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Pub Talk: Beijing back in the mix, Evergrande back at top, Shanghai cup derby looms

The pub is back after a little break for Shanghai Ultra to become a daddy. The pub’s new father finds plenty to talk about this week with his old drinking buddy Bcheng. The title race, forthcoming Shanghai derby, and some rather in-depth discussions about crowd control and general fan attendance are on the agenda. So much to get into this week, so without further ceremony, pull up a stool and join in.

BC: There’s been a pub hiatus as of late, in no small part due to an addition to the WEF family, congratulations mate!

SU: Thanks very much B. Yes I have had my hands full to say the least, so a visit to the pub is a welcome and overdue escape.

BC: I can imagine, fatherhood is a never ending task, cherish whatever breaks you get…well, while we’ve been on break, the league has as well, replaced by a pointless competition that China unsurprisingly did alright in.

SU: Yeah I am not a fan of the East Asian Cup either. Since China’s vast size means the weather in the north makes football impossible there for much of November – March, I really think they need to use as much as the warmer months as possible for the CSL. Because the East Asian Cup doesn’t have to take place in regions where winter football is impossible.

BC: It’s not even that for me though I hate that CSL players could get injured in a meaningless competition. Since it’s not during an official FIFA break, you get very uneven sides. I explored the subject in an article, I think there are some interesting, serious rivalries, especially if they settle on North Korea as the 3rd side in the future. Forgive me the comparison, it almost reminds me of the Home Countries matches, though in a different way. It could be fun if they changed it around a little.

SU: Actually that is a pretty good comparison. The key difference is that when the British home countries championship took place, before the scrapped it, this was basically the only time the teams faced each other so it created a lot of interest, at least Scotland v England did which is in some ways the China v Japan fixture of Europe. The European World Cup and Euro championship qualifiers have more teams and more qualifiers than Asia, so the home nations seldom met in them. In fact the Russia 2018 qualifiers start next year and England an Scotland were drawn in the same group – this is actually the first time this has happened for WC qualifiers. Yet in Asia, China, Japan and the two Koreas play each other almost every time in WC and Asia Cup qualifiers. So yeah, kinda a pointless tournament, my argument is just if you are gonna play it, move it to the start or end of the season somewhere not freezing.

BC: Well, on the field China did well, but that wasn’t a big surprise, not much to take from it, I think, except making fun of the Koreans and their fans for celebrating the victory, shows that despite their level of quality, they’ve not won much in Asia.

SU: I was glad to see some passion for football from the Koreas, sometimes they seem like they only care about the big games. I suppose it shows the tournament isn’t completely without prestige.

BC: Anyways, the less we talk about that the better I think. The CSL kicked off again midweek and the match of the round was here in Beijing, I was pleasantly surprised the Beijingers came out strong and defeated a Shandong side that has been playing some good football as of late.

SU: I was just about to say – a very impressive win for Guoan and a vital one too. As was written on the site this week, failure to win would have probably been a lethal blow to title aspirations.

BC: Most definitely, Shandong’s win at home against Beijing in Round 7 spurred a run of success, I hope this win will be what turns the tide for Beijing and pushes them on a run to the end, they need it at this point, any points dropped, especially by Beijing or Shandong, pretty much eliminate them from the title race at this point.

SU: That’s right and results elsewhere were interesting too, I watched SIPG against Henan who once again proved that Zhengzhou is a tough place to take three points from.

BC: Yes, I think the absolute downpour there may have added to things, making it a slog and slowing down SIPG’s speedy attack, but it also could have been the break, Evergrande also had their own struggles.

SU: Henan had plenty of chances to take the game, and SIPG could have won it also, was a pretty good match for a soggy one. Cai Huikuang played pretty well and had an impressive header off the line. Evergrande once again turned 1 point into 3 with a late, late goal. Must have been frustrating for you to learn that.

BC: Yes, but by now I think every CSL fan has learned not to “celebrate” a Guangzhou result until the final whistle has gone, amazing the number of times they’ve done that.

SU: It is and it’s the sign of a team with confidence and determination – something lacking in certain CSL sides.

BC: Yes, it’s interesting that they often put themselves in that situation, a season or two back they were clearly not a first half team, scoring most of their goals in the second, but when it gets late in the match, they almost always find a way to pull it out.

SU: Goulart’s effort was well-taken, Robinho doesn’t seem to have set the bushes alight down in Cantoland yet. My money is still on Evergrande to win the league, I think they are coming through at the right time. It looks ominous I think.

