Archive for March, 2019

Derby Days, the Beijing Way

Sunday, March 31st, 2019

Beijing Renhe 0-1 Beijing Guo’an
Chinese Super League @ Fengtai Stadium
Admission 150 Yuan (About £17), attendance 22376

Tickets went on sale about a week before the game. I asked my wife to help with the Chinese part of the web site, but she struggled with the site and decided to call a friend for tickets.

When four days later, he said he could not get them – because it was an away game for Guo’an, and this friend could only get us into Guo’an games for free, I again tried to get through the web site and again we ended up calling on a different friend.


After much confusion, I eventually discovered he had managed to secure three tickets from two different sources. Both sets were free of charge, although showing 150 Yuan as face value. I said I thought the west side of the ground would be better, and our friend sold the spares outside the ground at 50 Yuan each.

As so many tickets get out from the clubs without charge, it is apparently rare in China to not be able to buy from a tout outside the ground, and equally rare if you have to go as high as face value.


The ground is easily enough reachable from the city centre, as it is close to a metro station. It is a large bowl with running track and a single tier of seats all around. This tier is quite small behind the goals and gains height on each side. On the west side, there the number of rows is far greater than those opposite. A small amount of cover protects only the back rows of the stand and had it been a wet day, the majority in the ground would have felt it.

In fact, it was bright and sunny, but still cold and with a stiff wind blowing from the north. On the west side, we seemed relatively protected, but opposite, we would have had the sun in our faces, and yet the wind chill may still have made us colder.


The talk this season in China is of naturalised players. A few clubs have signed players with Chinese ancestry, and who agreed to take up Chinese citizenship (and hence become eligible for the National team). Beijing Guo’an were one of the clubs taking advantage of the idea with two signings, Hou Souter from Norwegian club Stabaek, (not listed as Hou Yongyong) and Nico Yennaris from Brentford (now to be known as Li Ke Yennaris). By playing in the pre-season Super Cup, Souter was the first naturalised player to play in China. Yennaris has also had a spell with Wycombe Wanderers and played on my last visit there. Yennaris is a product of the modern world, with a Chinese mother, a Cypriot father, he was born in England and has played for England’s age group teams. Souter has played for Norwegian youth teams

Shanghai Shenhua then got in the act by naturalising Alexander N’Doumbou. N’Doumbou (now to be known as Qian Jiehei) came from the Bulgarian league with previous experience in the lower divisions in Belgium and France, but notably he has also played three internationals for Gabon. This means he cannot represent China at international level.

So, they day before the league season was to start, the Chinese FA did not make an official announcement that no naturalised players would be allowed to play in the first two rounds. This is enough to bring out complaints on (Chinese) social media from supporters, but the clubs meekly obey the rule.

Nico Yennaris – number 23 green.

Not surprisingly, none of the naturalised players were included in the Chinese international squad, (although one assumes, they will be considered in June, to give a run out before World Cup qualification starts in the autumn).

Again, without announcement, it became clear this week that the naturalised players were now eligible. Guo’an decided not to include Souter for the derby match, but gave a debut to Yennaris.

The ground was about two thirds full, with sections left empty for no specific reason considering that many areas of the ground were mixed home and away fans. The visiting fans were easily in the majority. There is a fair amount of singing all around, with the biggest concentration of Guo’an fans (and therefore of noise) in the south west area. In such an open bowl, the noise is soon lost. I did not notice what they were singing at first, but my boy pointed out the chants included some “rude words”.



The home team played in 4-4-2 with the Senegalese player Makhete Diop leading the forward line. Sone Aluko (on loan from Reading) started as the other forward but for most of the time he dropped back and the youngster, Cao Yongjing played in a forward position. Their third foreigner was Argentine international Augusto Fernandez, signed last year from Atletico Madrid.

