After the most eventful year in the history of China’s most eventful club, Shanghai Shenhua go into 2018 as surprise CFA cup winners. But can the Hongkou team finally put years of instability and chaos behind them? Wild East Football founding editor Cameron Wilson returns to North Terrace News to put the coming year in perspective.
Scream if you wanna go faster
It’s with some trepidation that Shenhua fans look to the new season. Last year excited supporters climbed aboard the Shenhua fairground ride expecting the usual mixture of anticipation, mild fear, excitement, and then disappointment when it ends. But instead they unwittingly strapped themselves into a roller coaster with an unseen, crazed madman at the controls.
Last year’s ride quickly climbed high with the arrival of superstar Carlos Tevez and the long awaited return of Asian Champions League football, before a sudden drop saw Shenhua crash out to Brisbane in the qualifying round. The track then took a strange turn through the twilight zone with Qin Sheng’s bizarre six month ban, before speeding through the flames of a large fire at Hongkou which forced the club to play on the road for months. Fans then screamed with delight at some thrilling loop-the-loops as the club broke its high-scoring record against Liaoning. More heart-thumping twists and turns followed – an unusually high number of away victories, then a stomach-churning series of ups and downs which saw home defeats to SIPG and Guoan. To make the ride even more disorientating, when Shenhua fans opened their eyes after those two horrific turns, they found themselves in Disneyland with an injured Tevez strolling around as his team-mates struggled away in Changchun. A similar twist saw Carlitos spend an afternoon strolling around again – but this time on the pitch during match against Tianjin Teda. There was worse to come when the ride got stuck upside down in the shape of a 6-1 mauling in the Shanghai derby, and by the time the train got moving again many fans simply couldn’t bear to keep their eyes open. It then became too much for the blue corner of Shanghai as the climb to the final summit appeared – the CFA cup final, that is. By now it was much too late to get off and Shenhua fans’ knuckles turned white en mass as the roller coaster edged higher and higher. But just when it looked as if the blue train would come off the rails and crash in the most horrible way imaginable – a cup defeat to city rivals SIPG – the final big dip turned out to be a thrilling one as the supporters cheered, thinking a happy ending to this insane ride was at last in sight. They were right, but not before one last horrifying loop-the-loop. A late penalty and an own goal saw SIPG almost snatch victory in the CFA cup, before the ride finally came to a halt and delirious, jelly-legged fans staggered off the roller coaster into a CFA cup winner’s wonderland for the first time in 19 years.
Do you dare?
So who dares climb back on the Shenhua roller coaster for another ride? Well, there are a lot of signs that last year was just a bit too much for everyone, even by Shenhua’s standards, and the board are making stability the key this year. Veteran caretaker Wu Jingui is now permanent coach for the fourth time. Word is that the board feel foreign coaches don’t understand China. That is not an unreasonable position. But it’s more appropriate to say that foreign coaches don’t understand Shenhua. Because really, who does? Like all of the Chinese game, it certainly can’t be understood by football alone.
With Wu now the fifth coach in just four years since Greenland took Shenhua over, it’s just glaringly obvious that its not the coaches who are the problem, its the people picking them. However at least Shanghainese Wu Jingui knows what he’s getting himself into – something no foreign coach can possibly realise until its too late. A very well-placed respected Shanghai journalist told your correspondent that Wu Jingui and Shenhua’s chief of operations, Bruce Zhou aka Zhou Jun, are sworn enemies and that Wu was parachuted back into the club a year ago from the wishes of someone powerful “above chairman Wu Xiaohui.” That is reason to feel positive about Wu Jingui this season as most Shenhua fans are openly hostile towards Zhou.
Shenhua’s foreign player dilemma
Another year, another raft of CSL rule changes. Now clubs can only have four foreigners in their squad, and use a maximum of three in any one game. They must also start at least one u-23 player, and the total number of u23 players used during the match must not be less than the number of foreign players used. There you go, trust NTN to explain the new rules using only two sentences. For reference, last year teams could have five foreigners in the squad, use a maximum of three during a game, and start one u23 – no need to use more youths – many clubs subbed off their youngster in the opening stages. What this means is most CSL clubs now have to lose a foreigner, and with the 100% transfer tax on new foreign signings, most teams want to hold on to their expensively-acquired overseas talent as much as possible since obtaining similar players is now much harder. Shenhua’s dilemma over who to let go and who to keep is one echoed at a great many other CSL clubs at the moment.
