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Shenhua must start from zero after Beijing smash 20-year China Derby curse

To the outsider, a 0-3 defeat at home to your biggest rivals just looks like another bad result. But unfortunately for Shenhua fans it’s something much more than that.

The rivalry between China’s two biggest cities, Beijing and Shanghai, is well-documented and permeates all levels of life in the country. You’ll be hard pressed to find a Shanghainese with anything much good to say about the capital city, and of course vice-versa. That’s to mention nothing of the political dynamic between the two cities which has shaped all of China in one form or another.

Separated by distance, language, culture and sharply contrasting historical backgrounds, these metropolises are two very different cities. Many countries are dominated by two major cities – Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, Rotterdam and Amsterdam in Holland, Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland, Rome and Milan in Italy. And in China, it’s no different.

But where things do differ is that, due to China’s political system and the government’s official policy of promoting “harmonious society “, opportunities to indulge in ya-boo antics and other such shenanigans against rivals are somewhat limited. In China, football provides the only public place to let off steam against other tribes en mass.

A long time ago, Beijing inflicted Shenhua’s record defeat – a 9-1 mauling at Worker’s Stadium in 1997. Guoan fans love to remind their southern rivals of this result to this day. But Shenhua fans took solace in an outstanding accomplishment of their own – Beijing had never won at Hongkou Stadium since Chinese professional football began in 1994. The Hongkou hoodoo was a source of great pride to Shanghainese, and was always used as a shield to counter the “9-1” chants.

For these reasons, Saturday’s defeat is especially painful for Shenhua fans, and inflicts a blow on the Shanghainese psyche as a whole which will resonate for quite some time.The defeat also completes a full set of face-losing calamities which have befallen the club in recent years.

Just about every embarrassment or disaster which could happen to Shenhua, has happened, with the exception of relegation or the club itself ceasing to exist – two fates which were narrowly avoided last year. From the high farce of the Drogba and Anelka experiment, to threats to move the club to Kunming, to the annulling of the club’s 2003 championship for match-fixing, to the continual sale of top players, famously culminating in the transfer of club legend Wang Dalei at the start of this season, Shenhua and the club’s long-suffering support have been through a traumatic past few seasons.

The China Derby defeat is yet another humiliation to add to this woeful list. But at the end of the day it’s only one bad result. And losing to Guoan is in many ways as much a monkey off Shenhua’s back as it is to Beijing themselves.

In recent seasons, the gap in ability between the two squads has grown each year. And every time the fixture came around, Guoan fans were becoming more and more convinced that this would be their year and finally see a win at Hongkou. Yet each time Shenhua somehow found a way to thwart their hated rivals, despite on paper at least, there being a large disparity between the pair in terms of talent. In effect, Shenhua’s annual China Derby Hongkou Houdini act, no matter how enjoyable it was for the supporters, only helped conceal the shockingly threadbare nature of Shenhua’s squad.

The China Derby result had been coming for a long time.

For the match itself, Shenhua fans may bemoan some very eccentric refereeing decisions, but the truth is these cannot be used as an excuse not to face up to the reality of the situation – Guoan were worthy winners and simply have a much better team than Shenhua, and have done for a number of years now.

The home side was missing the spine of it’s team – the mercurial and talismanic Gio Moreno, defensive rock Cho Byung-Kuk and midfield general Xu Liang. But even with these players, the gap on the pitch between Shenhua and Guoan would still be very significant.

Lining up for Shenhua was a goalkeeper who, according to the CSL, is a whopping 100kg and 186cm tall. That is even heavier than your out-of-shape correspondent who is only 4cm shorter and takes much less exercise (presumably) than porky custodian Qiu Shenjiong.

In defence were two players being played out of position – defensive midfielder Zheng Kaimu in the middle and Wang Changqing, a right-midfielder, at full-back. In midfield was Fan Lingjiang, who at 24 years old has played less than 10 games of top-flight pro football in his entire career.

Such is the lack of decent domestic talent retained at the club, this season Shenhua became probably the only CSL team in history to have ever fielded two foreign centre-backs at once.

Further up the field, Shenhua had a bit more quality. But striker Gao Di is always played out of position on the wing, as is Cao Yunding, the inconsistent Shanghainese playmaker whose natural position is through the middle. The lack of strength and depth means there is no-one else to play in these positions.

Every team gets hit by injuries and suspensions, but not every team was until very recently run by someone who didn’t even try to maintain a squad big enough to cover for such eventualities.

Zhu Jun has an awful lot to answer for with his annual fire sales of the clubs top domestic players. We may never know the truth of his dispute with the government shareholders which led to him pulling out of the club, but ultimately he was officially responsible for the operational side of Shenhua and it’s inexcusable to run a football club on a skeleton crew of players for so many years.

Unsurprisingly, Shenhua’s lack of strength and depth has not gone unnoticed in the media. Speaking to the Oriental Sports Daily, Shenhua legend and former China international Xie Hui expressed his concern about the issue in the aftermath of the defeat to Guoan.

“Do we we lack strength? That’s a ridiculously funny thing to say. We don’t have strength of any kind. And what kind of youth program has Shenhua had in recent years? None! We are starting from zero here,” Xie said.

Indeed starting from zero is exactly what Shenhua needs to do and the Beijing result is a sharp and painful reminder of this imperative. Logic dictates that such a long and proud unbeaten record was never going to last forever, an now that it has gone, there’s nothing from the past to distract or deflect attention from the most serious issues.

The club, along with new owners Greenland, must now undo years of chronic under-investment in domestic talent and lay the foundations on which to erase Shanghai’s own long-standing winless run – that of 19 years since it’s last bone-fide league championship title.

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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