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Wilson: “Government football” and pitch chaos added to rich lore of Shanghai Derby

It’s surely extremely rare for such an eagerly anticipated match to have such a wildly unpredicted outcome.

Last Saturday’s Shanghai Derby was billed as the biggest game in the city for over a decade, yet it must be said that often clashes which are particularly looked forward to end up being unremarkable.

However, the derby was anything but – eight yellow cards, three red cards for Shenhua, and five goals without reply for SIPG saw to that. Off the pitch, there were numerous outbreaks of fan violence, although thankfully it was mainly scuffles and schoolboy stuff, with the exception of an SIPG fan bus having it’s window smashed, and a cowardly and shameful 10-on-1 kicking of an SIPG fan by a group in Shenhua colours.

Shenhua fans called the match “government football” – somehow implying that the game was a fix. Communist Party Secretary of Shanghai, Han Zheng, is the elder brother of Han Gang, who occupies a position of influence in Shanghai International Port Group, although no-one seems able to say exactly what. However this was enough for many to believe the outcome was unduly influenced.

In China, accusations of fixing are an easy way for fans to avoid swallowing an uncomfortable result. But of course it’s unwise to point one’s fingers in such a manner without proper foundation, of which there appears little.

All that really happened was, the referee set out to stamp his authority on the game – giving out needless yellows in the opening stages and leaving himself no room for manoeuvre later on when it was actually necessary to take out his cards. Tim Cahill’s yellow is a case in point – booked for a mutual tussle with SIPG’s Sun Xiang. Either a booking for both players or neither were the only reasonable courses of action, but the Australian was the only player to have his name taken.

Lv Zheng’s tackle in the 16th minute was indeed a very badly timed challenge and deserved a straight red. Bai Jiajun, booked for nothing earlier in the game, should have been booked on the 45th minute for a rough challenge which sort of looked like a two-footed tackle, but a red was harsh. Having said that, he was on a yellow already and should have exercised more caution. With Shenhua down to 9 men, the game was over as a meaningful contest by then, long before Li Jianbin was ordered off for remonstrating ferociously out of sheer frustration with the referee in the second half.

The 5-0 victory for SIPG confirmed the club’s status as the number one team in Shanghai – for now. However off the pitch it was a different matter – SIPG’s decision to only allocate Shenhua fans 2,000 tickets, yet give 10,000 to their own employees for free, was one made out of pure fear of their own fans being outnumbered in their own stadium. Despite denying real football fans the chance to pay money for one of those 10,000 tickets to catch the game, their pathetic and contempt-worthy scheme failed. Before the game, Shenhua fans in the assigned area held mobile phone torches aloft. Seconds later, Shenhua fans located in other parts of the stadium, mostly in the stand behind the dugouts, followed suit. Well over half of the 46,500 crowd seemed to be in blue and holding a signal aloft.

Because of their greater numbers, stronger identity, and sense of history and tradition, Shenhua fans need not be too defensive about falling behind on the pitch to SIPG. Instead the blue two thirds of town would do well to face up to the real reasons behind their teams crushing defeat. No matter the referees performance – and many would say his officiating should be taken as a gold standard for other Chinese referees who often struggle to contain undisciplined players – Shenhua have simply fallen behind SIPG in the talent stakes. This close season, both clubs had a budget of around 50 million Euros for the year. Yet SIPG managed to bring in significantly better players and staff.

SIPG brought in a world-renowned coach, Sven. Shenhua signed a Frenchman who no-one had heard of. SIPG bought Sun Xiang, a vastly experienced fullback and indeed former Shenhua player. Shenhua continued their amateurish habit of not even trying to get players of the correct position by signing midfielder Zhang Lu from Henan instead of a proper right-back. SIPG signed Shi Ke, China under-22 internationalist who has also made his debut for the national team – Shenhua signed Li Jianbin, not a bad defender, but one who only ever appeared once for Guangzhou Evergrande. SIPG signed Dario Conca – a proven league-winner with Evergrande, Shenhua panicked and signed an attacking midfielder with the best heading ability in the modern game, Tim Cahill, but play him upfront and don’t have anyone who can cross. The rest of Shenhua’s purchases were of dubious quality, with the exception of two – Wang Yun, a great CSL midfielder, but he’s 32. and Zambian stopper Sunzu. Of Shenhua’s eight new signings this year, these two are the only ones to have made a clear impact on the pitch.

What is going on at Hongkou? It’s the same old issues as before, players signed for reasons outside of their suitability to meet Shenhua’s footballing requirements. So, let us not blame Francis Gillot, he has been given a squad that is even more lop-sided than before, thanks to Shenhua’s strange and peculiar transfer policy.

If the game left a bad taste in the mouth for Shenhua fans, and neutrals looking for a competitive game of football sorely disappointed, after the dust has settled, this derby was a serious shot in the arm for not only Shanghai football but Chinese football too. We can talk about it being farcical. But it’s normal for derbies to be remembered for controversy. By their very nature, proper derbies are special events because they don’t happen every weekend, or even every season in some cases. That’s why they leave such lasting impression and add colourful chapters to the rich book of football.

No-one will forget last Saturday’s game in a hurry, even Shenhua fans, no matter how much they might like to. SIPG fans were cock-a-hoop and will enjoy bragging rights for years not weeks with this game. And for Shenhua, the incredible scenes after the match which saw thousands of fans cheering the team bus as it emerge from the Stadium after the game despite the dreadful result, was a defining moment of siege mentality and solidarity between fans and squad. The players surely could not have helped but been moved by such a gesture of loyalty.

The Shanghai Derby lived up to it’s historic reputation as one of the liveliest fixtures around; a 5-0 defeat of the city’s ruling football force of two decades was a stunning outcome – what will this fixture throw up next time? The rest of Chinese football looks on with a mixture of envy and fascination.

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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