BC: On Robinho, this was his first competitive match with the club, no? It’s still a little early to judge.

SU: I guess so, to be honest I just expected to hear more about him in the media in general, although they are used to big names down there.

BC: This might seem like a shocker and me being a homer, but if I have to choose a side, I’m putting money on Guoan to win the league. To be honest, it amazes even myself that I’m saying that.

SU: I think at this point the top four are only separated by four points so you can’t really rule anyone out. I don’t think Shanghai International Port Group will win it because I don’t think they believe they can win themselves. Shandong have a good pedigree and it seems Cuca is finally getting it right. So who can say.

BC: All we can do at this point is guess, if you look at the schedule, I think SIPG has the hardest run and I think its that more than anything that will sink them. After Hangzhou this weekend, they play at Shenhua (then play at Hongkou again in the CFA Cup), then host Evergrande and then travel to Shandong. I think that run of four is going to be very tough for them and I doubt they’ll come through. Evergrande has its own fair share of tough matches, outside of SIPG, they are away at R&F and Tianjin, two sides that they’ve dropped points against in the past, plus they host Shandong before, of course, finishing off the season in Beijing. I didn’t look at Shandong’s schedule as, realistically, I think they’ll fall off slightly and probably focus on the CFA Cup as their route into the Champions League.

BC: With all that said, Beijing pretty much faces all bottom half sides before finishing with Evergrande at Gongti. I think if Guoan can be the first side to win at Shijiazhuang this weekend, they have the capability to put together a real good streak of wins.

SU: Shanghai International Port Group I think also have one eye on the cup. I don’t think they will take it easy against Shenhua next week in the cup because I think ACL qualification is their real target and the cup offers that whereas 4th in the league no longer does. So a lot will rest on their cup result next week.

BC: Yes, the cup is wide open, I do have a feeling it will come down to the winner of Shenhua/SIPG and Shandong, but it could result in a very interesting result.

SU: I fancy Shandong to win it again, in fact I would bet on it. There’s a lot of speculation in Shanghai about the likelihood or otherwise of some “tacit agreement” exchange in the Shanghai Derbies – that is, Shenhua get to win the cup game and Shanghai International Port Group the league one. Personally I don’t think that is likely, hopefully the results will not turn out that way anyways.

BC: Well, I’d think your lot has to be placing full importance on the cup over the league, and I can see your argument about SIPG, but only one point back, they gotta go for the league more than the cup.

SU: Yeah you would think that, plus beating Shenhua in the cup still leaves more games needing to be won to guarantee an ACL place through winning the cup. You could argue it is easier for Shanghai International Port Group to get to the ACL through finishing in the top 3 given their current position.

BC: Well, on the subject of Shenhua, I’ll certainly be cheering for them this weekend, any chance they’ll surprise us all after their pounding at Hangzhou?

SU: I think I just fell out of my chair after that admission from you.

BC: My hatred for Shenhua really only runs deep when they are playing Guoan, if they could take a point off Evergrande, that would be a massive help.

SU: Yes, it’s just that you aren’t usually so blase about it. Unfortunately I don’t have any words to say which may offer you hope. Shenhua have only avoided defeat once in Guangzhou’s Evergrande guise, and with not one but two massive Shanghai derbies coming the week after, Shenhua’s thoughts will inevitably be elsewhere. I think Evergrande will win comfortably on Saturday.

BC: More than any hate is the hate I’d have if Evergrande lift the league trophy once again. I’m not optimistic about Shenhua but it’s one of those matches, on paper at least, that has me think you lot could provide a surprise.

SU: After what I witnessed in Shenhua’s last outing, an absolutely diabolical record defeat, conceeding 4 goals against a team which had only scored 15 all season (lowest in the CSL), I very much doubt it. Putting on 37-year-old Jiang Kun in the second half, when 4-1 down, utterly baffles me for a club which claims to be focusing on youth development.

BC: Again it’s the Men in Green that play in arguably the match of the round, traveling to nearby Shijiazhuang for a big match. The home side has been impressive this year, they’ve had massive crowds and have yet to lose at home. The stadium is sure to be packed, for the first time ever for a Guoan away match tickets aren’t guaranteed to all who make the trip, some, even in Yulinjun, are seemingly going to have to watch from outside. You think Guoan can break that home record?

