New name, new manager, new players. There will be plenty of changes for fans to get used to in 2021.
The end of 2020
The decisive penalty fell to captain Tang Miao. Injury time goals from Živković and Renatinho had forced a penalty shootout against Shandong Luneng in the quarter final of the Cup. The first nine players all scored so Tang had to convert his penalty. He’d dinked in a panenka against Shanghai Shenhua in an earlier round and the pressure was on his shoulders again. This time he failed. Han Rongze saved and Guangzhou R&F were out.
Giovanni van Bronckhorst was out too. The Dutchman used his post-match press conference to resign as manager because of family reasons. It’s not a surprise that he was missing his family. GVB – and everyone else involved with the CSL – was confined to a hotel apart from matches and training. He wanted to experience a new culture and see new places. Instead he got room service. All in all, it was a long 10 months away from his family.
The changes in 2020
Putting aside Covid secure bubbles and the CSL’s hybrid league/cup format – how many managers can say they’ve been in charge for of a club for an entire season yet never played a competitive home game? – GVB had a lot of other challenges to cope with.
By far the biggest came in mid-season when Eran Zahavi completed a move to PSV. To use a cliché, Zahavi was both a great goal scorer and a scorer of great goals. The Israeli scored 103 goals in 117 appearances for the Cantonese, including a remarkable 29 goals in 2019.
Later in the season Zahavi’s international teammate Dia Saba made a ground-breaking move to the UAE. Such was R&F’s dependence on the two Israelis in the final year of Stojkovic’s reign that they scored over 75% of R&F’s league goals. The last time the Cantonese faced a similar loss of attacking firepower was when Yakubu and Rafael Coelho both left before the 2014 season. They were replaced by Abderrazak Hamdallah who fired R&F to ACL qualification. In 2020, the Israelis were replaced by a couple of loan signings who secured the club’s CSL status.
Adrian Mierzejewski and Richairo Živković both scored in the 2-1 aggregate victory over Qingdao Huanghai. Mierzejewski also scored against Henan in the next play-off round, but the Cantonese lost 5-3 on aggregate – even without having to play in Zhengzhou, Henan remain a bogey team.
Guangzhou R&F finished in the bottom half of the league format of the CSL, but won two out of three playoff matches to rank 11th overall. This matched Stojkovic’s final two years in charge when the team finished 10th and 12th respectively, although in very different circumstances. A quarter final exit from the CFA Cup can also be added to GVB’s achievements.
A GVB inspired change with longer lasting significance involves R&F’s number one. With the exception of 2015, Cheng Yuelei has been R&F’s first choice keeper since 2012. He didn’t play a single competitive minute under GVB. Instead, U21 player Han Jiaqi monopolised the goalkeeper’s jersey. Han certainly had plenty to do between the posts, conceding an average of just under two goals per CSL game. For those not familiar with R&F’s historic defensive failings, 2020 actually represented an improvement on 2019.
The last R&F young player to get so many minutes was Huang Zhengyu in 2017. Huang has already made 100 appearances for the Cantonese, playing in midfield or defence. At the other end of the age scale, Yi Teng, Renatinho and Chen Zhizhao also brought up the 100 game landmark in 2020.
Long trailed rules come into force this season requiring teams to ditch corporate sponsors from their names. Guangzhou R&F the football club will be no more. The property development company will continue. At least the name changes will stop CSL fans being confused when they see business articles discussing the strengths of R&F, Evergrande, (Shanghai Shenhua) Greenland and (Hebei) China Fortune.
Guangzhou R&F have registered as Guangzhou City. Partly because of R&F’s relatively short history in Guangzhou and the clearly corporate name, the change was made quickly unlike at other CSL teams. Presumably the club badge will be next to change. Across town, Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao have become plain Guangzhou.
GVB’s exit means that, just as at the end of 2019, R&F/City are searching for a new manager. After being outbid by SIPG for the services of Ivan Leko, Goran Tomić will reportedly be GVB’s successor. This is partly in keeping with tradition and partly a break with tradition. Like all other previous permanent managers, Tomic is foreign. Unlike them, he has experience in China. The Croatian ended his playing career with a brief spell at Henan in 2006. More relevantly, he managed Beijing Baxy, Tianjin Songjiang, Zhejiang Yiteng and Shenzhen (as assistant to old R&F boss Sven Goran Eriksson) in China League One.
Whether or not Tomic will become manager, training has already started under Zhao Junzhe. The Liaoning legend is a new arrival in Guangzhou but it seems that club chairman Huang Shenghua will be heading out to link up with CFA President – and old SIPG man – Chen Xuyuan. There will be a reshuffle of the hierarchy at the club as a result.
Whilst all this change is going on, R&F/City are busy trying to recruit more foreign players. Mousa Dembele will be back, but defender Duško Tošić and the creative Renatinho have already left. Permanent replacements for Saba and Zahavi are also needed. Domestic players Chen Zhizhao, Li Tixiang and Lu Lin are also out of contract. On top of this, there are new salary cap rules to consider too.
Clearly there are a lot of changes to be thought about carefully, but also made quickly if the club is have everything in place for the start of the new season. A pessimist would look at this and think that there is a lot that could go wrong. An optimist would see the potential upsides of the club’s ‘rebirth’. Both would be pleased by one final change. The Guangzhou FA and city government have put forward a strong case to host one of the first ‘bubbles’ of the new season. Football could return to historic Yuexiushan in 2021.