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Wilson: Simple changes needed to make CFA Cup a truly great competition

Sunday evening’s CFA cup final was not a great game of football but it still generated great entertainment for all present despite the competition’s numerous organizational flaws.

Shanghai Shenhua fans are  bitterly disappointed following their club’s extra-time 1-0 defeat to Jiangsu Sainty. However, those in blue will not forget that on the way the cup generated a truly amazing match back in August when they edged local rivals Shanghai International Port Group on penalties after a spellbinding 3-3 derby which saw several fantastic goals.

The was cup was also responsible for a slew of other exciting games along the way. In addition, lower league sides got a taste of the big atmospheres and foreign superstars of the CSL, and the chance to upset the big boys – Beijing Guoan and Guangzhou Evergrande fell to China league sides in proverbial giant-killings.

The CFA cup disappeared for a few years in the 2000s for reasons which were never made clear. Thankfully it returned in 2011 and since then it’s only fair to applaud the CFA for the decent job done so far. Awarding the winner a place directly in the Asian Champions League group stage gives the competition much needed prestige and value, making it more likely the big clubs take it seriously and not field weakened sides, and making tied games go straight to penalties may not please everyone but it does avoid fixture congestion in the form of replays.

For proof of the cup’s progress so far look in further than the just-concluded two-legged final, catching fans’ imagination as huge tifo displays at each game showed. These flags were the size of the terraces themselves and supporters laboured for weeks creating them at their own expense – the display on the Hongkou north terrace cost over 6,000 RMB to produce. These are not endeavors fans would undertake if the cup did not have much prestige and was a Mickey Mouse contest.

The cup has been especially good at adding value to the season as a whole for mid-table clubs like finalists Jiangsu Sainty and Shanghai Shenhua whose competitive seasons would have ended much sooner without a cup run.

However, looking at the way the cup is organized, it perhaps looks like its success is despite of, and not because of, the CFAs handling of it.

Clear Path: Teams in the CFA Cup no their prospective opponents in advance

For one thing, there is only ever one draw made, right at the start of the competition. All teams names are out in a massive table which shows, right from the first round, every possible fixture permutation, destroying and sense of suspense or excitement about who your team might meet along the way. Such kind of advance planning is a natural habit of the risk-hostile style of governance common in China, which seeks to eliminate anything unexpected or even serendipitous lest it create disharmony of some kind.

However, if you know who your team can play along the way, you’ll soon know who you can’t play, eliminating the element of surprise and interest. From a football culture point of view, the cup draw is an exciting lucky dip which offers fans the chance to face off against a seldom encountered old rival from another division or a surprise opportunity to take an away trip to the beach – see the clip below from a certain well-known football movie. This is what fans live for and if you can make fans excited about the cup, then you’re halfway there.

Similarly the scheduling of the cup in general leaves something to be desired. China’s situation is unusual because, being such a big country, it covers several different climate zones. Whilst the weather might be fine for football in Guangzhou in December, it’s minus 20 up in Harbin or Changchun. So there’s not an awful lot of time to squeeze in 30 league games, CFA cup matches, Asian Champions League games and Chinese national team matches.

In many football countries a cup final is a natural climax to the football year, taking place right after the league has finished. But This time around we saw the second leg of the final take place a whole month after the CSL season ended – so with the rest of Chinese football entering the close season on Halloween night, Sainty and Shenhua had to keep training for another month. It also makes the final seem like a less significant event, tagging it on weeks after the CSL has left town for the year, risking the fans of other clubs not involved from not taking any interest in what is meant to be a showpiece fixture.

This year the scheduling was especially odd. The final CSL round was on October 31, and the CFA wanted to keep November 7 a clear weekend for China’s World Cup qualifiers on November 12 and 17 against Bhutan and Hong Kong. That’s understandable to want to give the national team more time to practise together, but a lack of such time is not the reason China consistently disappoints in internationals and perhaps there is room for compromising the needs of the national team with the benefits of a more regular domestic schedule.

By the time China’s World Cup qualifiers were out of the way, Saturday November 21 was the next available weekend day, which was also the second leg of the ACL final which of course involved Guangzhou Evergrande. Given the Cantonese side crashed out of the cup long ago, there was no reason the CFA cup final couldn’t be played on the same day. But for whatever reason, both legs of the CFA cup final were played on Sundays – creating unnecessary inconvenience for travelling supporters.

The best solution would be create space in the whole Chinese football calendar by starting the season a little earlier. In previous years the season has kicked off in the last week of February, with teams in colder areas playing their first few games on the road. Eliminating the need for two-legged finals and cup finals would also help – semis could either be played in a neutral venue, or a properly random draw could decide which team gets home advantage.

The benefits of a one-legged final are obvious, and the last time the CFA cup final was at a neutral venue was in 2011 when nearly 20,000 watched Tianjin edge Shandong 2-1 at the Olympic Stadium in Hefei, Anhui Province. That was a decent crowd back then, and over four years later, Chinese domestic football is in rude health crowd-wise and most teams would be able to take a decent amount of fans to another city for such a big game. The CFA could draw a shortlist of venues for the final, and then pick the most suitable one geographically according to which teams make it to the final – plus it would also be a good chance for neutral fans in that city to come out and see a big game.

So with no two-legged games, a more flexible calendar to host a one-off final right after the CSL ends, and a properly random draw to generate suspense and interest, the CFA cup can really build itself into a more prestigious competition and become a much-needed genuine showpiece end to the Chinese domestic football season, particularly in years when the CSL title race may not have delivered.

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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