Head coach Wu Jingui described the situation to the Shanghai papers as a “pleasant headache” – somehow, Shenhua had seven foreign players on their books at the start of this season. Of course, Tevez has left, but that still leaves back-from-injury Demba Ba, Gio Moreno, Freddy Guarin, Kim Ke-hee, Obamafei Martins, and Oscar Romero.
The Paraguayan international was mysteriously signed from Racing Club (Gio Moreno’s former team – there is a pattern here) a year ago, but then went out directly on loan to Alaves in La Liga. His signing was not announced by Shenhua, and even Alaves club’s official Twitter deleted it’s original tweet saying the move was a loan from Shenhua and changed to one claiming it was a striaght forward transfer. But little with Shenhua is ever straight forward, certainly not its transfer market activity, and no real explanation about Romero’s loan was forthcoming. The truth is the local media is so used to strange things like signing an expensive foreign player when you already have six on your books and loaning him out without playing him. So there was little questioning of the move.
Regardless, Romero adds an interesting dimension. He is said to be able to play wide, up front or in the hole. Currently he’s training with the squad in Spain along with the other five foreign players. Gio Moreno was strongly tipped to join Colombian side Nacional for a half-year loan, to boost his chances of making the Colombia World Cup squad this June. However that move seems to have cooled. As captain and now in his sixth season at Hongkou, and having just signed a contract extension a couple of months back, he’s first pick foreigner unless he goes out on loan which hasn’t been totally ruled out yet. Looking at it tactically, your correspondent believes Romero will definitely be named in Shenhua’s squad if Moreno goes to Nacional, as on paper they seem the most similar two players of Shenhua’s foreign six. If Moreno stays, then it’s much more complicated.
Correspondingly, Freddy Guarin looks a shoe-in as well. As a strong holding midfielder with an eye for great long-range passes and an ability to keep the ball under pressure before releasing it when his team has changed into a more attacking shape, there’s not really any other team-mate who has this ability. He also signed a contract extension last year. He will make the cut.
Obafemi Martins’s name also looks likely to feature on this year’s squad list. As striker, his fate is somewhat linked to Demba Ba’s form. Everyone in the blue corner of Shanghai loves Demba. His ability is unquestioned and he is undoubtedly a great example of a foreign player delivering the goods in China. However, his horrific leg break in the Hongkou Shanghai Derby in 2016 is a cruel blow he has yet to fully emerge from. NTN would love more than anything to see Demba pull on the blue number 9 jersey again. But, despite a cracking goal against er, glamour opponents Partick Thistle in a Spain training match, Ba is very much an unknown. Has he completely recovered? Will he regain his pre-leg break form? Those questions no-one has the answer to right now and it’s just very difficult to see Shenhua taking a gamble on the big Senegalese. With only four foreign slots available, it’s unlikely the club would choose two strikers when they seldom play two up front at once. If Shenhua released Martins, and Demba got injured again, Shenhua would be up the Suzhou creek without a primitive propulsion implement. So it looks very much like Martins in, Ba out. Indeed local reports say Demba’s agent has flown to Spain to arrange early termination of contract. Although we need to wait and see.
Wildcard in this last four-standing poker game is South Korean international Kim Kehee. Normally, as a defender, he would have been strong favourite to be the fall guy as Chinese defenders are way better than Chinese forwards. And normally, Shenhua don’t play in the Asian Champions League, which allows teams to field as fourth foreigner if they are from another Asian country, just as the CSL did until 2017. However, his nationality means he is the only one of Shenhua’s six foreigners who qualifies as a “+1” and the only way Shenhua could play four foreigners in the ACL. Given the state of Shenhua’s defence last year, relinquishing the ability to field a fourth foreigner and the club’s best defender is not something they will be doing lightly. The lack of cover at the back is laughably bad – Tao Jin, a 32-year-old who has played barely 30 games in his entire career, was a 1st team regular last year, along with Li Peng, a barely competent centre half and bizarre signing from the 3rd division. That’s before we even mention Wang Lin, another waste of a squad place and with a conviction for match-fixing whilst playing in Singapore.
