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Pub Talk: Chinese football’s grand masterplan for the future

The CSL takes an early season break this weekend for a couple of international friendlies – so matters of national importance are on the agenda for BCheng and Shanghai Ultra this week. Alongside Perrin’s latest squad (and some oddities within), the pair discuss a massive plan issued by the Chinese government to revolutionize the sport from top to bottom. What does it all mean? No-one seems that sure, but it’s certainly a big deal in some way. Elsewhere, there’s time to look over the action in the CSL last week, and your pair hold off on discussing a certain early season big game until next week. That’s it in the pub today, pull up a stool and join in the discussion in comments section please, thank you!

B: We’re back in the pub with a week off before the “China derby” and at the top of the table there’s a lot of Shanghai.

S: There’s more Shanghai than anyone imagined, especially the team on top on goal difference. What an intriguing start to the season.

B: I don’t put anything into it, but it has to be a cause of optimism down south, eh?

S: Yeah, I’m very happy to see the table looking as it is, Shenhua and Shanghai International Port Group sitting astride the pile. But it’s only three games in, if it somehow looks this way and there’s three games left, then we’d really be talking.

B: Yeah, SIPG’s run is somewhat impressive considering who they’ve played, another 2-1 victory this past weekend as Sven and Davi went up against their former club.

S: It was a good victory, I caught the second half. Was interesting it was played in Shanghai just a few hours before the Shenhua match, havent seen that before, usually the games are spread out onto different days if not weekends.

B: More footie action in Shanghai and more chance for it to kick off between the fans, sounds like fun!

S: Indeed so. Shanghai International Port Group looked pretty good, Hysen especially has made a great start.

B: For me, that club is all about Conca, he is the heart of the squad, much like he was for Evergrande. I’m equally impressed with domestic transfer Yu Hai, after 10 years with Shaanxi/Guizhou, he finally left and joined SIPG, he’s been playing really well and scored the opener in this one (though he did use his ass to do so)

S: Haha I saw that. A very shrewd signing indeed is Yu Hai, especially coming off the back of his good performances in the Asian Cup in Australia. Conca is an even better signing though, he hasn’t lost it at all.

B: Not in the least, he’s made things interesting there. Credit where it’s due to Shenhua for winning, but on the subject of losing it, gotta wonder what’s going on in Tianjin, only one goal in three matches and looking very weak.

S: Tianjin looked compentent against Shenhua, but they played very deeply and never looked like scoring. Arie Hann was always going to have his work cut out second time round, looks like that’s how its going to be again, from what we can see so far anyway.

B: Indeed, so what has impressed you most with Shenhua through these three matches?

S: The team look like they actually have a game plan, as opposed to the random give-it-to-Gio approach under Batista. Much more organized and disciplined, there appears to be a very good team spirit and Cahill is helping a lot with that. It’s fair to say I haven’t seen a Shenhua team play as well as this for years.

B: It’s certainly going to be fun to see how they do next week when they come to the capital, but we’ll have plenty of time to discuss that. As for Beijing, they gave up their first goal in all competitions since Round 28 last year, oddly enough also at Huanglong vs. Hangzhou.

S: That’s an impressive defensive achievement, but I was rather surprised to see Beijing fail to win.

B: They’ve struggled to win at Hangzhou for a number of seasons, that’s why last year’s last gasp victory was so amazing. There is a major injury bug throughout the squad and it took out Lang Zheng on Sunday. Instead, they brought in Li Yunqiu and moved Zhou Ting to the middle. From that point on I thought a Hangzhou goal was almost inevitable. Guoan had Liu and Li Lei, two youngsters in defense, and two relatively short central defenders against all three Hangzhou attacking foreigners and Manzano didn’t have the side sitting back, instead they continued going forward, it was a recipe for disaster and unfortunately Guoan couldn’t find a goal.

S: Is Guoan’s backline going to be a problem this season do you think?