Having been more of a 4-3-3 against Urawa when I saw them in the Champions League, Guo’an were to play 4-4-2 in this game with no place for Bakambu, who had done so much to keep the previous game 0-0 (not much praise when we are talking of a forward). In his place, the captain, Yu Dubao switched from the centre of defence to partner Zhang Yuning up front. Zhang is best known for not playing for West Brom, but has had a good spell in Netherlands football. He still makes it into the team as an u-23 player this season as well.

Jonathan Viera and Renato Augusto were the wide players and the key to most of the visitor’s attacks, Viera easily being the most impressive player on view. Yennaris took up a defensive midfield position (last time I saw him play, he was at right back), while Kim min-jae reprised the role he had taken against Urawa in the back line.

Guo’an had won their first two games without conceding, Renhe had lost two, without scoring. I was therefore expecting 0-0.

Guo’an soon started to dominate proceedings, but could find few openings against a packed defence. Shortly before the break Viera made a foray into the area and was brought down as he turned, Yu Dabao was charged with taking the penalty and tamely played it to the home keeper. He made amends just after the hour mark with a powerful header from a Li Lei cross to put Guo’an ahead.

Renhe responded by immediately bringing Zhu Baojie into the fray. He replaced Cao, which basically changed the formation to 4-5-1. Zhu looked like a flair player, but very slight and easily knocked off the ball. I took him for a youngster who might have a future if he could gain some strength as he progressed. Then when I looked him up, I found out he was 29 years old.

in fact, Renhe started with two U-23 players in the team, meaning they only needed to play one more from the bench to make quota. This was their final substitution, and in the 77th minute. Guo’an had made only one change by this time, taking off the tiring Zhang Yuning (and therefore also going 4-5-1). As Yuning was the only U-23 player in the starting XI, (and rules state there must be at least one), then the substitute policy is very limiting. Instead of bringing on a player who might have threatened to increase the lead, they had to play two youngsters, who came on after 84 and 89 minutes. They therefore spent the end of the game defending a lead against a poor attacking force as they no longer had the players on the field to make their own attack

Infantino in a hurry

Saturday, March 30th, 2019

It seems that Gianni Infantino is a man in a hurry, determined to make his mark on World Football. He was catapulted into a job that he could never expected to take, because his boss at UEFA was caught up in the corruption scandals before he could take over at FIFA himself. Platini’s fall from grace, over a payment from Blatter that he protests was legitimate comes with the feeling, as when Al Capone when jailed for tax evasion, that the whole story was not out in the open.

Infantino is armed with a gift from the gods, a promise of a $25 billion windfall that FIFA can then distribute to countries and clubs at their discretion. The actual sources of the money are less than clear, forcing FIFA to deny suggestions that the money was coming from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. They still have not revealed what the actual source of funds will be.

These phenomenal sums are not meant as a gift for the good of football. The consortium promising the money will claim the broadcast rights and other privileges in order to recoup their investment.

In order to unlock the money, Infantino there needs to be something new to show for it. Something that can be broadcast to billions across the world and allow the investors to recoup on their investments. Much of the rights to the World Cup itself are already tied up, so this cannot be gifted in this way.

While FIFA has a number of tournaments under its belt, only two types can really bring in the cash – because only two types of tournament bring together a large number of the star players. One of these is the World Cup, while the other should be a World Club championship. The variety of youth and women’s tournaments are actually more for the good of the game than the love of money, although you could wonder about add-ons such as Futsal, Beach Football and even e-Sports being under FIFA’s ever larger umbrella.

FIFA has been tried before to increase the frequency of the World Cup, so as it would be every second year, rather than every four years. Despite the obvious income this could make, especially for countries from the smaller confederations, it has been knocked back. It appeared that many of FIFA’s members actual see the benefit in the gap between competitions, which creates a greater amount of excitement each time the tournament comes around. Also, it has to be remembered that the preliminaries in some continents start three years before the final tournaments, which would clearly create a problem for a more frequent competition. You might get the case that some teams were already out of the qualification competition for 2024 before the finals in 2022 commenced.

