With half of the Chinese Super League season remaining, Shanghai East Asia find themselves having performed above the expectations of many observers, leaving them in a promising position to challenge for an Asian Champions League spot. Key to their success has been the prolific form of Swedish international striker, Tobias Hysén, whose 11 goals in 14 games see him currently sitting joint second in the leagues scoring charts. Your Shanghai East Asia correspondent caught up with the striker to discuss the season so far, thoughts on the CSL, and how both his personal and professional life has changed since moving to Shanghai.
Hi Tobias, thanks for taking the time to speak to Wild East Football. First up, how are you finding life in Shanghai, and what major differences in lifestyle have you noticed since you’ve been here?
Well, living out in Chongming, there’s not really much to do – once you get back from training you want to do stuff with your family, but there’s not a lot to do. You come home at 6pm and your kids are going to bed, so in that sense it’s different. However, when you’re in Shanghai there’s so much to do, so life outside of football is probably the most different – mainly because of the language. We realised there was a reason we stayed in Gothenburg for 6 years – we like it at home, we’re homegrown people. But it was now or never, we wanted to do this, to get an adventure and do stuff we never thought we’d do. It’s going to be an experience to really appreciate, but it’s also going to be difficult to make it work.
So what is it you miss most about Sweden?
You miss the interactions you have on a daily basis – you can Skype and phone people, but obviously that’s not the same. I get the interaction from my teammates, but mostly for my family – there are things you do daily that you take for granted at home but you appreciate more when you don’t have them. Things like going out for dinner when you’re in Chongming, as my kids don’t really like Chinese food; it’s the small things that you take for granted that are bigger here than at home.
Looking at the fixture list for the second half of the season, East Asia play a lot of the CSL’s ‘bigger’ sides at home. How important do you feel this will be in shaping your season, and do you notice a big difference in playing away from home?
Looking at us, there’s definitely a big difference – we’re unbeaten at home and have only won 1 game away, but I don’t know why that is. For me it’s not that big of a difference; it’s just the atmosphere. But you have a tendency of being a bit more careful when you play away and maybe that doesn’t suit us, maybe we should just play the same way we normally do. You might look at the travelling but we do that for home games too; it’s an hour and a half on a bus (from Chongming), then into a hotel. But if we can get everybody back to full fitness and play the way we did the first half of the season, with all the games in Shanghai, we’ll have a good chance of challenging for a top four spot.
How about the atmosphere inside the stadiums here in China – often upwards of 40,000 seats and with running tracks around the outside – how does that manifest itself on the pitch?
Well, with only 15,000 fans inside Shanghai Stadium, it’s not going to be as noisy, but it’s been better than I thought. For me, as I don’t understand the chants, it’s more about the atmosphere in itself. But I’d rather play at a big stadium, rather than tiny 4,000 seater ones like they have in Sweden. Obviously the most important thing is the pitch – if it’s a good pitch, you can play anywhere.
On that point, what do you think of the pitches here in China?
Oh the pitch here is fantastic; ours is the best by a mile. The only pitch that wasn’t so good was in the first game at Liaoning, but that was in early March, and it was cold, bumpy and hard. In fact, the second worst was actually Evergrande’s pitch, which I thought was very peculiar because they’re a team that wants to play the ball. I mean, it wasn’t horrible, but it just wasn’t up to the standard of others. Even with the rain; training on it the day before, I just thought “they should have a better pitch than this.” I’ve played on so many pitches in Sweden where it’s been absolutely awful compared to here, and actually so far, it’s been really good.
What do you think of the overall strength of the league and the individual teams?
I’d say that’s better than I thought as well. I think Evergrande is in a class of its own. Beijing are close, but having played them both, Evergrande was just on their own level. I know we played badly against them, and we had a good game against Beijing, so it’s hard to measure. But I’d say Beijing are more like the other teams, although they have a tendency of getting the results as well. I’d say Beijing, Shandong, Jiangsu, R&F, us, and maybe Guizhou would be the teams fighting for the top four. It’ll be a good race, and I think it’ll end up being decided on the last day.
