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Who needs the Manchester Derby when you have the Shanghai Derby?

The last minute cancellation of the Manchester Derby tells us an awful lot about where Chinese football is at right now on several fronts. From millions spent on top foreign players but nothing on basics like playing surfaces, to European clubs’ true attitude towards China, to what is a real derby anyway, these are all perplexing issues which can be better explained now.

First up – pitches. That the Birds Nest pitch turned out to be a huge issue was a surprise to no-one familiar with Chinese stadia. The venue is the proverbial white elephant. Seldom used since the 2008 Olympics, that in itself tells us a lot about the lack of long term planning surrounding sports infrastructure in China. But despite the Manchester Derby being planned months in advance, the pitch was in quite a state even before being hit by torrential rain days before the match. Not only that, no-one seemed able to predict that, slap bang in the middle of summer, adequate air conditioning would be necessary inside a press room buzzing with reporters eager to get the scoop on one of Jose Mourinho’s first public appearances as Manchester United’s new manager. Instead we were treated to the bizarre spectacle of a clearly perturbed Mourinho being interviewed outside on the Bird’s Nest running track. It shows a basic lack of preparedness at the Bird’s Nest, a venue presumably chosen as a suitably prestigious stage for the first Manchester Derby to take place outside the UK.  The selection of the venue saw plenty of effort given to the appearance of making things look grand and big, but little thought given to details such as having grass to play on.

Despite all the riches in the CSL at the moment, sub-standard pitches are commonplace and well maintained surfaces the exception rather than the rule. Even the mighty Guangzhou Evergrande have not escaped the dreadful pitch gremlins – although they tried to by painting the surface green at Tianhe. This ridiculous fact slowly became evident in a recent game where their opponent’s white playing kit got greener as the game progressed. In many cases pitches suffer because they are used for concerts, or other purposes clearly not compatible with football – as recently as last season, Shanghai Shenhua’s Hongkou Football Stadium was used as a golf driving range during the week. There’s no more golf now, but still the pitch was in exceedingly poor shape for the recent Shanghai Derby. In China, stadiums are municipally-owned and clubs don’t have full control over their use. However, with all the money sloshing about, there surely can’t be any excuse not to have properly maintained playing surfaces, and perhaps the embarrassment caused by the Manchester Derby debacle will finally make the powers that be take the necessary actions. But this is the whole point really – it shouldn’t take such a big scandal as this in order for something so basic to happen.

The fact that it does shows the seriousness of structural problems affecting the development of the game here.

So. If the pitch issue wasn’t embarrassing enough for all concerned, the timing of the cancellation can only be described as an unmitigated PR disaster for both Manchester teams and China’s football project in general. Given that Chinese football games take place on worse surfaces all the time and weather postponements are exceptionally rare, it’s debatable if the Manchester Derby really had to be cancelled. What is not debatable is that there can be no excuse for a cancellation just hours before kick-off. The pitch had been a concern right from the start – Manchester City even sent their groundsman over 10 days before the game was due to take place to try and get it into shape. Given how used Chinese fans are to seeing crappy pitches in China, United’s excuse that the pitch was unplayable didn’t wash for many. It’s telling that Manchester City seemed willing to go ahead with the game, and the cancellation was so late that many fans indeed turned up for the match only to find it was not going ahead, leading to farcical scenes. The absurdity continued online, with fans angrily writing on the event promoters website “I bought tickets from a scalper how am I supposed to get my money back?”. The two Manchester teams response came in the form of a video apology released online – an almost laughably inadequate response to such a shambolic affair.

The tour was arranged before Mourinho took over and the Portuguese didn’t hide his feeling that China wasn’t the best place for pre-season preparation. Reading between the lines, it is maybe the case that the absolutely terrified commercial arm of Man United desperately wanted the game to go ahead but ended up spending too long failing to talk Mourinho into it. Other managers might not have the clout to resist commercial interests, but The Special One is called that for a reason. Speculation aside, the cancellation showed the harsh reality of European clubs’ Asian tours – that the platitudes about nurturing a fan base in China and caring about the supporters are rather hollow. Big clubs are there only in China when it is convenient – during their off-season, but as soon as something goes wrong or something doesn’t suit them, like a crappy pitch or hot weather, they’re off , leaving Chinese fans standing around outside the stadium demanding a refund, or in some cases, cursing themselves for buying tickets from huangniu.

But if the club genuinely cared about the Chinese fans, surely a playing a low-intensity friendly, where most of the players would have not played anywhere near 90 minutes anyway, wouldn’t have been a deal breaker even if the pitch was a mess. At the end of the day, this wasn’t the Champions League Final.

Your correspondent is known for being a very outspoken advocate of local football. But it is not the intention here to indulge in any schadenfreude towards Chinese fans of Manchester United or City, who paid good money and were expecting to have a fun night watching their team. On a basic level the arrival of big guns from Europe is a modest positive – it at least gets people into the stadium and excited about football. Certainly the fans did not deserve this misfortune and as we see so often it is the fans who suffer most in modern football despite investing their time, money and more emotions than anyone else in the sport. But the cancellation shows they are investing them in the wrong place. And for the fixture itself, how can a Manchester derby not held in Manchester and with barely anyone from Manchester be a Manchester Derby? This doesn’t help develop the concept of what a derby really is. Ironically, it was Chinese clubs who were showing everyone what a derby was all about – the country’s own bona-fide inner-city derby took place in Shanghai barely a week before. Come on – is there anyone out there who honestly thinks that any of the “glamour friendlies” that take place in China each summer are anywhere near as entertaining and meaningful as the Shanghai Derby? Yet again last week’s clash lived up to all the hype and then some. And it is not anything particularly special to Shanghai or even China. It is just the simple fact that the sheer adrenaline of a totally authentic, no-holds-barred, all-guns blazing proper derby is hard to beat.

So who needs the Manchester Derby when you’ve got the Shanghai Derby?

Despite Chinese football’s numerous ills, the one consistent thread running through it since professionalism two decades ago, has been a very solid bedrock of hardcore fans who have sustained the game through thick and very thin, by supporting their local clubs and sustaining a modestly-sized but passionate fan culture. Relatively few of these fans will have been among the disappointed masses denied the chance to the Manchester derby. They’ve been blazing their own trail and are currently shaping the new wave of enthusiasm for the CSL inside China itself. With Chinese fans obviously seen as just a revenue source, and the CSL starting to enter the mainstream in China, big European clubs’ aspirations to build a fan base in China face a challenge. It’s not going to get easier to persuade fans to follow a team on the other side of the world, which only plays in China once every few years… if there’s grass on the pitch.

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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