So for Wu Jingui, it’s basically like this – Guarin is the only absolute cert right now. Moreno will of course be in the squad should be not go out on loan. If he does, Romero is definitely in. With Ba looking like a risk too far, Martins is pretty much guaranteed. As of this second your correspondent believes the choice is between Romero and Kim Kee-hee, with the club’s natural tendency to favour attacking players making Romero the player they really want to take. But frankly Shenhua face a real battle to get out of their ACL group, do they rate their chances highly enough to sacrifice Romero so Kim can play six ACL matches? The Korean is not likely to feature in the CSL much unless one of the other foreign players picks up an injury. The preliminary squad was handed to the ACL on January 15, but no foreign players were named as the club wanted to keep their options open – they have the option to make changes up to a week before their first match which is on February 14 in Japan versus Kashima.
NTN’s prediction? Moreno, Guarin, Romero and Martins to remain, Kim and Ba to leave.
Meanwhile on the home front…
At the top of the story we mentioned stability – in addition to the return of old Shenhua coach Wu Jingui so far there are no confirmed new foreign signings, and even more strangely, no new domestic players either. This is unprecedented at Shenhua. Chief of operations Bruce Zhou was recently quoted in the local media as saying “Greenland is a Fortune 500 company so all transfer dealings are done according to their high standards, and everything is transparent.” If you were sipping a cup of tea or eating whilst you read the word “transparent”, we hope you didn’t choke or uncontrollably spit out your drink in incredulity. But at any rate, with all the huge scrutiny in Chinese football these days, it sounds like someone has had their sticky fingers rapped, and the transfer gravy train has ground to a halt. Indeed the domestic transfer market in China has almost ground to a halt. It almost makes it look like no-one around here knows how to do deals cleanly. But we digress.
Whilst there is no-one in, there have been a few notable departures. Long-serving fringe defender Xiong Fei was out of contract and has joined relegated Liaoning in China League One. The 30-year-old is no great loss but he was at least slightly more capable than some current defenders such as Tao Jin and Li Peng. He was favoured strongly by former coach Gilliot in 2015 and got a fair bit of game time under Manzano the following year, but barely appeared in 2017. Regardless, his departure is for the best.
Following him out the door is Lv Zheng, a wide player signed in 2015 from Shandong. The 32-year-old was quick and had good control, but frequently ran into dead ends and was a poor crosser for someone playing on the flank. A frustrating player who had skills but no football brain, he frees up much needed space on Shenhua’s roster.
After playing almost every game for Shijiazhuang on loan in the China League One last season, a more contentious departure is Zheng Kaimu who links up with previous boss Manzano at Guizhou. Highly rated as a 20-year-old by Jean Tigana when be broke into the first team to displace aging smoker Jiang Kun in 2012, Zheng was a robust defensive midfielder who’s development suffered badly due to a lack of pitch time. At nearly 26 years old he still has a whole career ahead of him, yet he leaves whilst ethically-suspect defensive mid Wang Shouting, 32, stays on. Zheng is not a huge loss but again this shows the management’s bias towards over-the-hill, mediocre senior players – a recurring theme in Chinese football, particularly at Shenhua.
After being loaned out at Qingdao Huanghai last season, Deng Zhouxiang – once the golden boy of Chinese football – has left after his contract expired. Unfortunately Deng’s career has been blighted by injury – he played only three games after being signed in 2015 and spent all of 2016 on the treatment table. He played almost every game last year in the China League One but it’s no surprise to see him leave all things considered.
No other outs are confirmed so far, but winger Xu Junmin is now 24 and no longer able to take advantage of the u23 rule. This is particularly unfortunate because he is simply not good enough to get a game otherwise. He is rumoured to be joining Shanghai Shenxin.
The departures create some much needed space in the first team squad, as also returning from loan are Gao Di and Wang Yun. Both of these players are amongst the most talented Chinese players on the club’s books but for various reasons didn’t fit into first team plans last year. Their return is a boost for Shenhua.
Completing a list of loaned out players so long (20 at the last count for 2017) that it can only be described as strange peculiarity, is the return of a promising u23 pair. What was even more peculiar is the young career of one of these – Li Xiaoming, a defensive midfielder / defender won the CSL young player of the year at loan with Henan in 2016. He was very oddly loaned out again in 2017 – by a team with a terrible defence and obliged by the rules to play an u23 player. He recently scored for China at the u23 AFC cup, but oddly has yet to actually make his debut for his own side despite his relatively eventful career at club and country level so far. The 22-year-old was subject to a interest from a range of clubs, but said whilst at Henan 18 months ago “I really am enjoying my time at Henan but I’m a Shanghainese and I want to play for Shenhua” – such statements mean his debut is hotly anticipated by the fans, and again proof that the local connection in football culture is as strong in China is as anywhere
Fellow youngster Xu Yougang is also back, he managed a solitary appearance from the bench in 2015 before being shipped off to Qingdao Huanghai on loan for a couple of years. The defender will be 22 by the time the season starts and will be hoping for a solid taste of first team action.
