You must be CHOKING

 

Hulk bottle
It’s an incredible bottle

More often than not in sport, the ability to “get across the line” is what makes the difference between a very good runner-up and a champion. By this I mean that most of the time in most sports, there is a healthy an fairly even competition between those at the top which leads to those with the right mindset and experience pipping those that lack this. This not always the case however, as sometimes a competitor like Usain Bolt comes along who is so far ahead of the rest that even a lack of experience can still lead to a world record with an untied shoe lace.

In this respect football is no different, occasionally a team such as the 2009 Barcelona team, which is so far ahead of the rest that getting across the line is not in doubt. However, things are normally closer than this and unfortunately as a Liverpool fan I have plenty of experience what appears to be a lack of getting-over-the-line-ability. Because of this getting-over-the-line-ability which is built on attitude and experience, the hegemonic super powers seem to always find a way and leads to those such as Tottenham or Arsenal (post-invincibles) seemingly perpetually consigned to runner-up whilst at the same time feeling you can never write-off a comparatively weak post-Ferguson Manchester United.

Of course the antithesis of this is what can be put down to bottling, the ability to somehow always find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory no matter how close you are to the victory or how far ahead you are (think back to Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle).

The Chinese Super League (CSL) at this time seems to displaying both these phenomena. For any semi-interested follower of world football, the news that Guangzhou Evergrande are top of the table will not come as a shock. After all they have won each of the previous six leagues and are the best team in Chinese history. But although they are top, they definitely do not look as convincing as in previous years. This is particularly the case considering only a month ago they were seven points clear, but after one win in five they now have a wafer thin lead of one point.

What has happened to this position of great comfort and seeming inevitable stroll to the title is up for debate, but for any of this faltering to matter there has to be another team able to take advantage.

Kevin Keegan I would love it
AVB is great at chardes, he even has the Euro ’96 background

Waiting in the wings for the majority of the season has been the big spending Shanghai SPG, with the help of Hulk and Chinese transfer record holder Oscar, they have had a very eye catching season with what is the best attacking record in the CSL. After a few early slip ups, Shanghai were due to match Guangzhou win for win all the way and pounce on any opportunity they got, however, so far they have passed up three opportunities to snatch top spot. With the most recent occurrence happening this past weekend.

The first opportunity came three weeks ago when Guangzhou lost to a hot and cold Beijing. Shanghai SIPG then lost to a distinctly average Changchun Yatai away, in a surprising 4-2 score line, after going down 3-0 in the opening half hour.

The next opportunity came last week when Shanghai SIPG played host to Guangzhou Evergrande. Obviously, this was not what in snooker would be termed a “gimme”, they were playing the one team above them in the table and a team that knew the significance of the result. Guangzhou Evergrande of course did not roll over and when a win was needed the game finished 2-2 of course keeping both teams in the same relative position.

However, Shanghai did not have to wait long for another chance, on Saturday just past Guangzhou Evergrande were thoroughly outclassed by their cross town rivals Guanzghou R&F and slumped to a 4-2 away defeat. This continued dip in form handed what has been Shanghai’s best opportunity to date. On Sunday they went to Shandong Luneng needing only a draw due to a 10 superior goal difference over Guangzhou.

For nearly seventy minutes things were going to plan for Shganghai, they took the lead on 22 minutes and looked comfortable. Then Shandong got a scrappy equaliser. Although Shanghai were still in a position to go top, the goal rattled them, with a corresponding loss of discipline, from then on Shanghai looked nervous and Shandong were in the ascendancy. With less than five minutes of the ninety remaining Shandong scored from a corner and saw out the remaining time.

It is true that two of these games were against a good calibre of opposition (Guangzhou and Shandong) and two of them were away from home, but going on the form Shanghai have regularly displayed this season it is fair to say one point from these three was a massive disappointment, especially as it turns out two points would have been enough to take them top.

Apart from the decent opposition there have been other mitigating factors, Oscar was suspended for all three games and Hulk, in my opinion the best player in the CSL this season was absent for the defeat to Changchun due to a misguided protest about the Oscar suspension. However, dealing with suspensions/injuries is something all teams have to deal do over the course of a season including the team which comes out on top and so I am reluctant to accept this explains it all.

I think there could be a more fundamental problem which has more to do with mind frame than anything else. This at first might seem strange because their main players and manager (AVB) are all proven Champions so moving to the CSL from a higher quality, more competitive European league should not be nerve inducing. However, if Hulk and Oascar are removed, all of a sudden it terms from a team with a lot of experience of winning to one of little experience. After all the only team that has won the league in China for a long time is Guangzhou. The Chinese players at Shanghai may well be feeling the nerves. Added to this, each time they fail to take advantage the mental block and nerves will only increase.

How they fair going forward is hard to say, I have no doubt that given a few more chances to take the top spot (and I’m sure they will get more) they will take one of them. However, I also think that even if they retake the lead, which they have not had since the second week of the season, they will slip up again. So not only has this bad patch for Guangzhou been a chance to take the lead, it has also been a chance to build up a buffer at the top, they are definitely not displaying the killer instinct so common in Champions, the same killer instinct Guagzhou have shown time and again.

Panda-ring favour

Werder Bremen Albion
“I’m so happy to be here at Werder Bremen Albion”

Amongst all the transfer activity and the astronomical fees going on in the Premier League this summer, one move caught my eye. Just over a week ago West Brom secured the signature of Chinese front man Zhang Yuning. Probably not on everyone’s radar, particularly as he was sent out on loan for two years to Werder Bremen upon penning the contract but this could very much be the start of a trend.

I think over the next few seasons we may see a whole string of Chinese players move over to England to the Premier League or otherwise. It is no secret that the Chinese economy is growing ever bigger by the day and the ambition to break the Chinese market is shared by all. Of course you have your super teams like Barcelona or Bayern which for obvious reasons naturally attract a large following everywhere, but China is a market many less fortunate clubs would still like a piece of.

So, in the absence of having Messi, or a whole host of World Cup winners, one quick fire solution to catch the attention of the fans out in China and hopefully their wallets as well, is to sign a Chinese player. There have been similar moments in the past with clubs deemed to have made signings to boost awareness in target markets, such as the early naughties when Japanese players were somewhat popular.

Ki Sung Yueng fan
The Ki to unlock the Asian market

Whether or not this kind of tactic truly works is up for debate is up for debate, it’s hardly as if everyone in Japan is walking around in Perugia or Bolton Wanderers shirts after Nakata played for them. Apart from a few column inches here and there, the traditional giants of Europe are still going to take the majority of the coverage, support and money from the Chinese market. But I am sure this will not put too many clubs off. Indeed, the recent success of Korean Ki Sung-Yueng at Swansea will only act to encourage those teams not traditionally in the international limelight.

In the history of the Premier League, there have only been five players from China, with the most established being Sun Jihai who regularly played for Man City over the course of six seasons. It’s true to say that this did not lead to Man City becoming the most popular team in China, but it is important to remember China now is very different to the China of a decade ago (when Sun last played in the Premiership). China is now the world’s second largest economy, with the world’s largest and still growing middle class. So the benefits of even attracting the attention of a small part of the population could be immense for a team like West Brom..

Another crucial difference is that football is now more in the limelight than ever before in China. More people are interested then at any previous time, with more coverage in traditional media and the fact it has truly taken advantage if the mobile revolution in the country. It is easier then ever to keep up with a player in Europe and to be sure a Chinese player in the Premiership would get exposure, one way or another.

Carson Yeung Worthington Cup
“You’ve got completely free-reign as manager, so long as it’s what I want.”

One other factor to think about is the ownership of teams. An increasing amount of Chinese money is going in to buying clubs (or shares in clubs) and the buying of a Chinese player may well be encouraged. It’s no coincidence the owner of West Brom. is Guo Chanlai, a Chinese business man.

I would also wager that in the current climate buying Chines players could also be good business when coming to sell players on. With so much money currently floating around in Chinese football and with limits on international players, the prices of domestic players are starting to rise. With this background buying a youngster for a small sum, giving him some exposure to a major European league (including the Championship) and to the corresponding training would surely add glamour, but most importantly value to the player who could then be sold back at a profit.