FIFA does have its mini World Cup, the Confederations Cup. The last of these took place in 2017 as a preparation tournament for the full World Cup in Russia a year later. It is ignored to a great extent by those who are not involved – I cannot recall the 2017 final from memory at all, while I was glued to the TV for the World Cup final a year later. One can be sure, that even if England are defeated in the semi-final, the final of the new European Nations League in June will get a greater TV audience in Britain than the 2017 Confederations Cup final managed. For 2021, it appears impractical to play a Confederations Cup in Qatar with the switch to a winter World Cup and so it appears that there will not be a 2021 version. If FIFA decide that it will in fact take place, it is likely to be played elsewhere.

FIFA have got agreement to extend the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams, (23% of membership), despite their amazing decision to still only give the strongest confederation, UEFA 16 places in this set up (UEFA have 29 clubs ranked in the top 48 of FIFA rankings).

The comparative number of slots agreed for the 48-team World Cup is (with those in the 32-team cup in parenthesis). UEFA 16 (13), Africa 9 (5), Asia 8 (4.5), CONCACAF 6 (3.5), CONMEBOL 6 (4.5) and Oceania 1 (0.5). The 0.5s in the old list refer to the two intercontinental play-offs, while the old total adds up to 31 – the last one being the host, which is outside the slots’ allocation. In other words, for 2018, UEFA actually had 14 as Russia is a UEFA member. Despite the fact the hosts will come out of the continental allocation, the new total is only 46. FIFA had to think up another gimmick for the final two places. One team from each Confederation, except UEFA, plus one from the host confederation will take part in a simple competition to decide the last two places. This has provisionally been planned to be played in the host nation about 3 months before the finals (in the March international window). There is a precedent for holding a neutral qualifier in the host country. When FIFA decided to accept a late application from the USA for the 1934 World Cup in Italy, the qualification has already been completed. Mexico having beaten Cuba three times, all at home. FIFA decided that a Mexico v USA game would take place in Rome on 24 June 1934. The USA won 4-2 with Aldo Donelli scoring all the goals. The 1934 World Cup was a straight knock out competition, and three days after the Mexico game, Donelli scored again for the USA in Rome – but on this occasion his team lost 7-1 to Italy.

FIFA do not consider (or at least publish) a comparative table of federations, in the same way as UEFA maintains a table of the comparative performances of club teams from each country in their competitions. Using a formula similar to that used by UEFA, with a bonus point added for the winner of every knock out game, (but not the 3rd/4th play-off), the comparative performances are shown in this graph for every word cup from 1950. The FIFA line shows the average of all countries – so those federations with scores consistently above the line (i.e. UEFA and CONMEBOL) should have more entries, which would push their relative score down, assuming that extra entries ae comparatively weak. Those below the line (i.e. the rest) will not improve their lot by having more teams involved.

FIFA can argue that increasing the number from each continent gives more impetus to develop the game in these regions, but this study shows no evidence of this having an effect. The African line reached a peak with two countries in 1990, and increasing numbers since have not seen a gradual rise back towards this level. The African line should be particularly disappointing, as the number of players qualified to play for African nations, but playing in major European leagues has increased massively since 1990, but this has not reflected back on their national teams.

The counter argument could be that increasing UEFA or CONMEBOL would boost the game in the less developed football nations (and Scotland) in those federations. This is open to debate, with 52% of the players in the World Cup 2018 plying their trade in football competitions in just five European countries. In order of number of participants, the five are England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France.

At the March meeting, FIFA deferred the decision on whether Qatar 2022 would be a 32 or 48 team competition, allowing Qatar to talk to potential joint hosts to obtain additional stadia. Infantino really wants to increase the numbers for 2022, despite the fact it is neither sensible or practical. Asian qualifying was scheduled to start on the same day as the decision is now to be made, and it is unclear whether this first round will go ahead as planned.

