him, Zhang Lingpeng and Wu Lei to get busy on this front asap.

B: I agree completely on that. Well, we talked about surprises, I’m sure we’ll want to address the CFA Cup a little more next month as it serves as a appetizer before the CSL gets started. This season they switched the format to where the higher team travels to the lower team, we saw six Yi League or amateur sides beat China League One sides. Surprisingly, four matches went to penalties and only one was won by a lower league side. The new format will certainly make things interesting. Hangzhou fans coming to B.I.T won’t have to worry about the view, considering the entire stadium holds 1,000 people tops.

S: Ha ha. They might still be burned by their last visit to Beijing, it was a good gesture of Guoan to refund their tickets. But of course travel expenses from HZ to the capital are many times the price of a ticket. Nevertheless, its good to see the cup back, hopefully it can mature into a prestigious contest. But as usual, the CFA are missing a trick by killing some of the excitement by drawing the teams out in advance.

B: One step at a time. I wish it was more of an open draw, and conspiracy theorists will have a field day with Guangzhou Evergrande traveling to….Guangzhou, but I like that we’ll see these top flight sides forced to go away to the lower league sides, it’s an improvement. The CSL has the habit of taking baby steps and this is a starter.

S: Yeah you’re right. Making the big guys visit the little guys is a good thing and if the draw is fixed that way, I think there are worse ways to do it.

B: Right, it’s not the ideal format, but they’re on the right track.

S: I think the cup looks most likely to offer the most interesting results. So how about the World Cup? I’m seeing loads of Chinese friends announcing their allegiances on the social feeds, I always find that a bit odd, I can’t really get excited for a country I don’t have any meaningful ties to.

B: Well, you also can’t understand having love for a club you have no direct ties to, but its something common among many all over the world, including most footie fans here in China. I think part of it is out of necessity, the World Cup is such a huge event and China having only taken part in it once, most Chinese fans have developed a rooting interest in one (or more) other countries for a multitude of reasons.

S: It is very common. Scotland have been absent from the World Cup even longer than China, but you won’t find anyone back in Scotland going nuts for another country in Brazil. Except for England’ opponents of course. I think its cool for the World Cup, its all good fun. It’s interesting to see such enthusiasm for foreign teams in China.

B: But its an “old” football culture, whereas China (and the US) are “new”. Remember in China I believe before there was even a domestic league, there were Serie A and Bundesliga matches on tv. I’ll tell you in the US the vast majority of people will cheer for the US but will also support another country.

S: Yeah there’s definitely a latent love for German football in China. For me there’s definitely a lot the “old” and “new” footballing cultures can learn from each other. But the authenticity of the “old” is sometimes lost on the “new”, but I guess in China’s case it’s understandable to a point. I just can’t really get excited about any other country, I have my identity as Scottish, that is not gonna change. Any other national team, I may wish them well, but jumping around and cheering. I can’t do it. It’s interesting to compare this with my club allegiances. I guess by definition I am not Chinese. But club allegiances are more fluid I think.

B: I think its easy to get caught up in World Cup “fever”. And while I can’t always understand the strength of the passion, I know what its like being a fan from “afar”, hell, I’m the same way about the Chinese national team as they are about others, so I don’t blame them. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.

S: I think everyone should be free to choose who they want to get excited about. I’m just unable to comprehend certain choices. It’s a really interesting subject though. Why are you so excited about the Chinese national team as a fan? Because you lived here so long?

B: Right, it’s sort of an “adopted” country for me because I’ve been here for so many years and feel a deep tie to the country. There’s also almost no crossover between rooting for China and the US (i.e. they almost never play each other & are in different federations). It’s similar to how, like I said, most Americans will cheer for the United States as well as the country of their ancestry. Coming from that background, I can understand the Chinese mindset when it comes to supporting another country much more clearly because its not so strict as what you’d find in Europe.

S: That’s very interesting. Plus you now have a family here so it would be odd if you didn’t root for China. I certainly do get excited about China, and always want them to win, but being more active than that is a step too far for me. I think in this way, in China, they have a fairly black and white definition of what is Chinese and what is not, I’m outside of that, perhaps in future I will be more integrated. At least the world cup is a unifying thing, and good in general. It will be interesting to see how the World Cup affects CSL attendances. Some leagues in the world show a pickup after the World Cup. Could it be the same here? Or maybe even the opposite.

B: It definitely tends to be the case in the US, but I think things will stay level or just go up slightly here. This year has been a good year all around, other than a bit of a drop off in Guizhou, CSL attendances tend to be on the rise, and overall attendance is up as well. Hopefully things will stay as they are now, with every team over 10k.

S: Attendances are steady here, hopefully Shenxin’s figures bare a closer relation to reality now they are in Jinshan again.

B: One last subject, we’re only through 14 games, so its not quite the halfway point, but the long break just makes it seem that way…What’s been your favorite moment so far?

S: Yeah I think its fair to consider this the halfway point for all practical purposes. As for the first half… can’t think of any particular moment stands out really. I think its been an unspectacular half season for Chinese football so far. The national side made it to Australia, albeit falling in “ass-backwards” as you so amusingly put it. The ACL was a disappointment. But Evergrande are still in it, and in the CSL, there’s still a title race. All in all things are not too bad. What I want to see is Chinese players going overseas, as we said earlier.

B: Fair enough. Personally, my away trip to Harbin as well as the match and post-match hijinx after the Evergrande match were all very enjoyable. I think overall like you said, we have a title race, that’s something to be positive about. Granted, it’s only a two team race, but I think expecting much more than that would have been unreasonable. The league is overwhelmingly dominated by mediocrity, but at least it makes things interesting… I think that’s it mate, cheers to an exciting World Cup and a great second half of the season!

S: Yeah good to drink with you again. Enjoy the World Cup everyone and see you in the pub next month!

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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