We are still quite a way away from seeing Chinese players take to the pitch as often as, say, Spaniards. Because ultimately unless a player is good enough they will not be able to hold down a place in a high level competitive league. However, over the next few years I would not be surprised to see a lot more Chinese names then over the past 25 years of the Premier League’s existence.

Half Bored

 

Race Guangzhou Evergrande
The race is back on

This past week marked the half way point in the Chinese Super League (CSL) season, with every team having played every other team once and since we are at this significant juncture I think it is only right for a review of the season so far and a preview of what we may expect.

I am glad actually that I waited until after this set (the sixteenth set) of games to write this review as it would have taken a very different shape otherwise.

I think it is only right that we start from the top.

Dedicated and infrequent viewers alike will be unsurprised in the knowledge that Guangzhou Evergrande are sitting top of the pile. After all they are attempting to claim their seventh straight CSL title and to my knowledge have been at the top at this juncture of the season for the past six years.

It’s mostly gone according to the now familiar Guangzhou Evergrande playbook, namely WIN, which saw them get ten victories on the bounce and at one point open up a gap over second place of seven points. With a very significant feeling of déjà vu permeating, the race to be crowned champions for 2017 dare I say it started to become a little boring. However, that was until two weeks ago when Guangzhou Evergrande slipped up against the newly promoted Tianjin Quanjian. Then, yesterday, lost again, which is the first time this season they have failed to pickup one win from two consecutive games, let alone lose two. All this has meant that instead of the second half of the season turning in to an extended lap of honour, it is in fact very much more likely to be an enthralling title race.

Hulk Confeds
Got the taste for gold

This is because Shanghai SIPG, sitting in second, are now only one point behind Guangzhou Evergrande. This is no accident either, because despite Shanghai SIPG not having been top of the league for the first two weeks, they have scored more than any other team (forty, five more than second top scorers Guangzhou Evergrande) and conceded fewer than all but one team. Resulting in them having the best goal difference by far (nine better than Guangzhou Evergrande). They have, I think most would agree been the most exciting team up to this point scoring at least four goals on four occasions being lead by their explosive and powerful talisman Hulk, who has continued to prove too much to handle for CSL defences. In fact, it may be due to Hulk picking up a retrospective two game suspension for wearing a t-shirt in support of his suspended teammate Oscar, that Shanghai SIPG are not currently top of the league. After all, if they had avoided defeat at the weekend they would have regained pole position. As it was they did not manage to fully close the gap, but it is almost incomprehendable that they will finish outside the top two.

Because the next group of teams are a long way down the road. The best of the rest and the remaining teams looking to duke it out for the two remaining Asian Champions League spot are Hebei Fortune, Tianjin Quanjian, Shandong Luneng and Guangzhou R&F. Of these teams, Hebei Fortune look the most likely to finish in the top four. Not only because they currently sit in third, with a four point gap, but since Ezequiel Lavezzi has found his feet they look capable of beating all those below them and less likely to slip up. There season got off to a bad start winning only two of their first six outings, but they seem to have put such poor runs behind them, but it is very unlikely they will bridge the seven point gap to second.

Shandong Luneng and Tianjin Quanjian have had similar seasons, not only due to their equal points tally (of twenty five) but also the fact that their sometimes brilliant play isjust too inconsistent to push for the title. After all Shandong’s strike force of Grazianno Pelle and Papiss Demba Cisse often proves too much for the opposition, as does Pato for Tianjin, but they drop points too easily. Of these currentlyShndong Luneng look more likely to edge the final Asian Champions League place as they have a game in hand.

In sixth is the surprise over performer of the season, Guangzhou R&F. At first they looked like they could be on for a Leicester, sitting top of the league after six games, inspired by their in form free scoring Israeli striker Zahavi (still top with fourteen goals). It is this over reliance on the man up top which has been Guangzhou R&F’s undoing, having only scored ten goals with other players. If another player hits form a push for an Asian Champions League place seems plausible, but otherwise it looks like the early season promise will fail to live up to expectations.

Shrug Beijing GuoAn
Were we expected to do any better

For the next group of teams it is made up of those that will not qualify to play in continental competition next year, but save for monumental collapse will also not go down. In this distinctly average group we have Beijing GuoAn, Chingqing Lifan, the Carlos Tevez owning Shanghai Shenhua, Changchun Yatai, Guizhou Zhicheng and Henan Jianye. With these teams, apart from Shanghai Shenhua which owns the highest paid player in the world (Carlos Tevez) this safe but stranded position is roughly what should realistically be expected even if not appreciated.

These teams lack the cutting edge to do it game after game and also like most teams don’t have a reliable backline to step up when not firing on all cylinders. This perhaps can be best borne out by the fact that only two have a positive goal difference Chongqing with one and Shanghai Shenhua with nine (the majority of Shanghai Shenhua’s surplus coming from an 8-1 victory). Indeed this position of relative comfort can probably be best understood by the fact that even if they find it difficult to beat those above them, they are definitely better than those below.

Now Shanghai Shenhua do look the most likely of launching a surprise second comeback as they still have a game in hand and are four points off Guangzhou R&F but even if they do turn it around, considering their investment the season would still have to be seen as a failure. As for some of the others, particularly Henan Jianye considering the ominous start they made to the season mid table will now seem like a decent position.

Capello
When I said get an Italian to keep us up I was talking about Mr. Allerdici

Finally the teams that are at risk of going down. These are Tianjin TEDA, Liaoning Whowin, Yanbian Fude and the big shock Jiangsu Suning. These teams have all failed to get going and have not shown much to suggest they are capable of more. Save for Liaoning with nineteen, these teams have all scored fewer goals than games played and at the same time leaked like sieves bringing about double figure goal differences in the negative.

I have not seen much of some of these teams, but I have watched a few Yanbian Fude games and they have been atrocious at times, looking like a club that know’s it’s going down. I can fully understand why they are sitting rock bottom.

The one team of these which definitely has potential to put together a crucial mini run to escape the clutches of relegation in Jiangsu Suning. The team has Alex Teixeira and Ramires playing for them who are decent footballers by anyone’ measure, the also oddly enough had some fine form in the Asian Champions League, but still sit second bottom. In the latest twist tot heir season they have hired Fabio Cappello who is currently without a win, but has gathered two draws. In their situation Big Sam may have been a better choice, but if Jiangsu do go down, it will have caught everyone off guard. Because for the season up until now it feels like Chelsea’s last season under Mourinho, they’re in the relegation zone, but know they are too good to go down.

Obviously there is still a long way to go, but I imagine these four groups of teams will stay the way they are, give or take, for the remainder of the season, because after all the table doesn’t lie. There s still room for a lot of movement inside these four groups as well, which should make for an entertaining run in, not quite as boring and predictable as what I feared from the first half of the season.

Why has China never won the world cup? (circa 2011)

A few of you my have noticed, the blog has been a little quiet for the past few weeks, this is because I was on holiday in Jakarta, where I managed to watch some Indonesian league (which may be a topic for another article). But to get the ball rolling again, here is an essay I submitted at university all the way back on 2nd June 2011.

My university in London sent all my class to study in Beijing where we all had to write an essay related to China, mine naturally had this title. So here it is, untouched, six years later.

Why has China never won the world?

Introduction:

China is has the world largest population, currently amounting to a figure close to 1.3 Billion. It has the world’s fourth biggest landmass. It has also recently become one of the world’s largest economies. So why therefore has this country with seemingly so many things going for it failed as of yet to make an impression on male football. China currently ranks 77th in the F.I.F.A. World Rankings with it’s highest historical ranking being 38th whilst it’s lowest being 108th.

I am a football fan and have always wondered about this underachievement so I investigated the reasons for this. I think because of football’s special status that no other sport has on such a large scale, it is down to more then simple reasons that appear on the surface and I wanted to investigated the deep rooted reasons that are behind it

My investigation is split up into four sections, in each section I will introduce a new cause and ultimately explain why China have never won the world cup.