Beyond the World Cup, the latest idea for a new World Competition would be to extend the Nations League from Europe (where it has had one edition) and CONCACAF (where it is due to start later this year), so as it became a Worldwide festival. Infantino was involved (mainly as administration) in setting up the Nations League in Europe, but when it came down to it, no one has been able to explain how a World Nations League would work. The most likely and plausible format would be to create a Premier Division with worldwide groups. The teams in these groups would not play a similar competition within their own confederation.

At four groups of four, this could be lucrative. It would, of course (if based on current rankings), only involve teams from UEFA (11) and CONMEBOL (5). An alternative would be eight groups of three. The top 24 rankings currently include 15 UEFA teams, along with 6 from CONMEBOL, and one each from CONCACAF (Mexico, 17), Asia (Iran, 22) and Africa (Senegal, 24). So, it is probable that only Oceania would miss out. The real difficulty is how to arrange the continental Nations Leagues to create a fair promotion and relegation structure, and how to fit in these matches into the busy football calendar.

The other point is that not all Federations have taken the Nations League idea on board. The European formula is not a practical proposition in CONMEBOL (because it only has ten members), or Oceania (11), while both Africa and Asia may see it as impractical, giving the logistics of travelling around their continents. Even within CONCACAF, travel can be a problem. Many Caribbean Islands do not have direct air links to each other. When I travelled from Martinique, after seeing them against Antigua and Barbuda, I found that there was a group of CONCACAF officials returning to base on my flight. I was heading to Sint Maarten, and although I did not have to change planes, I suffered the inconvenience of a 90-minute stopover in Guadeloupe, where we had to deplane and wait in an area with no facilities. The CONCACAF group also had a short stop in Sint Maarten, before the plane continued to Puerto Rico, and then had to change planes to get to CONCACAF headquarters in Miami.

The World Club Championship is also an idea that has not yet been realised. Certainly, there is a seven-team festival every December, scheduled in such a way as to make sure the bigger teams do not get to play too many matches. So not only did the big two, River Plate and Real Madrid only play two games each, but with this squeezed into a busy schedule of matches. As a result, River Plate decided to start their semi-final with only four members of the team that played the final of the Copa Libertadores nine days earlier. It was a mistake and they fell to defeat on penalties. Real Madrid made no mistakes with wins over Kashima Antlers and Al-Ain to take the trophy.

The current tournament was born of an original series of matches between the European Cup/Champions League winners, and the equivalents from the Copa Libertadores. Spanish teams have taken exactly half the titles since the current series started in 2005, (Real 4, Barca 3), which in turn demonstrates Spanish dominance of European competition in that time. European teams (Bayern, Inter, AC Milan and Manchester United) have taken four more titles, leaving only three for the South Americans, all heading in the direction of Brazil (Sao Paulo, Internacional, Corinthians).

The revised format for the tournament is to have 24 teams. Eight from UEFA, six from CONMEBOL, three each from Asia, Africa and CONCACAF and a single entrant from Oceania. Although one can question the allocations, one always can with FIFA, the actual idea is sound. At the March meeting, FIFA decided to bring this competition for 2021, squeezing it into an already busy schedule for the summer, even if it is without a Confederations Cup. UEFA have objected vehemently, and have said that no European team will take part. The mysterious consortium putting up the money must be aghast at this prospect. Eight clubs from Europe are required to make this project work, and the investors would really like more Europeans. A good few CONMEBOL clubs are needed in the mix, but they want Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern and Juventus, plus some top British clubs to make it a success. If the Europeans do boycott the whole affair, then they are not going to be able to recoup their investment at all. After all, how big a TV audience is going to tune in to see how easily Sao Paulo can beat Auckland City?

