In a Lost Boyos first, the Harrison brothers have stepped aside and let a new Lost Boyo take the blog reins and explain their own ‘Lost in…’ adventure Shanghai-based Welshman Rhys Walters tells us about his adventures at the Shanghai derby between Chinese Super League clubs East Asia and Shenhua.
Chinese football doesn’t really strike a chord on the world scene. Your average British football nut could – with a pint, a pen and paper – scribble down the 92 league clubs, most of the Scottish Premier and beyond, and have a good stab at the top continental leagues. Then there’s the top teams in Brazil and Argentina,; the MLS is becoming increasingly popular and let’s not forget Ajax, PSV, Antwerp, Malmo and the ‘Welcome to hell’ banner away fans are greeted with in Galatasaray.
In China, home to 1.3 billion people and a nation on the rise for 30 years, we know Shanghai Shenhua. A team that, to many of us at the time, came to represent the exuberance of new Chinese wealth by signing Premier League big hitters Anelka and Drogba in January and May of last year.
Earning in the region of £200,000 a week both played their part in securing Shenhua 9th place in the Chinese Super League (CSL). When the season finished in November 2012, with both embroiled in payment disputes, they made their excuses and left for more familiar football surroundings of Turin and Istanbul.
Each of the 16 CSL teams are allowed 4 foreign players and as I scanned the squads for Saturdays ‘Round 22’ Shanghai derby between Shanghai East Asia (Dongya) and Shanghai Shenua expecting to see a few household names, the only person I recognised was Ian Walker who is now Shenhua’s goalkeeping coach. Anelka and Drogba were vanity signings brought in to increase the profile of Chinese football. In their place Shenhua have gone to Syria and signed Firas Al-Khatib, a 30 year old striker who was previously playing in the Iraqi league and had a trial at Nott’m Forest in 2012, and Giovanni Moreno a skillful Colombian international who joined this season from Racing Club in Argentina.
While Shenhua are an established CSL team having only been outside the top flight once since the league started in 1951, East Asia are the new kids on the block. Otherwise known as Shanghai SIPG (SIPG are 75% owners of the club), East Asia’s rise through the ranks of Chinese football is to be admired. Founded by former Chinese international Xu Genbao in 2005, they entered the 3rd tier of Chinese football in 2006, won promotion from League 2 the following season, and earned their place in this year’s China Super League as 2012 League 1 champions.
Xu’s ambition in forming the team after a career managing other clubs including Shenhua was to build a Manchester United of China. His key principle; to a create a successful youth development structure that would mature into the first team, inspired by United’s class of ’91-92 which gave us Beckham, Scholes, Butt and the Nevilles. While this is not revolutionary in football terms it is a fresh approach in China. In a country increasingly obsessed with money and in a game littered with corruption, I have been told that many of the soccer schools are money making schemes. The general claim is that you need money to break into football. You pay to join a school, you have to buy all the kit and then you pay some more. It makes you realise that some of the Premier Leagues finest players from traditional working class backgrounds like Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand and Robbie Fowler would not have made it through the China system and is one of the reason why China isn’t competitive at international level.
Going into this match East Asia held the bragging rights in Shanghai and sat four positions (8th) and three points above their neighbours from across the river, despite an inferior record. In what has become the norm rather than the exception, Shenhua have lost fewer games but started the season with -6 points following match fixing investigations into a number of teams across the leagues. So with my pockets full of ¥100 (in case I needed to bribe someone / anyone) I set out to meet my British comrades who would join me in experiencing our first CSL game. At Xintaindi metro station I met my ‘Championship’ friends Paul and Karen (AFC Bournemouth), Neil and Carol (Derby County) Nick (Leeds Utd) and Scott (Ipswich Town) all who have some great football stories to share from following their teams.
Getting around Shanghai by metro is relatively easy. As a ‘new model city’ with a modern metro system, East Asia’s home ground the 80,000 seated Shanghai Stadium has its own stop. As we neared the ground in the south of the city, we were surprised by the visible lack of football fans going to the game. No shirts, no colours. But as we got outside the volume of noise coming from the stadium told us that the most of the fans were already inside. Both teams have a fanatical following and as we searched for staircase 6 where we could buy tickets, it became clear that despite careful planning, there was a threat of missing the kick off. After a 20 minute walk which took us three quarters of the way around the stadium, we found the ticket office, and queued up for the one open hatch selling match day tickets. The queue wasn’t long but I did wonder why on their biggest home game of the season with kick off minutes away, and with lots of fans still outside, why they didn’t have more people serving?
Tickets range from ¥30 (£3) to ¥200 (£20), so we settled for the ¥150 tickets which puts you on the middle tier. East Asia get upwards of 10,000 fans at their games and fans generally sit where they like within the cordoned areas. We weren’t surprised then to find that our seats were occupied by others. Adopting the ‘When in Rome’ approach we found a row of seven seats ten rows further back and settled down for the match.
The game kicked off in 34 degree heat, with Shanghai having recording its hottest summer on record. Whilst Shenhua played in their traditional blue, both East Asia and the pitch itself opted for a change of colour. East Asia, usually red, wore their white away strip, the pitch traditionally green was largely a ‘sunburn’ yellow. It’s clear evidence of where football lies in the pecking order that while the parks of the city are well maintained and watered, this pitch has barely seen a drop all summer.
The players on the pitch meanwhile played their way through an uneventful first half. East Asia had the better of possession with youth product and playmaker Wu Lei and new Aussie forward Bernie Ibini-Isel inspiring their team. Wu Lei passed two men and set up midfielder Cai Huikang in the 10th minute only for his shot to go wide. Ibini-Isel was always looking to attack from the right hand side, often picking up the ball in midfield and using his long-legged gallop to beat his man and create opportunities for his fellow Aussie forward and target man, 36 year old Daniel McBreen.