The Role of football in Chinese society and culture

Sport in general is very popular in China, whether it be watching or playing, it is difficult to be in China for any amount of time without witnessing something to do with sport in China. However when I say sport I am not reffering to one in particular sport or even a few sports, but there is a wide variety of sports which are very popular. This is somewhat contrasted with the U.K., where besides from football and then at intermediate times through the year rugby and tennis, there is not a lot of exposure to sport in general (however the last couple of years have been an exception due in part to the 2012 London Olympic Games).

Because of what seemed like a sports overload, I did research in to the popularity of sport in general and then more specifically the popularity of football in China. My original thinking was right, of the 50 people I gave the questionnaire[1] to (these 50 were a cross-section of society e.g. old and young, beijinger and non-beijinger, male and female etc.) I found there to be a wide range of popular sports. Of the people I asked 12 (24%) said there favourite sport to play was football, this was marginally less popular then basketball with 13 (26%) people saying it was their favourite sport to play. Third and fourth most popular were perhaps seen as the more traditionally popular sports in China Table, in which they have had a very successful history in, Tennis and Badminton. Together these accounted for 28% of the people surveyed.

The other sports people stated as their favorite to play were Tennis, Volleyball, Swimming, Running and Rollerblading.

I think a few things are of interest here, the first being that there is not one sport that is by far and away the most popular, which in a lot of countries (for example in Europe and South America where it is football) there is one, above all others that is significantly more popular.

Contrast this to England where it would not be unreasonable to expect the result to be anywhere between 50% and 75% of peoples favorite sport being football. But it is not just in European countries where this is the case and indeed not just football which dominates popularity in a country, for example in India, cricket is by far the most popular sport or in Canada it is Ice Hockey.

The next interesting point I found is that the top four most popular sport only accounted for 74% of people’s most popular sports, this I think is again very different to many other countries, for example the U.K., where I would expect it to be around the 95% mark and even a country such as America with not one clear favourite sport, the combined popularity of there four big sports I would also expect to be around the 90%-95% mark.

The final point I find interesting is that although the other four sports are minorities in this survey, they are significant minorities making up 22% together which shows the broad appeal of all sport in China.

To discover a sports significance on the society it is not only important to look at the popularity of a sport in terms of how many people play it, but also in terms of how many people watch it and general recognition of the sport.

I asked what sport were peoples favorite to view either on T.V. or experience live. 21 people (42%) said football was their favorite sport to watch, the next most popular was basketball with 17 people (34%), next was volleyball with 8 people (16%) then 4 people (8%) each said tennis and badminton were there favorite sports to watch.

I think this interesting in comparison to the popularity of playing different sports, because it is a lot less evenly spread with football and basketball being 76% of the peoples favorite sport to watch with the other sports being less significant minorities.

I also think it is interesting how the popularity of watching different sports differs from the popularity of playing those sports, this is both in the rank (basketball is the most popular sport to play, but football is the most popular to watch), but also in the proportion of people as well (24% of people’s favorite sport to play is football, but it is 42% of people’s favorite sport to watch).

“Nearly 24 million viewers in China watched the match between Greece and South Korea [at least first three days], making it the single biggest audience in the first days of World Cup play.”[2] This goes to show the extent of the popularity of the sport that even a game that even a game that is not particularly headline grabbing and featuring two teams that are not particularly strong can achieve an audience so big.

I think it is interesting how football has such a clear lead in terms of favorite sports to watch, but not in terms of popularity of playing.

I think this in part goes to show that football does have some cultural significance in China indeed according to F.I.F.A. “it has long been the most popular sport throughout the country”[3], this result is somewhat unexpected because I thought one reason why traditionally successful nations are successful was because football was rooted in their respective cultures so it acts as not just a past-time, but also something more important and more meaningful.

It is not only my research that shows this, but during my research I have often come across the term “the people’s sport” referring to football. This is not difficult to understand, as in most countries were football is popular it also has this tag. It has this tag because it is easy and cheap to play (all that is needed is a football and open space).

However I think that although it is popular it has a different cultural significance than in the traditionally successful nations because the popularity of watching and exposure of the sports stars is similarly matched by the amount of people that play seriously. But in China this is not the case.

In the Federation of International Football Association’s (F.I.F.A.) last “Big Count”[4] in which they attempt to calculate the number of people that play football in the world, Chin came top of the list, with the amount of people that play, play means in any form be it as  past time or professionally, with over 26,000,000 players. But when a count of the “registered players” (players that are registered with the Chinese F.A. to compete in serious games) is seen, Chna is ranked twelfth with just over 700,000 registered players. The ratio of registered players:population is taken, (Chinese population 1.3 Billion), it is 1:1834, but if this is compared to Germany that have the most registered players at just over 6,300,000, with a national population of around 80 million the ratio is roughly 1:12.6. More extremely is Holland which ranks sixth, with just over 1,100,000 registered players but a population of roughly 6,000,000, it is a ratio of below 1:6. So not only does this small nation in terms of land and population, especially when compared to China, have a lot better ratio, it also has just under double the amount of registered player that China has in nominal figures. To put this in perspective, if China had a participation rate the size of Holland’s it would have over 215 million registered players.

Ultimately no matter how popular a sport is it is irrelevant if nobody plays it and although 700,000 people is most certainly not “nobody” the fact that compared to many other countries, in terms of actual registered players and even more extremely proportion of population. China is lacking a lot and this low participation in serious football I think goes some way to explaining a lack of quality at professional level.

The Youth Football system in China

To become a world class footballer and sportsmen in general is not something that happens overnight, but takes a long time starting from learning the basics to honing down skills and excelling past others in the same age group. This takes a lot of dedication and a lot of practice and so means starting from a young age and growing up playing and learning about the game. This means that if you are to produce world class players you have to have a youth system in place that helps players develop and also importantly helps the talented players to be identified.

With a sport such as football I think it is more important to have a good youth system then in a sport such as running, swimming. This is for a few reasons, one is that football is a lot more complex then a lot of other sports. Take for example running, sprinting in particular, but also to a slightly lesser extent long-distance running. The skills required to succeed are speed, stamina, concentration and ability to deal with mental pressure. I am not under-estimating the difficulty of achieving all these or the importance of having them, but these skills are mainly related to physical and mental strength.

It is hard work training to build up the strength required, but it is not very complex, it just involves following a strict training schedule of different exercises. Eventually after doing these exercises and going for training runs you will have the right physique and will reach your optimum potential. This is something that for the most part could be taught from reading a book.

This is not quite the same in football, because not only do you need to have the same skills as a runner (to a lesser ability) you need to have a lot more. First and foremost, football is a team game, this means that a players ability to enhance the team he is in takes preference over his individual ability. This means that although individual training is also important in terms of strength, stamina and technique, it is not enough by itself.

Players need to understand from an early stage how a team works and how they can fit in to the team structure for the best interests of the team. This complexity makes training all the more harder.

This is also contrasted with the sports China is traditionally successful in such as Table Tennis or Badminton. Although these are not quite such extreme examples as running because there is undeniably a tactical element to it which does not just rely on physical strength and stamina, it is a solo sport that is played by the individual and apart from double’s, has no aspect of teamwork, so does not have the added complexity of training that football has. It is also interesting to consider China’s successes in recent Olympic games especially and other multi-sports competitions of a world standard, the sports they have won medals in are mainly either individual sports or team sports that are of a low complexity (such as archery).

I looked at China’s success of the Beijing 2008 Olympic games[5], of the 52 gold medalds won and the total of 100 medals there were 10 and 26 that were from events that are called “team sports” respectively. I write “team sports” with the speech marks, because although they were classified as team events, they are not all team events in the way football is. Take team archery for example, by definition it is a “team” sport based on the fact it is not an individual that wins, but each individual archer shoot’s as they would in a single’s match, it is just that each player shoot’s fewer arrows than normal. But, tactics do not change, the aim of each shot is to hit the centre of the target, no matter what a team mate does or what the opponents do. Because of this it makes no difference to each archer whether the competition is defined as a “team” or individual competition as nothing that they do differs between the two. There is also no interaction or interdependency the archers, for this reason I hesitate to call it a team sport. A lot of the events China won team gold’s in are of this kind, where by definition it is a “team” sport, but it is a team in a different way that football is a team.

