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Pub Talk: A drink at the half way house

Once again, it’s the pub – no time for niceities this week, get in there and grab a beer!

SU: Greetings B, how are you ?

BC: Can’t complain, it’s always great to be sitting with you with beers in front of us.

SU: It is especially in this horrible muggy weather.

BC: Not so bad up here, though we had a spot of rain lately, seems like Beijing is becoming Guangdong this summer.

SU: Shanghai at the moment as its usual rainy season jungle-like atmosphere. Not great conditions for football. Speaking of which, let’s get right to it. Last night’s big game, your take on it?

BC: It was pretty much what I expected. Lots of edge of your seat action and an excellent showing for the CSL. I’m obviously not a neutral but I think most would agree Guoan dominated the match and blew an opportunity in not taking all three points, but still a draw was fair. I also thought that it was really well officiated, few could have complaints about Ma Ning’s performance last night.

SU: I felt it was a decent game but not as good as previous Evergrande – Guoan matches. I wasn’t impressed with Evergrande at all. Guoan should have won it but their shooting left something to be desired. Ma Ning did a good job of officiating, but his approach was clearly very different to the last time I saw him ref a game which was the Shanghai derby. Total lack of consistency.

BC: Evergrande had their fair share of chances, though again, the Beijing’s dominated things and it really feels like a blown opportunity. I talked before the match about the need for them to take all three points and considering how weak Evergrande looked, especially at home, it was unfortunate they didn’t. How much do you think injuries effected things or was it adjusting to a new manager?

SU: Hard to say. I think the new manager, big Phil, needs time to shape things. Letting Canavaro go was quite a shock, Evergrande have been through a lot of changes in the past year and they are still finding their direction.

BC: I think so, its a cop out but I’d put it up to both factors, the side just didn’t look that up to it and were on the defensive for much of the night. I’ll take the point though, as the teams remain tied at the top.

SU: I think it was a good result for the neutral. A Guoan win would have been better in that regard. But there was some good football, the game deserved a few goals.

BC: Indeed, well that’s enough time spent on last night’s big match I think, what else interested you about the past week of football? We spent a lot of time talking about last night’s match, though Evergrande won impressively at Shandong in Big Phil’s first match over the weekend. Also, the past two nights we’ve seen two Shanghai teams do things they’ve yet to do this year, with SIPG winning on the road and Shenxin winning at home.

SU: Shanghai International Port Group have been through a rough stage, but they’ve kept in touch with the title race. Their win over Liaoning was impressive, three goals on the road, Conca pulling the strings. I hear they are looking to make a splash in the summer transfer window.

BC: I’ve heard they’re in for a young former Guoan domestic star, would be an interesting move for them. They’re only one point back in the title race and have a good shot at some hardware (they’re still in the CFA Cup as well) this year.

SU: Are you referring to Zhang Xizhe?

BC: Didn’t want to name names, but that would be it.

SU: What do you think the chances of that move are?

BC: We all know there are lots of rumors flying around this time of year, some believable, some plausible, some totally crazy, so I’m honestly not sure, but I do think SIPG have plenty of money to spend and he’d be an interesting move, though not really sure how they’d use him.

BC: Zhang played as the central attacking midfield or on the left wing for most of his time at Guoan, neither are areas that SIPG need someone in.

SU: Would you be issuing a Bcheng-style fatwa against Zhang if he returned to another CSL club which wasn’t called Beijing?

BC: It’s a slightly different proposition because (despite hearing some different things) I believe Zhang was a transfer and unlike some others, he isn’t out of contract, so it’s really up to Wolfsburg who they want to sell him to.

SU: Heh heh. I read a story this week where he revealed his frustration at attending a car show in Shanghai instead of playing professoinal football for the club who signed him. I feel his pain, this is really disrespectful to the player in my opinion and Chinese football in general.

BC: Yeah, he did a long interview with BTV and this matter came up, it’s one of the things that really pissed off a lot of Guoan fans about the move and it shows how daft Wolfsburg/VW were (or maybe are). If all he does is train with the side and never gets on the pitch (at that point he hadn’t even made the 18 man roster), what’s the point? Also, what’s the point of sending a player heavily identified with Beijing to an event in Shanghai? Odd…

SU: Yes he made that point himself about being sent to Shanghai. I think the connection was a sponsors’ one. Which makes it even more remote from football. Ridiculous, Chinese football has enough distractions already.

BC: Like the whole Sun Ke affair….

SU: Yes, what on earth is going on there? Seems he’s staying at Sainty? He didn’t appear against Shenhua on Wednesday night. Have Tianjin and their new sponsor fallen out already? It’s bizarre.

BC: I explained a little bit about the situation in my article earlier in the week but I never expected it to get to this point. It seems the sponsor negotiated and put up the money for Sun’s transfer, but Teda is still the controlling shareholder in the club and they didn’t agree to the move. This has furthered the infighting between the sponsor, Quanjian, and Teda, it also may mean that Sun is heading back to Jiangsu. Right now everything is in limbo and I’d expect that Sun won’t be playing for either side this weekend.

