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Champions! Tears and glory as Shanghai SIPG is inscribed on the trophy - Wild East Football
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Champions! Tears and glory as Shanghai SIPG is inscribed on the trophy

This is your WEF home for all things SIPG. Today, Jeff Beresford-Howe examines a sudden and sharp increase in champagne consumption in Xujiahui.

We are the champions, my friend

First to lift the trophy was the captain – Hulk, with his wife beaming next to him. Then Yan Junling, the keeper, who’s been between the posts at SIPG since he was a callow lad of 21, then the portly and ecstatic Cai Huikang, who’s been a regular at the Stadium for six years now. 

Wu Lei was in tears remembering his teenage years on the roster for Shanghai East Asia in League Two and training on Chongming Island. He gave an emotional shoutout to Xu Genbao, who founded the club in 2005. Manager Vitor Pereira was doused in enough beer to drown a horse. Consistent with the creativity and flair so emblematic of Chinese sports administration, Queen’s “We Are the Champions” played on repeat over the stadium loudspeakers while confetti guns fired and stiffs in suits and on-order eye-candy girls in short skirts watched awkwardly from the fringes.

They were all celebrating that sweetest of achievements in the sports world: a championship won on your home turf, SIPG’s first, Shanghai’s first, and the first by anyone in the CSL not named Guangzhou Evergrande since Hu Jintao was president of China and Donald Trump was a national, rather than international, joke. 

The deal was sealed with a 2-1 victory over Beijing Renhe on a misty Wednesday night that left SIPG at 68 points, the most of any team in the league since 2014. With one match remaining in the CSL season, Guangzhou is eight points in the rear view mirror and a trip to Tianjin to face Quanjian is all that remains between SIPG, some beach time and a marked, regional uptick in imported champagne sales.

SIPG brushes aside Renhe

Aside from the celebration, which no one who saw it will ever forget, it was not a night that will be long remembered. Hulk, injured in the first half against Evergrande on Saturday night, didn’t play, and SIPG would more properly be described as giddy rather than intense.

The goal that clinched the championship was by Akhmedov, the goal of a lifetime for the Uzbeki. He gathered a loose ball about 22 meters out, faked to his left, then pivoted to his right and drove the ball into the upper right hand corner of the net. Renhe keeper Zhang Lie barely moved before it was past him and was left shaking his head in frustrated admiration. 

The one that put it away for good came moments after the start of the second half. A deflected pass fell to Wu Lei in the middle of the box. Wu’s shot also deflected, again giving Zhang no chance to move. That made it 2-0, with SIPG needing only a draw. Renhe got one back on a fiercely athletic goal by Senegalese striker Makhete Diop, but didn’t threaten again as SIPG played keep away for the last 20 minutes, counting down the time to their celebration.

Ticketing. Again. 

If there was a fly in the ointment on an otherwise ecstatic night, it was this: Shanghai Stadium saw its smallest crowd of the season Wednesday.

Why? Bad fans? A rainy night? Letdown after the rock ‘em sock ‘em Guangzhou match? Nope. It was because no tickets went on sale before the match. None. The CFA, SIPG and the Shanghai police and city administration, blaming construction around the stadium, and perhaps nodding to the ongoing Import Expo and President Xi Jinping’s extended visit to Shanghai (which prompted city officials to rearrange work schedules, cancel events and flood the city with police and soldiers), declined to allow any.

Unless you had a season ticket holder badge, or had some official media, SIPG or CFA connection, or were willing to pay a tout between ¥1,000 and ¥1,500, you couldn’t get in to watch the crowning achievement in SIPG’s history. Even the players were left short of tickets. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 19,000 people found their way in, not a good look in a stadium that holds 60,000. 

This is, in a word, disrespectful. Chinese officials took a moment that had been thirteen years in the making, involving the work and dedication of hundreds of coaches, administrators and players and thousands and thousands of supporters. These officials imposed themselves on it all in a clumsy, insecure and selfish way. 

And for what? To avoid conflicts with the Expo, 14 kilometers away? To avoid the “dangers” of a completely walled off construction site? To provide security for the most popular president in modern Chinese history? The last time this issue was front and center, last year’s FA Cup final against Shenhua, it was plausible to worry about conflicts between Shenhua and SIPG fans. (SIPG also may have been trying to keep Shenhua fans from turning Shanghai Stadium blue, shameful, yes, but at least rational.)

Not so this time. Until the Chinese government learns to become comfortable with the attention football gets, football can never grow properly here and the Chinese experience will remain third rate.

Highlights

You can find the match highlights if you want, but what you really want is the celebration after the match. Here it is:

Odds and Ends

It’s hard to tell who will be in the line-up when SIPG shows up in Tianjin on Sunday in a dead rubber, but one likely candidate is Wu Lei. His goal against Renhe has him sitting on 27, one short of the league record held by Elkeson, who set it when he played for Evergrande. 

Vitor Pereira didn’t come right out and say it, but it was clear at his post-match press conference that he anticipates returning next year as SIPG manager. His status as the coach of the league champions was evident in his willingness to express exasperation with meandering, four-minute questions from Chinese journalists. 

Wu Lei (twice) and Akhmedov were both victims of brutal Renhe tackles, any one of which could have drawn a red card. Chinese referee Gu Chunhan instead went with two yellows and a no-call. The sixty-first minute foul on Akhmedov knocked him out of the match. Changchun-Quanjian, Chongqing-Evergrande, Fuli-Hebei and TEDA-Dalian were the matches chosen by the CFA for foreign referees. 

Guizhou will be relegated from the CSL and not missed by SIPG, who dropped four points in their last three matches against the much lower ranked Guiyang side.

What’s next

After the trip to Tianjin, SIPG takes three months off and then goes directly into the group stage of the Asian Champion’s League, which starts play the first week of March. (No January and February qualifiers at a frigid Shanghai Stadium for the Chinese champions.) 

SIPG will face two new opponents in the CSL next year, Wuhan and Shenzhen. Shenzhen and SIPG have never been in the CSL at the same time. SIPG and Wuhan were promoted together from League One in 2012, but went in different directions after that. SIPG became an established CSL power and Wuhan was immediately relegated back to League One. 

American expat rooting for Shanghai SIPG, because they're the Oakland A's to Shenhua's San Francisco Giants.

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