There are a couple of possible new additions to the squad although they are not official yet. Eddy Francis, also known as Aidi in Chinese, is training with Shenhua in Spain and has started quite a few friendlies. A black Shanghainese, born to a Chinese mother and Tanzanian father, he is one of Chinese football’s more interesting characters, and a product of the Genbao academy first highlighted by WEF way back in 2011. Unfortunately the 27-year-old defender has had a meandering career so far, with spells at Shanghai SIPG nee East Asia, Dalian and Boavista in Portgual. He is something of an unproven quantity, but most likely would be an upgrade on Shenhua’s existing reserve defenders if nothing else.
Finally Sun Kai may also make Shenhua’s squad. The 26-year-old midfielder signed from Shenxin at the start of 2017 despite knowing he would most likely spend a year in the reserves as his new side had already signed their full quota of domestic players. Draw your own conclusions as to why anyone in the prime of their career would do that.
Expect a year of… relative stability
This year Shenhua will modestly improve on their 11th place finish of last year. A top six finish is possible if project stable-but-not-strong goes to plan. Any higher than that would depend on luck and multiple underachievement elsewhere, from the likes of noisy neighbours SIPG, Shandong, Guoan and new-rich Quanjian and Hebei. Reasons to be optimistic this year are promising youth players such as Li Xiaoming, Cong Zhen, and Liu Ruofan, an unchanged foreign line-up, the feel good factor from the CFA cup victory, and the likely return of solid squad players Gao Di and Wang Yun. Also it is very unlikely that Shenhua will be as unlucky as they were with injuries last year – or indeed unreasonably long suspensions. Plus there seems to be a general realisation from the board that the club is just not good enough to break the top three on its own merits, pressure seems to be less. Your correspondent has always banged on about Shenhua not knowing what continuity means, well, this is probably the most unchanged the team has ever been and surely that will deliver some benefit.
On the downside though, the team still lacks competitive strength, despite Greenland now having had four years of transfer windows to rectify this, all of which have been completely squandered. Of all Shenhua’s domestic signings since the takeover, which amounts to 20 players, only Qin Sheng has been an unqualified success and even he was signed at the second time of offering. The rest are either unproven, no better than previous players, or spent too much time on the treatment table. So, ultimately, none of the above positive factors are enough to really make a big enough difference. Wu Jingui will steady the ship, and one can see why he was given the job even if it was a result of winning one match in the CFA cup final. but at the end of the day he’s still from the Shenhua old boys network and your correspondent has seen this group put its own interests above those of the club and fans again and again and again. Shenhua’s squad is also aging badly. Last seasons youngest first team regular who was not an u23 quota player was Bai Jiajun who is 26, with the average around 29.
So, prediction wise, and predicting anything to do with Shenhua has long been a fools endeavour, it’s hard to say. For the ACL, hard to see Shenhua getting out of the group stage. Lack of quality, and recent experience on the continental stage see to that. Also the six ACL group matches will make the first half of the season a bit tougher than what Shenhua are used to. For the league, well the bare minimum expectation for Shenhua in recent years is avoiding defeat at home to Guoan and SIPG, staying out of the relegation race, and a decent cup run. Not all of those happened last year, but they are realistic expectations this year. The club should finish something like 7th in the league, make an ACL group stage exit (after some good old “only Shenhua rep Shanghai” tomfoolery) and a run to the CFA cup semis. But then again, it’s Shenhua, you never know, it could all turn out very different. It would be hard to match last year’s roller coaster ride, but don’t expect to walk on to a carousel for little kiddies either.
One thing you can be sure of though is Shenhua’s ability stay in the headlines come rain or shine. There is no club like it when it comes to maintaining a high profile regardless of events on or off the pitch, much to the chagrin of many, including, at times, its own supporters. indeed it’s status as one of China’s most enduring footballing institutions is written in stone thanks for the club’s strongly partisan following. But no matter what the club’s numerous detractors may say, Chinese football is a better place with Shanghai Shenhua in its midst. Thus has it always been, thus shall it ever be.