SU: I read your article with interest, you made some very good points the amount of money for a Chinese domestic transfer was absurd. And now it’s even more silly that he’s been used as a pawn in a power struggle.

BC: I’ve seen some things in the English press in China stating that if Teda reject the move, Sun may have to sit out for the season, but I don’t believe that to be the case because everything I’ve seen has said that Teda never submitted registration documents for Sun.

SU: I think in these situations the rules favour the player being able to play come what may, and rightly so. Overall perhaps it’s not surprising this dispute happened considering this money seemed to come out of the blue. It’s interesting that someone somewhere decided to make a statement by bringing in a Chinese player, when for the same money, a top foreign player could have been brought in.

BC: True, and it probably wasn’t necessary to put up that much money for Sun. Anyways, its that time of year, we’ve seen a few foreigners added to sides already (including Shenhua) and will likely see a few more, namely changes in Beijing and at Evergrande. I think its a great thing that we’re seeing a steady improvement in the quality of players who are joining the CSL.

SU: We are and I think that is still a good thing. What we need to see now are the systems inside clubs coming up to speed with higher quality foreign players. The turnover of foreigners is still too high here. And there are many reasons for that.

BC: Yeah, I think one of the biggest reasons is the turnover in managers. There hasn’t been too much yet, but do you want to talk about Shenhua’s recent signing before we move on to the weekend?

SU: Yes I think Sissoko looks like a solid capture but I’m a bit concerned he hasn’t played more than 20 games or so over the past two years. Indeed he spent half a season without a club during that time. This is a similar record to Papdopolous who is most likely to make way for him as the extra foreign player. And that guy’s performance has been awful – clearly not the same player he was before serious injuries.

BC: So we’re officially halfway through the season, this weekend there isn’t a lot to preview so any conclusions you want to make or surprises about where we’re at right now?

SU: Yes it’s a good time to take stock, exactly at the half way point. This season its notable we’ve seen Shandong perform more like they should given the talent, SIPG up their game, Guoan maintain their momenentum from last season, and Evergrande have lost their edge somewhat. All this adds up to an exciting title race, as the table shows.

BC: An excellent summary, not much I can add to that though I think someone who doesn’t know much about the CSL would think its crazy how we talk about Evergrande having lost their edge and yet still sitting top of the table having only lost once this season. That said, they definitely aren’t the dominant side they’ve been the past four seasons. There are two sides only eight points behind the leaders, but when one of them is Henan I don’t think anyone outside of the current top four has a shot. You have four clubs that are battling for the title and then pretty much everyone from 5th to 14th is bunched together.

SU: Good point about Evergrande, I think the key phrase to bear in mind when looking at them is “relatively speaking”, anyone following the CSL regularly for the past few years will find their current position to be their weakest possibly since they came into the league a few years back. For the rest of the table, I agree, the top 4 are well defined then there’s a chasing pack of a couple of clubs who are a bit better than the rest. I’m not sure Henan really belong in that group however. Elsewhere, it’s the same as usual, a large group of mediocre outfits on top of one club badly adrift at the bottom.

BC: I think its hard to even say Jiangsu is chasing, they’re a thoroughly mediocre side and I don’t think they’re much better than any of the sides in that large pack of mediocrity. Despite a decent win last night, I do tend to write Shenxin off, it would take some big moves and a great second half to see them stay up, especially considering they only managed two wins in 15 matches.

SU: Don’t disagree with any of that. Sainty I think have something about them and I’m interested to see Icelandic footballers in China. I hate to say this but it’s ironic guys from an Island of 400,000 people can make a splash in a country with an exponentially bigger population.

BC: So let’s move on to this weekend’s matches and we’ll see Shenhua taking on Shenxin perhaps for the last time in the CSL on Sunday. I’m sure you’ll have some intense feelings about what I have to say, but this is a match that I think Shenxin needs to win if they want to stay up and I wonder if we’ll see any collusion going on.

SU: To be honest I don’t have such intense feelings for Shenxin, more pity really. They do have to win to have any hope of playing in the CSL, but I see only defeat for them.

BC: I think you’re right but with two home matches in a row and playing a local “rival” that looked pretty bad against Jiangsu, it’s a good chance for them, will certainly be a game to watch.

SU: Shenxin will be on a high, well, by their standards, and will be more confident. Shenhua’s defence is a joke, Li Jianbin’s decision making ability is very poor and he lacks physical strength. Papadolous is conning everyone, there is no way in hell that guy is up to this level of football. Of course the solution to this dilemma is to let your best defender, Sunzu, go. Which is what Shenhua are contemplating.

BC: It’s going to be an interesting match. This is sort of the worst week of the CSL all season, though there’s one other match that has gotten my attention, it seems its gotten the attention of local fans as well, who are camping out for tickets as Evergrande travel to Shijiazhuang, who are undefeated at home this year.

SU: I was impressed to see Shijiazhuang fans camping on the street. But also amused to think of the chaotic scenes which may unfold first thing in the morning when the tickets go on sale, given that camping only puts you near the point of sale, not in the actual queue.

BC: Not sure how they’ll be in the provinces, but back in 2009 before Guoan went to online ticket sales, things were pretty orderly, though extremely dirty.