UEFA themselves are not entirely against the project, but they do not think it should start until 2025, allowing for a completely revised calendar to be drawn up. As it is, there are international dates in the first week of June, and the CONCACAF Gold Cup scheduled throughout July. There is an African Cup of Nations that summer as well, although dates have not been fixed as yet. The African championships were switched from January to the summer from the 2019 tournament, under pressure from FIFA and UEFA. This leaves Asia as the only confederation that uses the January dates, and they are changeable. The last three Asia titles, UAE 2019, Australia 2015 and Qatar 2011 were all in January, while the two before that, South East Asia 2007 and China 2004 were both in the summer. For the next tournament, AFC has not yet chosen between the Chinese and South Korean bids, but either way, there will be a return to a summer tournament for 2023.

At the moment, both FIFPro (the players’ union) and the ECA (European Clubs Association) have come out against the idea. FIFPro’s plea that new tournaments should only be considered as part of a reorganisation of football’s calendars. The dislike of the idea is not unanimous. La Liga president Javier Tebas has publicly welcomed them, although this was part of a tirade against what he believes is a secretive plot by UEFA and the ECA to change the format of the Champions League, so as groups are of eight teams and matches take place at the weekends, as opposed to mid-week. Now UEFA and the ECA have just agreed on a change in European competitions, for the next three-year cycle (starting in 2021). This is the plan to move to having three, rather than two competitions with group stages. Tebas is right in saying such a plan would badly affect national leagues, and it would be surprising if the ECA is in favour of a move that would be against the interests of the majority of their members.

The ECA was set up in 2008 as a replacement for the ultra-elite G-14 group of clubs. At the time, it appeared that UEFA was frightened of the influence that the small grouping of clubs could wield, and was trying to avoid the idea of a European Super League. At this time, Michel Platini was a relatively new leader for UEFA, and his stewardship started with a promise to help the smaller clubs and leagues in Europe. He only partially succeeded in his goals. The smaller clubs did get a bigger take, but the big clubs found their take rising fast as well. Still, it seems the opposition to the weekend rounds of European competition may be enough at the moment to make sure the idea is side lined, at least until 2024.

The reason for moving European games to weekends is supposedly increased rights sales in the Americas and Asia. Not that there is any common time that suits both anyway with a 12 or13 hour difference between the time in New York and that in Beijing. European mid-week games take place in the early hours of the morning, as far as East Asia is concerned, and in the middle of the working day in the Americas. A move to weekend fixtures in the European competitions would inevitably lead to a move to midweek fixtures in domestic competitions, and hence a decrease in the value of the TV rights from these. More of the clubs in the ECA benefit from domestic TV rights than from European competitions, so surely it is not in their interest to change this.

While there has long been talk of European Super Leagues, such competitions are still pipe-dreams that sit better in marketing departments and TV executive offices than they do in Football Club offices. The truth is that in many European Leagues, the domestic market is king, especially for the bigger clubs. Hence while the idea of Manchester United and Barcelona meeting on a regular basis in league games may well sound good on paper or a plasma screen, clubs such as Crystal Palace and Real Betis are still the regular opponents. England is a now a bit of an oddity compared to the other major European Leagues, where the money has led to six clubs currently competing at the top of the division, while many of the others can shock the top six on occasion. In most of the other competitions, the titles have been reduced to two or three contenders, and for the most part the other games are a procession of fairly easy victories. But while such leagues for all their lack of competitiveness can come close to filling the stadia, and while the TV audiences will still pay to consume this.

The problem with a Super League is it is not so easy. When the Champions League matches are the highlight of the season, the defeat can be accepted – but if we have the Super League, some teams have got to finish near the bottom, and with no Crystal Palace, Levante or Augsburg in the league, the struggling teams are going to come from the elite. Even only the elite is in the league, it is inevitable that not everyone finishes at the top. Just in the same way as Augsburg v Freiburg cannot draw the TV and live audiences that Borussia Dortmund v Bayern can muster, so Seville v Chelsea will not be a big draw if it is settling who finishes next to last in a league that (if the clubs get their way) will not even have the threat of relegation.