Do you think any team will be able to challenge Evergrande any time soon?
If teams can get the financial backing, then they probably could challenge, but it’s also down to the management of the club – where do you put your strengths? If you have the financial backing but not the coaches, then it doesn’t matter. You need to focus on every single part of the football club. If you’ve got a great squad, a great coach, but your medical staff isn’t good enough, then that makes a big difference; players get injured and are out for 4 weeks when they could have been back in 10 days. Listening to people in other clubs, that’s the most important thing. Obviously financial backing is important, but I’d say that if you can get the right backroom staff then everything will get better, just by having the right people in the right positions.
Looking at East Asia, how is the setup there, and the relationship between club chairman and owner, Xu Genbao and head coach, Xi Zhikang?
Well obviously the president (Xu Genbao) is running the show. Xi Zhikang is out on the pitch during training, while Xu is overseeing from the sidelines, telling him what to do. Also, during the games, the president isn’t allowed by the pitch, so then it’s coach Xi who’s managing the games. For me, Xi Is the coach and Xu is the manager, and that’s not a problem.
With new signing Imad Khalili also coming from Sweden, how much did you know of him already, and how has he settled in so far?
Well he was top scorer in Sweden last year, and over the last one and a half years he’s been a really good player. I’d played against him a couple of times but didn’t really know him that well, but now he’s here, we’ve spoken a bit. He’s just come from a summer break, and hasn’t trained for a while, so he’s just been doing a lot of running.
A lot of clubs have initiations for new players – does that happen at East Asia?
No, I actually did my own initiation, I stood up in the training camp in Spain, and just said, “well this is how we do it in Sweden” and just introduced myself. That was obviously translated into Chinese, and I think it was appreciated, but we don’t have anything like other countries. It’s funny though, because when you come to a new team, it’s a great way of bonding with the older players, and the younger ones get a chance to see you relaxed and having fun. It can be a great way of welcoming new players into the team.
Obviously most of the Chinese players at East Asia have grown up together; how does that affect the dynamic of the squad?
You can tell that some players are better friends than others, but that comes with sharing a room for 10 years. I’ve had a roommate (Daniel McBreen) for 5 months now, and we’re best friends already. But I can’t see any problem with having different groups of friends, as long as those groups work together. The Chinese players are happy that we can come in and help the team, and I’m happy when they score and help as well. When our ‘keeper (Yan Junling) saved us against Changchun, I told him, “this was your game,” and then he comes back and does the same when I score, so it’s teamwork, that’s the main thing. You can’t always speak to them in the way that you want to, so you have to make them understand that they are appreciated. The Chinese boys; most of them can understand English, but when you speak with them on the pitch, it might not click straight away. But it’s the same for any player really; Wu Lei has put some great balls in for me to score, and that’s because he knows I’ll be in there.
Which opposition players have really stood out for you so far?
Elkeson, who scored against us, Diamanti was also fantastic. Playing against Evergrande, you felt like you were 4 men short. But players like Roda Antar from Jiangsu – he’s always boisterous on the ball; playing it around. Niklas Backman, of course, who I’ve played against a few times. Also, the left winger from Shandong, Liu Binbin, who was rapid – he was good. Moreno, of Shenhua; he’s very skilled but had a quiet game against us. Those are the players that have stood out for me, but if I had to pick one it would be Diamanti – he didn’t make a wrong step over the 90 minutes.
Finally, what has been your favourite goal so far?
I have to say the third one against Guizhou, probably. The header against R&F was good, because I normally don’t score with my head, so that was nice. But the third one against Guizhou; where you go past two or three players, make a one-two and then – boom – off the bar and in, those are the kind of goals you want to score every week.
And your favourite game?
Yeah, Guizhou was fun – I made one and scored three, so that was good!