SU: Lets hope things are orderly. Anyway it’s a great gesture by the fans who have really welcomed CSL to their city. As a matter of fact, for the whole league crowds now are averaging around 23k per game, this is only just a couple of thousand or so off the old Jia-A league in its 90s heyday, is this resurgence real and a turning point for Chinese football, B?

BC: The stats are certainly unbelievable, just looking at Shanghai we’ve seen a massive jump at Shenhua and SIPG this season. Things are way up in Tianjin and Jiangsu as well, while the addition of Chongqing and Shijiazhuang have bolstered attendance significantly as well. There are places where the league is still significantly struggling, but overall things are looking up.

SU: I think the attendance stats are pretty awesome. Chongqing are actually attracting a few more fans than Guoan are at the moment according to the official stats, that’s something surely no-one could have imagined this time last year.

BC: Yeah, I have no idea where all the fans came from there, especially because during their last time in the CSL, they were very poorly attended. Perhaps the concerns about losing the side really brought people out of the woodwork. There are so many great stories, but then there are also the negative ones, the fans in Guizhou seem to have given up on their side, and R&F draw less in total than crosstown rivals Evergrande get for a match.

SU: Chongqing I think got big crowds back in the day but not as big as now. I hope it’s not a flash in the pan but of course its good to see and I also hope its because people starting giving a shit about not wanting to see their local club disappear. Guizhou are a huge disappointment, not only because they were getting something like 30k a match a few years ago, but also because they moved away from Xian, a renowned football-loving city in China.

BC: If by “back in the day” you mean the Jia A days when everyone was doing well, then yeah, but for the past 10 years they were rarely averaging five digit attendances (that said they were yo-yoing between CSL and League One). As for Guizhou, it just shows the fickleness of fans and why I don’t pay too much heed to the good attendance figures from a single season, everyone was excited when the team first arrived (and was one of the league’s stronger clubs), but as the newness wore off (and at the same time the team’s performances weakened), there was a severe drop off. I’m not saying it will happen in Chongqing (or Tianjin or Shijiazhuang or Shanghai), but while celebrating the big jump in attendance this season, it’s worth taking a wait and see approach.

SU: Yes, I’m talking about the 90s. My original point is, that is a time when it seemed Chinese football as in a boom and the feel good factor was evident, but now attendances are much the same yet you hear the same old criticism of the game, when actually the figures paint a very healthy picture. You’re definitely right about needing to see sustained increases crowds are fickle beyond belief here.

BC: Right, on your point, I think overall we’re seeing a lot of optimism in the world of Chinese football, there are a lot of issues, but like we talked about today, attendance is way up where it was weak (and sustained for the most part where it’s been strong), quality of foreigners has gone up, the national team is doing well, even the women are doing pretty well (though they’re going to get crushed by the US tomorrow). The difference is that back in the 90s, the league was brand new, there was a lot of amusement to things (and people showing up just for the free gifts), whereas now there is a serious fandom growing in a lot of cities, I think it’s at one of the healthiest points we’ve ever seen professional football at in China.

SU: That’s very true about the novelty factor in the 90s. Also it was a time when Marlboro were sponsoring the league, shows things have changed alot since then in many ways but over all things are definitely in a good place, compared to say 10 years ago.

BC: We are at a really great time in Chinese football and there’s a lot to be hopeful about, especially as we enter the last half of the season with four teams within three points of each other.

SU: That’s undoubtedly a highlight at the moment. Speaking of which are there any other games this weekend worth covering?

BC: For neutrals, there isn’t any headline inducing match this weekend, but like we talked about a few weeks ago, you have a situation where plenty of teams have an opportunity to separate themselves from everyone else. For example, Tianjin (19 pts) vs. Henan (22 pts), R&F (17 pts) vs. Hangzhou (17 pts), Liaoning (15 pts) vs. Guizhou (11 pts). Not that these matches will have any real importance (except the last one having some relegation significance), they should be interesting matches.

SU: There’s often good games in the lower reaches but unfortunately they’re hard to predict. Not a great deal on the fixture card this weekend which arouses particular excitement, but there are plenty of table-changing games.

BC: Exactly, for me it will be all about if Shijiazhuang can find a way to keep up their streak and come away with something.

SU: I think so. Well, anything else to bring up?

BC: I think that’s it for this week, we have a lot of great football coming up, let’s hope for some more great matches. Cheers mate!

SU: That’s right. Cheers man!

Brandon Chemers aka B. Cheng aka A Modern Lei Feng – is a name which may be familiar to many in the Chinese blogosphere. He currently serves as Editor-in-Chief for Wild East Football and is one of the lonely souls writing about Chinese football in English for the last 10 years. Chemers' credentials are second to none – his former blog focused not only on the fortunes of his beloved Beijing Guoan FC, but a multitude of other aspects of Beijing life. He’s deservedly built a reputation in the Chinese blogosphere as an insightful observer of not only Chinese football, but also the wider picture of life in modern China and its many layers. For WEF, beyond writing about Guoan, he often focuses on fan culture and the business of Chinese football.

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