The only team medals that I would say have the same complexity as football that China won are “women’s field hockey” others that involve interdependency are table-tennis/ badminton/ tennis doubles ,“beach volleyball” and “volleyball”.

I decided to consider and look into why it is the case that Chinese success in sport is so predominantly individual sports and rarely in the more complex team sports. I think first of all it is important to point out that more sports in the Olympics for example are individual not team sports, so it would only be natural to win more medals in individual events then team events due to the fact there are a lot more opportunities to do so, but this equally should mean you would at least win some medals in team sports.

I think part of the reason is down to the fact sport has been used for a long time for political reasons and to promote political ideas. For example during the cold war the U.S.S.R. and U.S.A. invested heavily in sports, as each saw it as a way to show that their political model was superior and show the world that they were superpowers, not just in terms of military might. This lead to a domination of the Olympics by these two countries in the Olympics and of world sport in general from the 40’s to the end of the cold war and even further, to the extent U.S.S.R.’s sports legacy carried on by the individual U.S.S.R. states, in particular Russia. This resulted in these two nation’s becoming the first and second in the Olympic medals table on every occasion (except when either of the two boycotted) up until 2004 when China were second (Although for some of this time China were not allowed to compete due to not recognizing the sovereignty of the Taiwan Olympic Association).

I think it is obvious China at the moment is trying to change it’s perception on the world stage from that of a closed off less-developed communist country which does not have much of a say on a lot of world affairs to being seen and respected globally as a fully developed global superpower, but also appear as a prosperous country. One way to do this they have realized is through sporting success.

Because of the sheer size of the population of China it is extremely likely there will be at least one person that meets the requirements to become a world class sportsmen in most individual sports.

Add to this the simplicity of the training regimes needed (especially for sports such as weight lifting) that I referred to earlier. If China invested a reasonable amount in these sports it should be reasonable to expect to excel in international completion and as can be seen from recent results, it has excelled. So if using sport as a political tool, achieving success in individual sports is a lot quicker and easier than in a team sport, then the government might have decided to promote elite training in these sports as opposed to others.

Another reason why it might be the case that the standard of football is low in China is down to the fact, if a country wants to internally strengthen it’s abilities, without or with only a little help from foreign people and organisations, then it will take a few generations. This is down to the fact that it often takes a few generations to build up a full understanding of how the game works and tactical astuteness, a country then also needs a generation of coaches that can train the next generation how to play properly.

I think this is reflected in the fact that the eight or so national teams largely regarded as the best in the world (due to performances in the world cup and other tournaments) are the same as thirty years ago (minus U.S.S.R. for the obvious reason they no longer exist). Then if you look at the countries that are slowly starting to improve and consistently perform better in these tournaments (U.S.A., Japan, Korea some sub-saharan African nations) it is the result of a steady improvement which started some twenty or more years ago.

I will use South Korea as an example, in the recent past they have arguably excelled the most as they have participated in each of the last 6 World Cup’s (although one of these occasion’s they did not need to qualify as thy were joint host’s in 2002) which is better than England, they also reached one World Cup semi-final (in 2002), which is better than Portugal.

These countries also very often bring in outsider experts to help in all aspects of the development, for example in South Korea, they have long had a relationship with dutch football with recent managers that have taken them to the world cup finals being dutch and also the training staff. South Korea’s semi-final achieving manager in 2002 was Holland’s Guus Hiddink, since then they have had other dutch managers.

China has not yet opted to do this, instead, chosing home grown officials, this acts to decelerate the process of development as the knowledge and understanding of foreign experts can take a long time to achieve working purely from it’s own means.

It has had a history of bringing in foreign managers to manage the national team, but in terms of the management of the sport in general in China it has taken no action. For developing footballing countries it is more important to bring in foreign experts to manage the development of the sport as opposed to foreign experts to manage the national team for example, this is because, no matter how good a manager is, if they do not have any good players they can not win. To refer back to the previously mentioned Korea, they have not only had a history of bringing in dutch managers for the national team, but also have bought in experts from Holland to oversee and help the development of football in Korea as a whole, this is a more long-term approach and this is slowly starting to pay-off with increasingly good performances on the international stage. In fact when Hiddink was managing Korea he also advised on issues of football development, so even after he left the nation could carry on strengthening, this has proved somewhat successful with Korea again getting to the second round of the World Cup in 2010. This is perhaps another reason why China have performed so poorly, a foreign manager can not wave a magic wand and make his team world beaters, but there needs to be a system in place to encourage development and encourage it in the correct way.

China up until now has not had this and thus has not seen an improvement in it’s position relative to other countries in terms of quality. This is compounded by the fact the people running the sport are not football experts, but instead are politicians and members of the communist party elite (which is actually illegal under article 17 of the F.I.F.A. rules).

The traditional view of the Chinese team has often been that they are sufficiently fit and strong enough to compete, so the problem does not lie in the physicality of the team but rather in the tactical and mental side of the game. This was talked about by Japan’s manager Alberto Zaccheroni after Japan beat them in a recent tournament match. He said “You should not concentrate on the physical strengths and ability of individual players, but on the tactical layout of the team”[6], after this very same match the Chinese manager said “It would be fair to say our [Chinese] players lack the basic technical ability of the Japanese players”[7]. This is an area that is very important, because no matter how much of an athlete a player is, if they do not know how to use their strength in the right way  the player can never realise his potential.

I interviewed a coach for the amateur football organization China Club Football, I asked him what he thought the problems were with the young players and how it might affect them as they grow older. He said he thinks “up until now children have been taught in the wrong way”, he said the focus of training in most centre’s in China is to “make sure players can run around for the whole match”, but when it comes to tactical and positional sense the players are “lacking a lot”[8].

Rowan Simons one of the foremost international experts on Chinese football in an interview said about football in China “It’s dead, in my view, it’s never had a life”, he then goes on to cite one of the main reasons “the Chinese Football Association (C.F.A.) doesn’t have amateur football in its remit”. He then talks about the state control being the cause of the problem “It can happen really quickly if there’s political change…How can China still be a member of F.I.F.A. when the C.F.A. is a government-controlled body and there are no elections to it at all?”[9]. The fact the C.F.A. has no amateur remit so no focus or overriding vision might explain why tactics have never been seen as an important set of ideas to introduce as this is a harder aspect to develop and without proper guidance from the footballing authorities the job is made even harder.

So, the fact China has only recently started a new football development push, which is perhaps signified best of all by the recent creation in 2004 of the Chinese Super League (C.S.L.) is another reason the national team as of yet have not made much of an impact on the world sage.

This development push is maybe starting to make a difference or at least showing signs of a potential to make a difference after the Chinese F.A. was awarded the 2009 F.I.F.A. Football Development award for it’s grass-root’s (young players) development scheme[10], but the fact it is only starting to make efforts to improve is perhaps one of the main reasons China’s team and players have never been very good compared to international standards.

Role Models

I think one of the contributing factors towards so many young children taking up the game in Europe and South America, even now in the emerging football nations is because there have been so many role models with very public mages from these places. Some of the most recognisible British and particularly English people around the world are football players, save for the queen and the royal family I think it is fair to say David Beckham is in the top five globally most recognized Brit’s. But for the moment I want to focus on the effect of the role model on his native country.

It is not only abroad David Beckham is well known, he is also probably the most recognisible English person in England. I think over 99% of all British people over the age of 3 recognize David Beckham and around 95% could tell you his name and that he is a professional footballer. Added to this David Beckham is famous for the right reasons and although he has been involved in some large scandals (large mainly down to the fact it was David Beckham that was involved in them), most parents would be perfectly happy to allow there son to imitate David Beckham. Although increasingly more young people will not really know or remember the football he played and the matches he was involved in does not deter from one of the most recognisible men of our era having a large impact on the game. David Beckham you might is an exception as his stardom eclipses that of any other modern English footballer. His exposure may be the most extreme example of this generation, but it is not the only. There are plenty of homegrown role models for a young and growing child to choose that are footballers such as England world-cup captain Steven Gerrard or Chelsea talisman Frank Lampard.