B: It shouldn’t be, the past two years they’ve brought in plenty of reinforcements and the only reason it became an issue against Hangzhou was because of injuries and a lack of a center back on the bench. I don’t think Lang’s injury was very serious, so he should be okay to go against Shenhua, but he’s dealing with some pain and Lei Tenglong is out as well. That said, they do have Jin Pengxiang, who should be a capable backup.

S: Indeed we can see Guoan has some proper cover at the back. God forbid what Shenhua would do with their only two centre halfs in the entire squad.

B: It wasn’t only Guoan that slipped up last week against a bugaboo side for the club, Evergrande once again couldn’t beat Changchun, a side that has had their number for three seasons now.

S: It’s funny how Changchun are Evergrande’s bogey club, relatively speaking. But Evergrande have really struggled in the league so far, staggering past the two newly promoted teams in their first two games. So perhaps not that big a shock they would drop their first points against a team which has taken quite a few from them before.

B: Yeah, but the way Evergrande have played, even going back to the end of last season, you just expected they’d find a way to win the match and a goal just didn’t come. What do you think their problem is so far? Overconfidence? Injuries? Looking past their opponents?

S: I think a combination of teething troubles, since there’s been a relatively high turnover in the squad this close season, and also a bit of complacency against weaker sides. Since they have not had quite the same issues in the ACL.

B: If you look at the way the league schedule is designed, it really does them a disservice. You have to play everyone twice, but you look at how Guoan and Evergrande close the season and then you look at how some other potential challengers like R&F and SIPG do it, wow, it’s a big difference.

S: I think the CSL plays the teams off in the order of where they finished the previous season right? I think they’d be better off making it as random as possible, that would ensure maximum fair play.

B: Yeah, I never really paid that close attention to things, so I’m not sure how long they’ve been doing it that way, but it seems it would be much better to do it completely randomly instead. The end result is that the start of the season offers a lot of boredom.

S: I don’t think they always did it this way, because I can remember “Derby weekends” in the past, unless that was just a co-incidence. I can understand perhaps there might be a need to schedule certain fixtures in a certain manner sometimes, but in general, why not just put the teams in a hat and draw out the order randomly. It makes things a bit dull at times otherwise, like you say.

B: Ideally there’d be a real attention getter every weekend, though this way does have the potential to create a lot of excitement in the closing month of the season.
S: It’s a bit like the CFA cup – everyone knowing who their possible opponents might be all the way up to the final itself. Taking out the surprise of the draw from the very outset.

B: Speaking of the CFA Cup, it got started over the weekend, any thoughts on Guangxi Longguida’s victory over Changchun Subway?

S: Heh heh, I can’t say I’m familar with either of those teams. Care to share your take on that fixture?

B: Can’t say I can comment about it, though I know Guangxi won 1-0. The CFA Cup has its own sort of mystic, not sure how many people know the 2015 edition started on January 1 at a few middle schools in Guangzhou.

S: We may joke about the obscurity but I’m sure you’ll agree there’s undoubtedly some great stories hiding somewhere at grassroots level and it’s good to see a cup contest where the little guys can in theory play the CSL big boys if they do well enough.

B: Right, once these amateur sides get into the cup, it only takes them two wins to go from a middle school in Guangzhou to Tianhe or Gongti.

S: That’s got to be good, infact the one thing about the CFA drawing the entire draw at once is that the lower league teams know exactly what they have to do to progress. Speaking of grassroots, did you see much of the huge football reformation plan released last week?

B: I did, but perhaps some of our readers didn’t, care to tell us about it?

S: Well, we’ve been a bit slow to cover it on , such is the scale of the plan and the fact it’s written in that kind of official-ease language. The crux of it is, it indentifies most of the problems affecting the game here, and makes some lofty proposals for rectifying them, such as incentives for local authorities to build football fields, plus new proposals at professional level, such as recognition of the need for “historical clubs” – encouraging clubs to have neutral names minus company titles, which is very interesting indeed.

