An early contender for most unlikely pre-season friendly in the world in 2017 will take place in Malawi’s new Bingu National Stadium when Guangzhou R&F play Malawi’s under 23 side.
Construction started on a new stadium in Malawi’s capital Lilongwe in 2013. Named after Malawi’s former president Bingu Mutharika who initiated the project with the Chinese government, the new Bingu National Stadium was finally completed towards the end of 2016 after several delays. The stadium boasts 56 private lounges, an Olympic standard synthetic running track and drought-resistant grass imported from South Africa. All of this cost the Chinese contractor a reported $70m – a concessional loan to be repaid by the Malawian government in twenty years.
With construction complete, thoughts turned to the ceremonial opening which it was originally hoped would be a friendly with the Chinese national team. However, just a week before the game there is still confusion in Malawai about who exactly will be playing. There is no confusion in China though.
On the same day as the article cited above was published, Guangzhou R&F released a statement saying that they would be playing against an under 23 Malawi side at the opening of the Bingu National Stadium. The statement suggests that this is a longstanding arrangement, with its origins in a visit in October to East Africa by Meizhou’s Municipal Party Committee Secretary Tan Juntie. On the Malawian leg of the trip, accompanied by the Chinese Ambassador, Tan visited the Bingu National Stadium and was told about the proposal for a Chinese team to play in the opening game. On returning to China, Tan invited Zhang Li, the chairman of the R&F property group and owner of the Guangzhou club of the same name, to Malawi to play in the friendly.
It’s difficult to determine how far in advance Guangzhou R&F’s participation was agreed (perhaps the CFA had committed to sending the Chinese national side but then had to pull out after the date of the game was changed) but this story illustrates the commonly made points about the political connections driving China’s recent footballing boom. Meizhou’s Tan is helping out the Chinese ambassador to Malawi and/or the CFA, whilst in turn Zhang Li is helping out Tan and by extension the CFA. All of this is very valuable guanxi for the R&F property group who would always want to be in the good books of local officials, especially as they already own an academy in Meizhou.
Back in Malawi confusion still appears to reign but one thing is certain, the Football Associate of Malawi will be hoping that the friendly with R&F runs more smoothly than the first game at the Bingu National Stadium. After Be Forward Wanderers played Nyasa Big Bullets there were reports that some toilets had been vandalised as taps were broken and mirrors missing. However, as Government officials say that they plan to invite 60,000 to the ceremonial opening (in the 40,000 seat stadium) there is a risk of trouble of a more serious nature next weekend.
Manager Dragan Stojković has named a strong 18 man squad to play in Malawi which includes five new signings (Li Titian, Yi Teng, Zhang Gong, Xiang Boxu and Junior Urso) alongside Renatinho, Jang Hyun-Soo and Apostolos Giannou. However, it seems that despite just signing a contract extension until the end of the 2020 season, Eran Zahavi will not make the trip to Malawi. He will be on the plane to Australia for the next phase of R&F’s pre-season though but looks unlikely to be accompanied by Gustav Svensson. The Swedish international sat out R&F’s first pre-season friendly last week and, with Urso’s signing and possibly due to recent rule changes, his days at Yuexiushan look numbered.
Source: Both photos from Guangzhou R&F website