This however is not the same in China. It is interesting in China, some of the most recognisible non-chinese celebrities and public figures are footballers, recently Messi, Kaka and again David Beckham appearing adverts across all the television networks not only advertising football products, but anything from medicine to Chinese social networking site QQ. So it would be wrong to say Chinese children and the population are largely unaware or underexposed to footballers. On the contrary these are in fact some of the most recognisible figures in Chinese society today. But the point I am trying to make is there is no Chinese role model, not at the momment and not ever. I worked as a football teacher in a football school in Beijing. I did an experiment[11] to see levels of recognition of professional players, as expected the previous names I mentioned were the most recognized by the children. But not one of the children could tell me the name of one of the Chinese players let alone recognize one of the photos of them.

I did some research with my players, I showed them pictures of 12 players, they were 9 of the most recognisible players from elsewhere in the world, including previously mentioned Messi, Steven Gerrard and David Beckham, I also let them look at the three most well accomplished Chinese footballers, these being Sun Jihai that played in the premier league for a few seasons, Hao Junmin that plays for Schalke and this year got to the Champions League semi-final as well as Deng Zhouxiang China’s current player to feature on a t.v. adidas campaign.

Of the research the most recognised player was Messi with 13/15 of the participants recognizing him and 2/3 knowing his name as well as recognizing him. He was closely followed by Kaka, Ronaldinho, Christiano Ronaldo and David Beckham. Then the sixth most recognised player is the most accomplished Asian player (by way of major championships won), South Korean Park Ji Sun. Of the participants 7/15recognised him, but only 2/15 knew his name. Other international players were not so well known or recognised.

Most striking from this investigation was none recognised any of the three Chinese players, or had heard their names before.

These results are similar to the one’s a saw in my original questionnaire, of the 50 people I asked only three of them said there favourite player was a Chinese player, the majority (combined 62% of people said their favourite player was either Messi or Christiano Ronaldo), others said various other well-known European or South American players with Kaka coming in at third.

When I asked about C.S.L. players, the majority of people 76% did not have a favourite, mostly due to the fact of not really following it. I think this again goes to show that there are no real Chinese role models for young football players to look up to.

It is not just the case that the children of today do not have any Chinese football role models or heroes. I did a follow up survey of Chinese people between the age of 18 and 30[12], (because it is this age group that would is playing now for the national team) which players they recognised and liked when younger. This time of these not one person mentioned a Chinese player, instead mentioning some of the more world famous European and South American players from that era such as the Italian Roberto Baggio or the Brazilian, Ronaldo.

I think this lack of home grown role models is significant, this is because it is easier to relate to someone from the same background as yourself and imitating the success or the skill of one of these players seems a more realistic proposal.

This is less so as a young child, but as you get older I think it starts to take more of an important role. Due to the act there are no famous Chinese players but a whole host of famous foreign players, people might think that for whatever reason being Chinese is a reason they might never succeed at playing football. So because there is no one else’s lead to follow this discourages progression and development because there is the attitude that I can never play to that high a standard anyway so I will not try to.

Corruption

The Chinese game has long had a history of corruption, with at least three large scandals to hit the Chinese game since the turn of the new millennium. These scandals have been well reported not only in the Chinese media, but also in international media. It even got to the stage that Chinese premier Hu Jintao let it be known he was disappointed[13].

One of the more recent major scandals in 2009 lead to some of the perpetrators being punished[14] and it has still not been decided whether they will receive the death penalty. Amongst those punished was a previously well-respected referee, Lu Jun. He was well respected, not just because of his refereeing performances, but because of his supposed integrity in previous match—fixing scandals[15].

The match-fixing scandals can be compared to similar scandals around the world such as the Italian “Calciopoli” in 2005-2006 with what might be considered similar consequences for the domestic game, the main one being a fall in quality (compared to other leagues), which it has still not fully recovered from. Although the performance of the national team has not been adversely affected, to the extent it won the World Cup in the year of the scandal, 2006.

The scandals have also been similar in the way that they all involve some of the most popular and (perceived by most as) the best teams in the country. These teams include Shanghai Shenhua, who have won the league a twice in it’s short history.

The match fixing which is more often than not connected to illegal gambling rings has been a constant weight around the neck of the Chinese professional football leagues ever since the inception of the league in it’s first form (it was originally called Jia A, not C.S.L.) in 1994. One of the main reasons for the Chinese professional football leagues taking different guises over the years is because of the corruption scandals, with a resultant rebranding meant to disassociate the current (supposedly clean) football league with the past (dirty) versions.

This latest corruption scandal lead to a change in the leadership of the Chinese Football Association (C.F.A.). The new head of the C.F.A., Wei Di, said about corruption in Chinese football, “five years is too short for an overhaul for a sport as big as soccer…Chinese football has degraded to an intolerable level. It has hurt the feelings of fans and Chinese people at large”[16].

Corruption also leads to the commercial viability of the leagues being reduced, this is because sponsors of the league do not want to be associated with match-fixing and cheating, but would obviously prefer to be associated with sporting prowess and achievement. This perhaps is best seen by the terminating of the contract to be the main sponsor of the league in 2011 by the Italian tyre company Pirelli for the reason of not wanting to be associated with such things[17].

Because this corruption is so widely reported, large scale and frequent, the Chinese football league and domestic football as a whole has suffered from a loss of face and a declining reputation.

This declining reputation not only impacts on how people view the domestic game, but also participation in the sport as a recreational activity. I did research into the effect this corruption had on participation in serious organised football (by serious I mean in a proper formal match or training that uses the rules of Association Football).

For this research I talked to parents, because a parent has a lot of control over their young child and can decide whether or not their children can participate in football.

I also talked to football coaches and ex-players that at a younger age considered becoming a professional player. I wanted to find out what, if any influence corruption scandals had on their decisions.

At one football school in Beijng “O’le Fooall School” I talked with parents about what they thought of the corruption in the Chinese game and their children progressing to become professionals. I decided to ask at the football school, because by it’s very nature the parents must have a view about why and how their child plays football[18].

Of the five parents I spoke to I asked all of them what their opinions were on their children playing football and becoming professional players. I asked this question without mentioning corruption. Of the five, one mentioned the corruption saying that they think that they like their child playing to enjoy football and keep fitness levels high, but they would not want their child getting involved in a professional system which they perceive as institutionally corrupt.

Of the other parents, one said they never considered it due to the fact they do not see any chance their child actually becoming good enough to play at a higher level. Of the three other parents, they first replied they like their children getting excersise and learning another skill. Two also mentioned that the idea of playing professional football is a nice one but their children (7-9 year’s old) were still young and so far away from becoming professional they had not really actively thought about it.

To these three parents I then asked, is the issue of corruption big in their minds and how do they feel about it. The three parents replied that it was and, if the system did not change they would be very wary about their child, pursuing this particular career. But they followed it up by saying they are confident that in the future things can change and that when their children would be of a professional age (in about 10 years time), the system might be clean and would therefore see no problem.

None went so far to say they would actively discourage their children from playing football professionally, but at the same time they wouldn’t be altogether too comfortable with their children getting involved in a business which is seemingly controlled by things outside the control of the players and playing staff.

This goes to show that the corruption does have an effect on people taking up the game in a serious way. It is obviously not a problem with their child playing football in general, by the very nature of the fact they send their child to a football school, but the corruption has had an effect on development into playing at a higher level. This I think is one reason why China has failed to produce a good team, because even though the talent might be there it is not being encouraged to come through by a fair system that rewards ability over money.

I also spoke to football coaches. Two of these coaches work for “O’le Soccer School”[19].