The threat of a European super league will remain, for the time being, a threat used by the bigger clubs vying for larger shares of the cash from domestic and European competition. Only if interest in these pales, do I see a change from threat to reality

In the end, despite European opposition, I think the new Club World Cup will get the go ahead in 2021. For clubs outside of Europe, the promise from FIFA of a minimum US$50 million in appearance money is a no brainer. Hardly any club outside Europe has a turnover in excess of $50 million per year and some for some of the competing clubs, the income from this competition will dwarf the rest of the income over a four-year period. The Europeans will want more for the appearance, even though this fee is already more than they get from the numerous friendlies not really competitive tournaments. For these clubs, which can easily offer more than $50 million on a single transfer, and with income exceeding $2 billion over a four year period, the sum raised is not so important. FIFA will have to understand what the tournament needs to be worth to them, to get their participation – as without it, this while competition is dead in the water. Within an edition or two, I expect the numbers competing will be raised from 24 to 32. Unlike the National competitions, where FIFA can get away with its anti-European agenda, a club competition is driven by money and European clubs are essential.

The Confederations Cup apparently has already breathed its last, so FIFA will be searching again for its mini-world cup to bolster its finances. Once again, the main opposition will stay in Europe, as apart from the absence of South American teams, the Euros are as good a tournament as the other quadrennial jamboree. There is a desire shared by clubs and the players’ unions for changes to the International calendars. This would not increase the number of international dates per season, but more likely change the grouping.

The March international break is the least popular with the clubs, coming as it does at such a crucial period in the European season. This can surely be lost resulting in an earlier finish to the season, followed by a longer international series in June. This would gain the approval of both clubs, and also of national coaches who would then have their players together at a time. This one is a no-brainer and it is a surprise it has not happened yet. The only problem with the plan is that both UEFA and FIFA are now promoting the idea of play-off matches for international tournaments in this period, barely three months before the finals commence.

UEFA would greedily look at any dates freed up in the international calendar to further expand the club competitions, forgetting the fact that they are not reducing the number of matches played and hence domestic games should be played in the time freed up. UEFA may push for a limit of 18, rather than 20 teams in the top leagues, (England, France, Italy and Spain all currently run at 20). This would see favour with the bigger clubs who could replace the dates with larger European groups, (six teams in Champions League groups and the maximum number of teams per country increased). Naturally, the clubs that could lose their place at the troughs will be unhappy with this. UEFA are still keeping their plans for a third competition under wraps. It is suspected that the Europa League will be reduced from 12 groups of four to eight groups, mirroring the Champions League, and that the new E3 tournament will also end up with 8 groups of four. There is a promise that the number of countries represented at group stage games will increase. The real big thing is whether or not the top countries will be excluded from this competition altogether.

To get back to Infantino, he needs his new world in order to secure the funds, and hence the votes to keep him in power for the full 12 years that he is allowed thanks to FIFA finally adding term limits for the president. It all comes down to money and politics. His back-room team really need to give more consideration to how the football calendar is arranged in order to achieve this. Most of the clubs, nations and confederations will give way to FIFA money, so its going to carry on as FIFA v UEFA for years to come.

Go On, Guo’an.

Thursday, March 14th, 2019

AFC Champions League, Group Match

Beijing Guo’an 0-0 Urawa Red Diamonds

Admission 180 Yaun (£20). Attendance 43,112. Programme. Free

 

This was an ultimately frustrating and disappointing evening for fans of Guo’an, with the club outperforming their visitors in almost every department* of the game but failing to score a decisive goal.


*I can’t comment much on the home goalkeeper, he was basically idle.

 

With this visit, the Workers’ Stadium becomes the 23rd football ground that I have visited 10 or more times, the third in this group outside England, following the Shah Alam and Merdeka stadiums in Malaysia.