SU: If Guoan can capture the mindset they had at the end of last season, where they kept within touching distance of Evergrade, time and time again, then I don’t see why not.

BC: It’s going to be tough, but most of the side is healthy now and especially with the two domestic players they added to the midfield (jury is definitely still out on Kleber up top), they have plenty of different looks they can give a side. I’m optimistic that the Shandong match will be a turning point in their season. Shijiazhuang has been an extremely scrappy side, they have a tendency to poach a goal and then be able to defend enough, it’s going to be an exciting clash.

SU: Is there a sense of “derby” about this game?

BC: Not really, it’s still too new for that and Hebei fans aren’t exactly known for being the best supporters. Despite having large crowds, they’ve had fan groups that switch easily between the city’s different sides. There were no incidents in Beijing, but that’s to be expected. As I said, there will be a large group making the trip, if anything happens, then it could be the beginnings of something.

SU: Yes, I’d be interested to see how many Guoan fans make it and how many are allowed in.

BC: I’m not sure how large the away section is, there have been multiple warnings from the Beijing FA that tickets will be hard to come by and for people without tickets to travel. I know, for example, that only about half of Yulinjun that make the trip are going to be able to get in.

SU: I checked out their stadium, it holds 38,000 aparently, I wonder if they will have the ridiculous massive swathes of empty seats between the home and away fans that we see elsewhere.

BC: I’m excited for the trip and hoping I’ll be amongst the lucky ones. It’s certainly going to be a packed stadium. It’s too bad that they do force those massive swathes for “security”, Guoan-Shandong, a midweek match had over 50,000 in attendance and there would have been lots of fans who would have loved to fill those empty seats.

SU: I was reading about the lack of an Old Firm Derby in Scotland recently, it showed a close up picture of the fans – separated by just 10 seats and a two lines of police. If that’s good enough for the Old Firm derby, it’s good enough for China, believe me.

BC: Admittedly, the policing in certain stadiums, especially in Beijing and Shanghai, is overkill, but as we often talk about, what is true about football is true about society here, and in keeping with a harmonious society, that overkill is deemed necessary. On that point, fortunately it isn’t just all for show. Yesterday in Beijing, in one of the most crowded parts of the city, where there’s a large police bus/center on one corner and a small police station on the other, two people got stabbed by someone carrying a Japanese sabre. Far too often all the security here is just for show, but it’s never been that way in the stadium.

SU: Violent crime here is relatively low compared to where I grew up. So I find it all a bit over-zealous and it’s a pity. Speaking of which, the Shanghai cup derby, as I understand it, will have zero away fans at it, this is retribution from Shenhua as the club was very upset that SIPG refused to give Shenhua more than 2,000 tickets for the last derby in May. What do you make of that?

BC: I think its kind of pathetic on the part of Shenhua, you could always just limit the allotment of SIPG tickets to 2,000. The away end at Hongkou really doesn’t hold much more than that.

SU: Yeah whilst I find it very, very amusing it is very petty, but that of course is always a feature in any rivalry. I think Shenhua were upset because the previous season, Shenhua were basically given an entire stand, whereas last May, refusing to give more than 2,000 tickets, yet giving their own employees 10,000 was a very deliberate attempt to have as few Shenhua fans as possible in the stadium.

BC: But I think this speaks to a problem of Chinese football that is on my mind with my upcoming trip to Shijiazhuang, there is very little in place when it comes to away matches, traveling to them is still relatively rare for the most part and so very little is in place to determine how many tickets are given out and to whom.

SU: Are there rules about this? I’m wondering if the rules for away fan allocation for cup and CSL games are different. For the record, I’d personally prefer to see Shanghai International Port Group fans given a generous allocation, more than 2,000 if possible. That would make for an even better atmosphere. However, try as I might I can’t really summon up much sympathy, they were stupid to start this with Shenhua. I’m sure next season’s derby there will be zero official allocation for Shenhua, but that won’t stop half the stadium being blue. Whereas, it’s much easier for Shenhua to keep SIPG fans out, since it’s a smaller capacity, plus for the cup games season ticket holders are allowed to buy two tickets for friends which is of course designed to keep tickets away from scalpers and port group fans. But your point is a good one, there needs to be clearer guidelines on all matters relating to away fans in general.

BC: See, I think it’s really Shenhua who started it. I know you have complaints about all the empty seats there were for the derby, but in many cases its the local police and not the clubs who decide that. While last season SIPG was able to give an entire stand, their attendance has, what…doubled since last year? So I can see why it was limited further this year.