The first coach I interviewed at a young age wanted to become a professional football player, but never made it in to a football academy. He complained about the system in china. He said the system is currently “rotten”, he said when he was younger and playing for his high school he had a friend who was talent spotted to play for an academy, but he could not join, because the admissions officer wanted money and his parents could no pay it. He said he thinks it is changing as more multi-national corporations (such as Nike that recently endorsed the C.S.L.) are encouraging better practice, but it is still a rotten system. He said at all levels of the game bribery exists, he said young players are even expected to pay bribe’s to be accepted to the national team. He also added that “It has been this way up to now, but I hope for change”.

I think that the fact players might have to pay bribe’s just to be accepted a centre of excellence goes to show the extent of corruption and that if only players with a certain financial backing regardless of quality can make it, this directly impacts on the quality of the Chinese professional players.

The next coach I spoke to used to be in an academy, he said “Maybe” he could have continued on to become a professional, but he “hated” the “corruption” and also said that he thought the public’s opinion on football had “changed greatly”. He in the end decided to try and teach the next generation to enjoy and respect football, hoping the future would be different.

The coaches confirm what the parents think, they also not only think but have witnessed in real life the effect of corruption on the Chinese football system.

This corruption can go a long way artificially lower standards, because it leads to professional players not having to be as good as they might have to be if it was a perfectly competitive system due to the fact it is not only down to performances that results decided so the incentive of training to win is not as strong.

Conclusion:

There are many reasons for China’s footballing standard not being very high. There are some reason’s I have not even talked about such as investment in Chinese football compared to elsewhere in the world, or the fact the government run football as a port in China but I looked at what I regarded as the most important issues.

I think China has the potential to win the World Cup in years to come, but I understand why it has not done so until now. I would say football up until now has largely been regarded by the masses as an activity or entertainment but not a sport. I think this is reflected by the fact a lot of people play football, but not many play football seriously. Also many people like to watch it, but if these same people do not then go out to play football it of course has no effect on the quality of the nations footballers.

I think one of the main reasons for such a low participation in serious football is a lack of Chinese role models, not only now, but throughout history. If all the players people watch on T.V. and admire are from abroad and come from completely different situations it is difficult to relate to them. It then might seem like because one is Chinese then playing football to a higher standard is unrealistic especially when there are so many other Chinese sports people that could be role models to follow such as basketball player Yao Ming or Runner Liu Xiang.

Of the players that do play seriously, or at least have the intention of playing seriously, the training system let’s them down. The training techniques are old and not suited to the modern game. It is fine in China to have this training that revolves around physicality and stamina, but once playing outside of China, as has been shown countless times in history the tactics fall a long way short of the mark. Chinese tactics have stood still and have fallen even further behind the rest of the world.

Even when some players manage to make it to a professional standard despite all of these limiting factors, if ultimately results are determined by corruption then this acts to artificially lower standards due to the lack of incentive of playing well (because it will not effect the outcome). This also acts as a hindrance on the international stage when corruption has no influence.

So to sum-up and China’s failure not just to win the World Cup, but also to qualify for it on a lot of occasions, you have to take into account all the reasons and how they interlink. Without doing this and realising the problems are interlinked then the reasons for persistent failure cannot be properly understood.

 

Bibliography:

The Editors, “Where Are China’s Soccer Stars?”, New York Times, June 2010, http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/29/where-are-chinas-soccer-stars/,  (15.03.2011)

Unknown person representing F.I.F.A., “GOAL Programme – Chinese Football Association – 2009”, F.I.F.A., http://www.fifa.com/associations/association=chn/goalprogramme/index.html, (17.03.2011)

FIFA Communications Division, FIFA Big Count 2006: 270 million people active in football, Zurich: F.I.F.A., 2006

Unknown I.O.C. representative, “Medals Table”, B.B.C., http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/hi/olympics/medals_table/default.stm, (02.04.2011)

Fu Yayu傅亚雨, Hai Jue Rang Guo Ao Lianhong “港脚让国奥脸红”, Yundong Zhoubao 2264 (2010): 1.

Sun Wei孙卫, Suoyou Zhongguo Zuqiuren Dou Gai Fansi 所有中国足球人都该反思, Yundong Zhoubao 2264 (2010) 4

Mulvenney, Nick, “China game hampered by lack of base”, Reuters, http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/06/23/china-soccer-idUSPEK7913220080623, (13.04.2011)

Unknown F.I.F.A. representative, “China claims Development honour”, F.I.F.A., http://www.fifa.com/classicfootball/awards/gala/news/newsid=1149937.html, (13.04.2011)

Bristow, Michael, “Sponsors desert Chinese football”, B.B.C., http://www. bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-12936084, (04.04.2011)

Unknown journalist, “China chief ‘hurt’ by match-fixing arrest of ‘golden’ ref”, Reuters, http://af.reuters.com/article/sportsNews/idAFJOE62G00H20100317?pageNumber=1&virtualBrandChannel=0, (19.04.2011)

Unknown author, “New boss vows to revive China’s football in 5 years”, China Daily, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/sports/2010-02/02/content_9417417.htm, (16.04.2011)

Yue, Tang, “Three football association officials fired”, China Daily, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2010-01/23/content_9366272.htm, (16.04.2011)

Grammaticas, Damian, “Two football teams relegated from China’s Super League”, B.B.C., http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8527889.stm, (04.04.2011)

Simons, Rowan. Bamboo Goalposts: One Man’s Quest to Teach the People’s Republic of China to Love Football. London: Macmillan U.K., 2008

Wolfram Manzenreiter and John Horne. Football Goes East: Business, Culture and the people’s game in China Japan and South Korea. Oxford: Routeledge U.K., 2004

James Riordan and Robin E. Jones. Sport and Physical Education in China. London: E and FN Spon U.K., 1999

Xu, Guoqi. Olympic Dreams: China and Sports 1895-2008. Harvard: Harvard University Press U.S.A., 2008

[1] Chinese attitudes towards football questionnaire, in Appendix

[2] The Editors, “Where Are China’s Soccer Stars?”, New York Times, June 2010, http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/29/where-are-chinas-soccer-stars/,  (15.03.2011)

[3] Unknown person representing F.I.F.A., “GOAL Programme – Chinese Football Association – 2009”, F.I.F.A., http://www.fifa.com/associations/association=chn/goalprogramme/index.html, (17.03.2011)

[4] FIFA Communications Division, FIFA Big Count 2006: 270 million people active in football, Zurich: F.I.F.A., 2006

[5] Unknown I.O.C. representative, “Medals Table”, B.B.C., http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/hi/olympics/medals_table/default.stm, (02.04.2011)

[6] Fu Yayu傅亚雨, Hai Jue Rang Guo Ao Lianhong “港脚让国奥脸红”, Yundong Zhoubao 2264 (2010): 1

[7] Sun Wei孙卫, Suoyou Zhongguo Zuqiuren Dou Gai Fansi 所有中国足球人都该反思, Yundong Zhoubao 2264 (2010) 4

[8] Youth development interview, in Appendix

[9] Nick Mulvenney, “China game hampered by lack of base”, Reuters, http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/06/23/china-soccer-idUSPEK7913220080623, (13.04.2011)

[10] Unknown F.I.F.A. representative, “China claims Development honour”, F.I.F.A., http://www.fifa.com/classicfootball/awards/gala/news/newsid=1149937.html, (13.04.2011)

[11] Player recognition, in Appendix

[12] Player recognition, follow up, in Appendix

[13]Damian Grammaticas, “Two football teams relegated from China’s Super League”, B.B.C., http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8527889.stm, (04.04.2011)

[14] Damian Grammaticas, “Two football teams relegated from China’s Super League”, B.B.C., http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8527889.stm, (04.04.2011)

[15] Unknown journalist, “China chief ‘hurt’ by match-fixing arrest of ‘golden’ ref”, Reuters, http://af.reuters.com/article/sportsNews/idAFJOE62G00H20100317?pageNumber=1&virtualBrandChannel=0, (19.04.2011)

[16] Unknown author, “New boss vows to revive China’s football in 5 years”, China Daily, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/sports/2010-02/02/content_9417417.htm, (16.04.2011)

[17]Michael Bristow, “Sponsors desert Chinese football”, B.B.C., http://www. bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-12936084, (04.04.2011)

[18] Effects of corruption investigation, in Appendix

[19] Football coach effects of corruption investigation, in Appendix

Midweek takeaway

Guangzhou Evergrande applause in Kashima
That performance deserves a second-round of applause.