McBreen epitomises the journeyman footballer and a gun for hire. English born but raised in Australia his career peaked at Falkirk where he scored 19 goals in 55 games having previously played two seasons in Romania. He later played for Scunthorpe Utd, St Johnstone and York City before doing the rounds of the A League in Australia. Currently on loan at the Shanghai Stadium from Central Coast Mariners his fair but slightly-physical challenge on Shenhua keeper Wang Dalei in the 33rd minute brought half of the 23,000 crowd to its feet with some shouting for a red card. Shenhua were more edgy, and in a match devoid of any thunderous tackles and only one yellow card, were happy to clear their lines and hit frequent long-balls forward to Colombian Gio Moreno. The left footed striker showed great ability with the ball at his feet, able to fool two players at a time with his close control and drag-back and Shenhua’s best chance of the first half would fall to him. With midfielder Cao Yuding looking determined against his former club, Cao went on a mazy forward run, was pushed out wide but was able to cross the ball only for Moreno to volley straight at East Asia’s keeper Yan Junling.
Both sets of supporters were in full in voice throughout the game. Shenhua’s fans, most of which were packed away in the nosebleeds in the opposite stand, were clearly visible as a sea of blue. East Asia’s hardcore fans, drums and all, mainly occupied the lower tiers. And come the second half the ‘ultra’s’ down to my right had all removed their shirts, which is either a second-half tradition or a reaction to the sweltering heat. Our stand was a mixture of both fans, and true to football the world over, a few minor scuffles broke out between different individuals which the police did nothing about.
One of the key values of Chinese culture is ‘saving face’ which translates as not offending people and not losing your temper. I saw more examples of people ‘losing face’ in these 90 minutes than I had in my previous 7 months in China. This is evidence that, regardless of where you are in the world, and even in the absence of alcohol and the presence of high social values, rival fans can’t help but kick off with each other.
While the players played out the first half, we were equally entertained by the coming and goings of the fans around us. Even up until half time, people were arriving to watch the match. We had the merry go-round of fans ejecting other fans from their seats. There was a constant flow of people at the end of their aisles tickets in hand, realising their seats were occupied. I came back from a snoop around the stadium at half time to find that my group had been ejected from their seats and had promptly ejected those who had taken ours prior to kick off. So ten rows closer to the pitch we looked forward and hoped for a better second half.
With both sets of fans in full voice cheering their teams on, Shenhua broke the deadlock in the 51st minute. Colombian striker Moreno received a heavy pass from twice capped Argentinian midfielder Patrico Toranzo. Having done well to keep control on the right hand-side of the 18yard box, he brought the ball back inside on to his left foot, passed two men and when everyone expected him to pass swung his left boot from a seemingly difficult position and fired past Yan Junlings near post. One-nil Shenhua. With so many away fans in the stadium, the place erupted.
East Asia could feel relatively hard done by, having had the majority of possession until the goal. They spent the next 20 minutes, increasing the pressure, but final passes didn’t go to feet and Shenhua filled the defence hoping to drag out a victory. Chinese wonder-kid Wu Lei had a close range shot blocked in the 70th minute by Shenhua’s Chinese international keeper Wang Delai. Wang was back in action moments later, when he fingertipped Ibini-Isels goal-destined shot over the cross bar to gasps from the home fans.
In the final twenty minutes the game really opened up, as both teams stole possession from each other and looked to counter-attack on a dry and bobbly pitch, but it wasn’t until the final minutes of the game that fans had reason to stand up from their seats. East Asia’s manager, the former national boss, Gao Hongbo brought on 20-year old Forward Lin Chunagyi in the 88th minute and almost immediately he had a chance to grab a point for the home team. His strike from the right hand side of the penalty area brought out the brilliance of Shenhua keeper Wang Delai who parried Lin’s shot onto the post and out of play. Ian Walker has been credited with improving Wangs performance since the Ex Spurs & England keeper joined Shenhua in April 2012 with Wang making his international debut in a MOM performance against Sweden 5 months later. With only seconds left to play Shenhua almost sealed it at the other end of the pitch, as substitute Firaz Al-Kitab’s long run and cross deserved better than Toranzo’s shot which missed the target.
The victory lifts Shenhua into 8th place in the league, one position above East Asia and five positions above the city’s other team Shanghai Shenxin. Shenhua and East Asia are playing for safety while runaway leaders Guangzhou Everglades, managed by Marcello Lippi, are unbeaten and heading for a 3rd consecutive Super League Title.
Money pumps through the veins of football in China, as it does worldwide. But until it establishes a model that invests in grass roots football and implements values which eradicates corruption then the national football team will stagnate. The number of youth players coming through the ranks is less than 10 years ago. Kids look up to national icons and there are few higher profile celebrities here than ex-NBA star Yao Ming. You look around and you’ll see basketball shirts, you drive around the city and you’ll see lots of basketball courts, they are smaller and take up less space. A full size football pitch requires a lot more space and an area of land that big would not be sacrificed for football due to the value of property in Shanghai. Finally the current generation of parents here in China are tired of the corruption that runs through the sport and are increasingly guiding their children away from football to other sports. Reputation is everything – football has a bad one.
Rhys Walters is Welshman ‘lost in Shanghai’. Growing up in Ammanford, in south Wales, he was like most of his mates a boyhood fan of Liverpool FC before adopting his local team Swansea City in 1989 after going to Division 3 match with his father. He unashamedly supports both clubs, but never really expected to see them both play in the same league. He always looks for the Swansea result first. He is 7 months into a 2 year spell living in Shanghai where he is a marketing consultant.
Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @rhyswal