SU: Shenhua gave Shanghai International Port Group fans more allocation than any other team last season – opening the bottom tier of the away fans section which is the only time I’ve ever seen that, so they actually got more tickets than any other club.

BC: Ah, that adds an additional detail to all this, so after going all out last year, Shenhua felt jilted by SIPG this season, so that’s why they cracked down for the up match. Well, is there any talk about the allocation for the league match just a few days later? We often talk about the little things clubs do to save money during the CFA Cup, I wonder if that influenced Shenhua’s allocation decision.

SU: Strangely I haven’t seen any notices for ticket sales for the league match which is odd considering last time at Shanghai Stadium the game was officially sold out 10 days in advance, and now there’s only 9 days to go until the league game. You’re right to say the police limits attendance though, Hongkou has some roped off areas which have Shenhua fans on both sides. Aparently there’s something like a 10% of capacity can’t be put on sale rule. However, I was at Shanghai Stadium for Bayern v Inter friendly the other week, and every single area had fans in it, so it’s disappointing to see a double standard for CSL games and Euro friendlies.

BC: Again, I think it’s pretty safe to say that is due to security reasons, there is far more fear of something happening between CSL fans than European fans. While I know there have been some incidents at these international matches in China, they are few and far between and many in attendance are watching the only live football they’ll see all year, it attracts a very different crowd.

SU: That is very true. However whilst everyone can understand the need for space between opposing fans, and even perhaps forgive the authorities for making these spaces so huge, artificially limiting the capacity in general (spaces between fans supporting the same team) is just plain paranoid and neurotic. These Stadiums are all-seater, if these islands of empty seats aren’t safe to be used why were they put there in the first place? It’s frustrating for me to see the local authorities make it harder for Chinese fans to watch their own teams than visiting European clubs.

BC: Paranoid and neurotic pretty much defines Chinese authorities when dealing with most domestic situations, no? It isn’t a surprise they go to such extremes when it comes to domestic football and while I agree there is no need for it, this is China. There are certain things that I think are possible to achieve, like getting away tickets sometime before the day of the actual match, this sort of thing is just fans and the clubs and I think fans have a growing role to play, but there are certain things, like what amount of seats are reserved for “security” that there is no way to influence.

SU: Well, yes, seems we are united in our frustration on this matter but it is good to explain it to the foreign Chinese football fans sitting at home watching a game in a less-than-full stadium who are probably wondering why the hell they couldn’t get ticket.

BC: You talk about what fans have done at Shenhua, I see that at a few clubs fans definitely are growing in their power and I don’t think it’s unrealistic to think that fans will have growing power here. I just think it’s a matter of picking their fights where they can and not wasting effort on things that can’t be changed. Then again, the situation I face this weekend is fairly rare, I think even when you lot travel to Nanjing or Hangzhou there tend not to be allotment issues due to stadium and support size.

SU: Yeah that’s a good point, Shenhua took 1,300 to Hangzhou according to the club’s official weibo and there were endless seats to spare, it’s the same in Nanjing, even Sainty’s support is significantly bigger. Shenhua fans have proven what can be done when the right fight is picked, in that case, the name change. This fan power should be something which should be respected by the powers-that-be. In China things are better now they they used to be, but 10 years ago, the fan culture was really all Chinese football had going for it, were it not for that, we probably wouldn’t be here having this conversation right now. And fan culture is still and always will be one of the biggest attractions of Chinese football, so we really need to see their voice being heard as a matter of course, not just when something goes wrong.

BC: Indeed, I think things are stable now when talking about fan culture in certain cities and clubs recognize what the fans bring, its time for fans to start looking for, demanding, more. A great example is reserve matches, Guoan has moved their reserve matches outside the city and closed them to the public, I posted a picture this week of fans who founda nearby roof to watch the match from, but they shouldn’t have to do that. I’m guessing they are concerned about security, but there are so few that away fans bother attending (or would be an issue). Just one of many issues

SU: Yes I saw the picture of people viewing the game from the roofs of buildings because they weren’t allowed in. I think that says everything about how far Chinese football has to go in terms of opening itself to the public as much as possible to build bridges with the fans.

BC: Well, on that note, should we bring things to a close?

SU: I think so, that was a very interesting discussion.

BC: Cheers mate, have a great weekend.

SU: Cheers man

Well, what did you think of all that? Let us know what you’re thinking please in the comments below.

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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