This week was the saw the second legs of the second round matches in the Asian Champions League, prior to kick-off it looked like two Chinese representatives would be in the quarter finals as opposed to the guaranteed one.

Tuesday saw Guangzhou Evergrande visiting Kashima with a first leg 1-0 lead. A 1-0 lead obviously gave Guangzhou the advantage, but with only a narrow lead, they were well aware a trip to the Japanese champions was not going to be easy, particularly since they have struggled away in this years competition.

The game started in an open manner with Kashima Antlers knowing they had to score at least one and Guangzhou knowing that any goal they scored would leave Kashima having to win by two, due to Kashima’s failure to register an away goal. After an exchange of chances the home side took the lead with a very well placed strike strike from outside the box by Brazilian import Pedro Junior, even after Guangzhou’s best efforts to bring him down. Following this the game maintained in the same vein, Guanzghou knowing a goal would mean Kashima would need to score two more, Kashima also knew a another goal would settle things down for them as well. For the rest of the half both teams came close but did not add to the score line.

It appears Big Phil Scolari’s half time team talk was effective as going in the second half Guangzhou looked a lot brighter an were having the better of the play. Within ten minutes another Brazilian, Paulinho got the leveller, with the corresponding display of joy and relief that getting crucial away goal usually brings. The goal was by no means picture-esque with the ball being bundled in after series of errors, but as the old saying goes they all count and this goal according to another phrase counted double. From then on Guanghou were a lot more comfortable and had the best of the rest of the rest of the half. However, in the second minute of stoppage time the home grown Kanazaki scored a very well taken goal to give the home side a modicum of hope. However, it was too little too late and despite losing on the night, Guangzhou went through on away goals.

Paulinho celebrating vs Kashima
That’s magic, I just turned one goal in to two

Wednesday saw the second leg of the all Chinese match up with the struggling Jiangsu Suning hosting the in-form Shanghai SIPG. Last week Shanghai SIPG had got a well deserved 2-1 win and were firm favourites going in to the second leg, on account of Jiangsu’s domestic season failing to have got going. Jiangsu would need to display some of their AFC champions League form in double helpings if they were to even think about turning round the result.

The game was fairly open, with Jiangsu coming close on a few occasions, but it was the visitors that broke the deadlock. Brazilian import Elkeson took advantage of a mix up between the Jiangsu defence and goalkeeper to slip the ball in to the net. It was a cheeky and opportunistic but well taken strike, but with the score standing at three one on aggregate, it was then a long way back for Jiangsu. To add insult to injury Shanghai got a second at the end of the first half via an own goal, it was one of those brilliant own goals in which it looked like the defender did everything he could to guide the ball in in as emphatic a manner as possible. Aside from the fact home defeat looked inevitable, it effectively put an end to Jiangsu’s Champions League, now needing a four goal swing.

Teixeira Elkeson Champions LEague
No caption needed

Never the less in the second half Jiangsu kept pushing and getting close, eventually pulling one back via a header from Korean Hong JeongHo with quarter of an hour to go. Following this there was the inevitable kitchen sink throwing, but they had to wait to stoppage time to get a second consolation goal to level things on the night with another header, this time from captain Wu Xi. However, the last laugh belonged to Shanghai as their in form talisman Hulk made a characteristic power run through the entire Jiangsu defensive line and slotted home, to add to his scrap book of fine goals from his time in China.

In summary, if a Chinese team are to be crowned kings of Asia this was the ideal set of results, with the seemingly ever reliable Guangzhou doing a job against one of the pre-tournament favourites. It is probably also for the best that Shanghai made it through in place of Jiangsu as Shanghai are the in-form Chinese team and it would be a stretch to see Jiangsu successfully manoeuvring through three more games against top quality teams.

Whether or not the Chinese teams are capable of winning the competition is as yet unclear, but in a quarter-final which will see both of them play teams from Japan, or each other I would be surprised not to see at least one Chinese representative in the semi-finals. They are definitely capable of being the best representative from East-Asia, but due to the peculiarities of the competition, will not meet a middle-eastern team until the final, of which I am not sure of the quality.

All that’s left is the prawn cracker and for sure this again goes to Hulk, a lovely bit f skill to start off the move followed by a devastating run and equally decent finish. Enjoy.

Jiangsu Suning vs Shanghai SIPG 2-3 Shanghai SIPG
You know my style

A matter of principles

Hu Jin Tao with kids
You’re in

As everyone is aware, there has been a huge sea change taking place in Chinese football over the past two years which has catapulted the Chinese Super League (CSL) in to one of the biggest spenders and most reported upon leagues in the world.

As with other types of development, with any significant change in conditions there needs to be a corresponding change in policy to keep the development relevant and efficient. The Chinese Football Association (CFA) has realised this and has tried to shape the rapid development of the sport inside it’s own territory accordingly. This has lead to numerous significant changes in the rules governing the professional game over the past year or so.

It is of course important to first understand the ultimate goals which supposedly guide the development of football and the change in it’s surrounding policy. As ever in China, the governing Communist Party are central to what’s going on and in this light the government’s publication of a plan for development just over a year ago is widely seen as the motivation behind the ramping up of commercial activity. This plan laid down a road map for development over the short, medium and long term (up to 2050), however, the ultimate goal is for China to win the World Cup.

Following this publication, there has been a huge influx of foreign talent in to the CSL which has changed the face of the League from a one which consisted of domestic players and unknown/over-the-hill foreign players to one which boasts some of the most well known players in the world in the peak of their career. The reasons for this are numerous, but it does tie in with the governments plan for development, including the commercial development of the football industry. It is also widely seen as a way for wealthy club owning groups to curry favour with the government by getting behind the plan and as a way by the same groups to improve publicity.

FORMER ENGLAND MIDFIELDER PAUL GASCOIGNE WITH A TEAMMATE OF GANSU TIANMA IN LANZHOU
No country for old men

However, I think understandably, the CFA judged spending record-breaking amounts on bringing in foreign talent is not the right way to go about developing a national team capable of winning the World Cup.

To this end, prior to the beginning of this CSL season the CFA introduced two sets of regulations to come in to immediate effect to redirect development to suit it’s goals. These pieces of regulation followed two principles, one which is to increase the proportion of domestic players, the other to improve youth development.

One piece changed the rule that teams are only allowed to field three non-Chinese (PR China) players in any one game. This dropped it down from the four previously in effect (if four international players, one had to be from another Asian country). The other rule change was the more interesting for me which was that every team had to have an under-23 in their starting line-up in an effort to boost youth development.

Since then we have seen that even if foreign players are slightly fewer, their influence has not really decreased. The best players in the CSL are still international and they form most of the attacking force on show, scoring a disproportionate amount of the goals. We have also seen that clubs are continuing to outspend each other to attract this talent.

The rule change to encourage the use of under-23 players has also not had it’s intended consequences with the common sight of the only young player being substituted off soon after kick-off in a blatant attempt to circumvent the rules.

So, in response to a rule a change which didn’t seem to make much difference, the CFA last week came out with yet another rule change, to come in to effect next season. The rules are somewhat of an extension of those from six months ago, particularly in regards to the principle of youth development, although these seem far more drastic and to my knowledge are unprecedented in their extent.

One relates to foreign players bought in and says that any club making a loss (all but two teams in the CSL) has to match the transfer fees they pay for this talent with investment in it’s youth development schemes. The other states that the amount of foreign players on the pitch for each team has to be matched by under-23 players.

So what effect will these rulings have?

In much the same way as we saw before, I think clubs will try their best to circumvent the rules.