B: Definitely, these are issues that we’ve talked about a lot, I think its good news for the most part, but it always makes me feel skeezy when the government gets this involved in something.

S: Yeah I share that feeling for sure. I have had problems really knowing what to say about it. Overall I think it’s good, it shows they have a really good handle on what is wrong, and this scale of plan is unprecedented. Like you say though, government getting involved makes me apprehensive. And it’s ironic the plan includes a move to make the CFA indepdenent from the government, something I am really not convinced could happen anytime soon here in anything but name.

B: Right, I just don’t see how it would work and while its great to have all this attention on football, I wonder at what cost its coming at.

S: It could be a great thing. It suggests Chairman Xi really is a football nut, and has the power to put football development at the top of the agenda. In the past we’ve seen the CFA suffer badly from having career bureaucrats seeing managing it as a stepping stone in the their political careers. Politicians and football don’t mix anywhere, certainly not here, maybe this will open things up to get people who have a better idea about the sport put in charge of its development.

B: There is definitely potential there. If I was a basketball fan (or of any other sport), I’d certainly be very jealous of all the attention football is getting, but its good that this push is coming, hopefully we’ll see some real results from all this.

S: I also wondered what other parties would think, not just other sports but also other sections of society, it would not be unreasonable to suggest there are more pressing social issues which require more urgent attention. So in this way, it’s a very thought-provoking plan, not just from a pure footballing perspective.

B: Good point, yes, with everything wrong in China, it’s interesting how much attention seems to be placed on football. I think it’s part of the country’s push for soft power, trying to bring the World Cup back to Asia and hoping one day for a solid national team that can bring the country pride.

S: I think so, and I’ve always been a passionate believer in the power of football to bring about positive social change, I just hope this huge program can deliver positive permanent changes, otherwise it will be a big waste not just for football but for everything else which missed out on the attention.

B: So since I brought up the national team, any thoughts on the squad as they get ready to take on Haiti and Tunisia at home?

S: Yes, there are some rather strange names in there, Zhang Chiming? I know Chinese strikers don’t get as many chances as they might because foriegn players tend to take up the striking slots, but I don’t quite get the need for further experimentation at this stage. What do you reckon?

B: I’m at a loss for why Perrin thinks he’s a more sensible call up than say, Yu Dabao, but whatever, that’s one of the few really out there selections. The opponents are Haiti and Tunisia, I guess its worth it seeing how he’ll do against what has to be inferior opposition.

S: I’m confused by Yu Dabao’s continued abscene from the squad as well to be honest. But Perrin is pretty bulletproof after the Asian Cup, for the time being at least. In fact I was going to say it’s going to be interesting to see what the national team’s plan is between now and World Cup qualification, but that actually starts in Asia in June, just a year after the last World Cup.

B: Yes, we’re only about two weeks away from the draw and the first match will kick off in June.

S: Actually we’d be remiss not to mention that fact that the likes of Bhutan, Cambodia and Timor-Leste have already been in action and are through to the second round to lock horns with the big guns in June.

B: Yeah, it goes to show how long the entire World Cup competition is, from start to finish of qualifying is two and a half years. It’s still early in the process, but if you start looking at things, China’s gotta get out of the second round.

S: I think so, I think China should be aiming to be in the mix when it comes to ultimate qualification. I don’t think outside of Australia, South Korea and Japan that there are any teams significantly better than the China I saw at the Asian Cup.

B: Right, the next round is going to be a little harder, but they should cruise through this.

S: I think the draw is made on April 14, so we shouldn’t have long to see who the national team must overcome.

B: Indeed…So mate, is that all we have for the week?

S: I think so, the national team is the right note to sign off on, let’s hope for more positive results in these upcoming friendlies the CSL is taking a break for.

B: Sounds good, cheers mate!

S: Cheers B, see you next week.

B: Indeed, we’ll have a lot to talk about at that point.

S: We certainly will. Until then!

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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