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If you are really interested in Chinese football you should be watching tonight’s Beijing – Shanghai cup clash

China’s premier rivalry returns tonight in the biggest Shenhua v Guoan match for many years – but what should be being relished as a Chinese football show piece is barely registering on any media, home or aboard, due to ignorance of football itself.

A game between China’s two biggest rivals should be ample occasion to whet the appetites of football lovers, and this time around there’s a whole load of reasons why this match is even more deserving of special attention. Both sides have had a tough season so far, Guoan already having sacked head coach José González and Shenhua’s Gus Poyet under huge pressure. The CFA cup is effectively all each team has left to play for with neither having a realistic chance of winning the CSL, or involvement in the Asian Champions League. It’s a “do or die” match as many Shenhua fans are calling it online. Right now the rainy season is underway in the Yangtze River Delta so despite the exhortations of this article, there is always a chance the match may turn out to be a damp squib but there is no excuse for the match not to at least be billed as one of Chinese football’s top fixtures.

This is an all-or-nothing clash between China’s two biggest cities which love to hate each other, yet looking on the Chinese football news sections of all the big domestic portals, you’d hardly realise such a fixture was happening. There’s barely a preview of the game, instead, regular CSL news takes centre stage and none of that is particularly big at the moment. The few cup preview pieces are buried in sections dedicated to the cup itself. Chinese football journalism, like it’s subject matter, doesn’t enjoy a great reputation, it’s inability to recognize the significance of such a game and give it top billing is symptomatic of this.

Of course a major part of the downplaying of this game is that it’s in the CFA cup – a competition which faces many unnecessary hurdles on its route to respectability and desirability in China. We’ve previously outlined the case for improvements to the CFA cup, but a continuing problem is scheduling early-round games in the middle of the working day. Tonight’s match kicks off at the sensible hour of 8pm, but in general, if you want to develop a widespread grassroots football culture, which encourages the love of football for the sheer sake of it, rather than loving only big name players or clubs, you need to make all games as accessible as possible, not just the later rounds. Especially for cup games where unusual or interesting match-ups may occur. Kicking off cup games during the working day not only makes it difficult for the average local person to watch their local professional team, it also sends the very damaging message that the clubs and FA don’t think their own games are worth watching.

This is irresponsible and lazy.

Your correspondent recently read a leading Chinese football journalist’s comment that calling for early-round cup games not be be played during the working day was “a foreign way of thinking.” This is a widespread held view and sums up why China struggles so badly at football – an attitude of Chinese exceptionalism prevails, which thinks that somehow, China can ignore basic universal truths in football, such as thinking its not necessary to make it convenient for fans to actually get to games.

Further evidence of the difficult environment that Chinese football culture faces emerged this week in the shape of a police ban against Shanghai Shenhua fans taking in banners and flags for the next two games, as punishment for holding up a banner which read “CFA, don’t be the sinner against Chinese football” in the last match against Chonqqing. Considering the CFA’s wild and erratic decision making this year, the protest was a mild one and the punishment treats the most important people in football – the fans – with utter contempt. It is absurd that as China is attempting to build a football culture to see it win the World Cup by 2050, it is banning football culture at the same time. No matter what the political reasons are behind individual incidents relating to fan conduct, it’s simply pointless to prevent fans from saying in the stadium the same thing many are saying online and on the street.

Unfortunately all these cultural and security issues make it it harder in general for football culture to flourish, and in this case harder for the cup to be taken as seriously as it deserves. Right now we are looking at a Guangzhou Evergrande side which has won the league for the last six years, the cup provides a welcome break and gives teams who are out of the championship race (ie all but two) with something to play for. As it stands it has provided a very timely platform for a meeting between the country’s two most storied clubs. The game tonight may turn out to be a classic, or it may not, but it certainly offers a far bigger potential for excitement than if it was a match taking place near the end of the season with both teams in the same league positions they are now.

It’s a similar situation in the international media, which is generally fixated on whatever big name foreign players have done in China no matter how banal that might be, the latest bad news story like the SIPG brawl last week, or transfer market gossip.But when it comes to Chinese Football, it often seems like no-one is actually interested in the actual football. Tonight’s match is a fantastic place to start paying attention to what is happening on the pitch and in the stands because Beijing – Shanghai games rarely come any bigger than this.

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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