For instance, looking at the rule to match investment in foreign players, with investment in youth development. Despite the fact most of the clubs have very wealthy backers, this rule to effectively double transfer fees will likely create an unacceptable cost for these clubs, if this was the case Shanhai SIPG would have forked out over £100 million on youth development in return for Hulk and Oscar’s services. However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a whole load of players moving to China on free transfers or on loan, which of course don’t have transfer fees. I can also envisage other accounting tricks to get around these rules, such as delaying payment to clubs for payers, “investment” agreements between Chinese clubs and foreign clubs which are proxies for transfer fees or possibly players being owned by third parties and “rented” to Chinese clubs. All this means I am very dubious that the biggest clubs will make youth investment equivalent to a new Etihad campus every two years.

Etihad campus
That’ll cost you a Hulk, a Tevez, a Teixeira and an Oscar.

The rule about playing under-23s seems to be a lot more difficult to circumvent, as the young players cannot be substituted off without also removing foreign players. What happens when an under-23 leaves the pitch through injury or a sending off though is unclear.

But this is the rule which could be the most significant and have a large amount of unintended consequences. For instance, as previously mentioned teams are likely to continue to play their maximum quota of international players (three), this then means that at least three under-23s will have to be on the pitch at any one time, thus meaning teams may possibly only field four over-23 domestic players in a game. This could then quite easily lead to a drop in the average level of domestic player as better quality elder players will be dropped for worse younger ones and the strange situation where by a player that is reaching maturity will actually decrease in value as there is no room for them in the first team.

This of course could have a very big effect on the national team’s progression because if for arguments sake each CSL fields only four over-23s each week, that gives the China national team a choice of only sixty four players, as opposed to the 112 it currently has (they are likely to be better than the under-23s). Common sense suggests the more players of higher quality there are to choose from the better will be the international team, which if you use the old adage, “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough” does not discriminate against players of any age. So, far from the well-intended aim of improving the national team going forward by enforcing participation by under-23s, this ruling could hinder the team going forward.

Why might it be the case that such rulings got passed? One accusation often passed against the CFA is that the people at the top do not have a football background. Most are officials who have had experience in other domains and so cannot deliver insights which are suitable for football. Now I am not saying that they need to bring in a whole group of Chinese football old boys, particularly given Chinese football’s past problems with corruption, but the aid of people who know what it’s like on the coal face would definitely be beneficial. They should also seek more top level guidance from foreign FAs and experts which have overseen similar development initiatives such as the Japanese or South Koreans.

In terms of alternative rule changes that I think could be more beneficial, something to encourage more domestic attackers would fit the bill. As I already mentioned, the vast majority of foreign players are attackers and going forward there could be a shortage of domestic attackers of an international quality. For instance a rule which says that a team can only field one international player in each position in a game (ie. one defender, one midfielder and one striker) would stop the skew of domestic players to the more defensive positions.

Germany World Cup
It worked for us

A ruling similar to that in Germany post Euro 2000 to require all clubs to have a fully operational youth academy in a properly funded league, with quotas of local players could also better aid the future development of players going forward. After all, it worked for Germany, which won the World Cup only fourteen years later.

To finish off, although we cannot see the future, there is good reason to suspect the recent rule change is a bit of an oversight and may not actually achieve what it was meant for. Indeed, if the rule change stays in place (which it may not do) over a few years there may be negative unintended consequences. Although I do not have all the answers, a slight rethink in principles about the best way to develop wouldn’t go amiss and may make the World Cup dream that bit more attainable.

Asian Takeaway

 

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Those Chinese, they always stick to their own

I decided to do an Asian takeaway tonight for two main reasons, the first and main one is to take my mind off what happened in Stockholm tonight and also because I knew it would be brief.

So just to remind ourselves, all three Chinese qualifiers in to the AFC Asian Champions League group stage made it through their groups, in to the second round. However, it was only Jiangsu Suning, who are grossly underperforming that finished top. Both Guangzhou Evergrande and Shanghai SIPG qualified in second position, with varying degrees of difficulty.

It’s fair to say from a Chinese perspective the big match of the round was the all China clash between Jiangsu Suning and Shanghai SIPG. This was the first time there has ever been an all-China clash in the completion and is testament to the progress made by Chinese clubs over the last decade when even a single club getting through the group stage would be considered a success.

In the first leg Shanghai SIPG were at home and although Shanghai were going in to the games as favourites, the AVB lead team knew how important making home advantage count is. After all, AVB delivered European success with FC Porto.

The game set off with a very high tempo with Jiangsu and Shanghai trading blows. Jiangsu had the better of the chances in the opening exchange and the after only eight minutes, after coming very close on a few occasions, they scored the opener. Columbian import Roger Martinez took advantage of a disorganised Shanghai backline and fired a venomous shot in to the back of the net. This made up for a sitter he had missed minutes earlier (also after organisational errors in the Shanghai backline).

Shanghai Ahmedov and co
“I’ll take you all on”

This goal must have convinced a lot of fans that Jiangsu were going to carry on their brilliant Champions League form, however, it is true in general, if you are going to go behind, the earlier the better. Shanghai, immediately were on the hunt for an equaliser and as has so often been the case this season, they looked to their talismanic powerhouse Hulk to guide them. As has been shown so often this season, Hulk is too much of a handful for most defences in Asia. The Jiangsu defence faired no better.

On the turn of the half hour Hulk was bought down in the box after escaping his marker and was awarded a penalty. Hulk, instead of the usual Shanghai penalty taker, Oscar stepped up and in typical Shearer style smashed it in, replays show the keeper got a hand to it, but with the power used, there was no way the ball was not ending up in the net.

A few minutes later, Hulk struck a lovely volley from a very awkward cross, but as the old saying goes, he almost hit it too well, too crisply as the Jiangsu keeper parried it over. But on the stroke of half time, Hulk, set up Shanghai’s second, after a few stopovers, which seemed to take four Jiangsu defenders out the game, a cross from the by-line connected with Uzbek Ahmedov’s head which in turn guided the ball in to the net (even if it he was unaware of it). The whistle for the first half could barely be heard beyond the celebrations.

The second half was less gung ho, preservation of the lead seemed to be Shanghai’s priority, Jiangsu also failed to click as they had in the first half. Although Shanghai had the better of the chances no more goals were scored as the game finished 2-1.

The previous day saw Guangzhou Evergrande play host to Japanese side Kashima Antlers. The situation was the same for Guanzghou as for Shanghai, they knew without a lead to take away, progression could be very difficult. So from the whistle they came out attacking. Kashima’s game plan was clearly a containing one and for all intents and purposes looked like they would be quite happy with a draw, or possibly to nick one if the opportunity arose. In the first half this though this opportunity did not arise as Guangzhou battered the Kashima, but at half time there was still nothing to show for it.

Paulinho V
Paulinho’s right 2-0 would have been better

I imagine both sides half time talk was “more of the same” as after the break the game picked up from where it had left off. However, it seemed not to be Guangzhou’s day as near miss followed near miss. But, eventually, with fifteen minutes left Paulinho managed to get on the end of a corner that seemed to just miss the whole of the Kashima defence and guide it in to the net. This was to be the only goal of the game as Guangzhou took the win 1-0.

Of the three Chinese teams I think it is difficult to say which one came out the best, obviously Guangzhou and Shanghai will be pleased with their victories, but playing at home they may be annoyed that they did not get bigger winning margins, as both Kashima and Jiangsu (respectively) are quite capable of turning these deficits around at home. Jiangsu on the other hand although losing will be heartened by their away goal and certainly know they are still in with a decent shout.

In terms of other observations, it appears a Shanghai with Hulk will give most teams a run for their money, however, what happens if Hulk is injured or played out the game will be good to see. It also seems to me that in order for ay Chinese team to win the tournament, they will need to improve a lot defensively, as numerous mistakes went unpunished (some were punished as well), a better, sharper opposition could really have made the Chinese teams pay this week.

All that’s left is the prawn cracker and with very little to chose from it has to be this from Roger Martinez.

Shanghai SIPG vs Jiangsu Suning 0-1 Jiangsu Suning
The prawn crackers were a bit off this week