 

My first visit here was in 2001, with Guo’an winning 4-1 against a team from Shenyang. All the others were matches during the 2004 Asian Cup, concluding with the final in which Japan beat the hosts by 3-1

 

Outside, the streets of Beijing have been transformed over the last 15 years, but the stadium itself shows little change. The outside may have had a coat of paint and some new businesses have been installed under the stands.

Inside, a new scoreboard has been installed, and small size artificial pitches have been added, partially overlaying the running track. Beijing does not need a running track here with the Bird’s Nest providing the prestige event stadium and many similar facilities dotted around the city.



The seats are arranged in two tiers. There is a series of VIP boxes set between the tiers all around the ground, except on the East side, the lower tier is very low and has a very slight rake – added to the distance from the pitch caused by the track, the views from this area must be very poor.

 

Fortunately for me, my ticket was in the upper tier where I had a good view, despite being in the corner of the ground.



I have heard suggestions that Chinese teams do not take the international competitions seriously despite the fans clearly wanting success on these occasions. Certainly, this was the case last season in Shanghai, when Shenhua fans I spoke to were critical of the selection before the team lost at home to Suwon


On cannot level the same comments against Guo’an who made only one change from the team that had won 4-0 in Chongqing at the weekend. This was to strengthen the team

The fans are up for it as well, 43,112 is above the average league crowd from last season, possible boosted by Chinese politics which meant this was the first home game for Guo’an in any competition. Home fans were arranged around three sides of the ground, with most of the gaps being on the upper tier.

One can only assume this is price related, as in addition to having superior views, it is only the upper part of the top tier that falls under the roof in the event of rain.

 

The visiting fans were sitting high behind the south goal, with all surrounding areas left empty. The home fans included three different sets of singers with flags, with the ones on the Curva North (the confluence of English and Italian being read off a flag) being the most vocal and most visually stunning in uniform black. I particularly like their take on “We will Rock You” near the end. Nice to hear a bit or originality




Sadly, no co-ordination between the fans. Shout and reply between different areas being a thing reserved mainly for British and German fans. The result is often a cacophony of noise when the grounds are singing different songs.


If only someone could get the groups together, and possibly teach them a little French. “Allez les Verts”


In the Champions League, four foreign players are permitted, but one must be a national of an AFC affiliated association, while in the Chinese Super League, if a team wants to field a fourth, then he must come from Macau, Hong Kong or Taiwan

 

As a result, Guo’an could field their South Korean defender Kim Min-Jae as well as their other foreign players, these were Jonathan Viera – a Spaniard who has spent most of his career at Las Palmas with one cap for Spain. Renato Augusto, a Brazilian signed from Corinthians, who has also experience for Bayer Leverkusen and 32 caps, including scoring for Brazil against Belgium in the 2018 World Cup. Cedric Bakambu, born in France, but now a DR Congo international. Bakambu played for Sochaux, Bursaspor and Villareal before signing for Beijing last term.

 

Five of the starting line-ups have appeared for China, so there were nine internationals in the starting XI. The team includes players with some European experience, Wang Gang has played in Portugal and was a member of the Beira-Mar squad that won promotion to the top division in 2010, he made 26 appearances that season, but 24 were coming off the bench. Zhang Xihie spent six months at VfL Wolfsburg without playing.



The most notable European experience is Zhang Yuning, who was signed this season from West Bromwich Albion. Zhang did not make an appearance for the midlanders, so his signing may have been partially influenced by their Chinese ownership. Prior to signing for West Brom, he had spent two seasons as Vitesse. He returns to China with Beijing, and still ticks the “under-23” box which is important as every team must have an under-23 player in the starting line-up and must play three at some time in every game, unless some of their U-23 players are training with the national squads.


Some of the U-23 players have missed both the league games this season, as they are training for the qualification matches for the next Asian U-23 tournament, (which in turn is an Olympic qualification event). The matches take place in Malaysia at the end of the month. I suspect that Zhang is not in this squad but will instead be in the full squad playing the “China Cup” at the same time.


Guo’an were set up in a 4-3-1-2 formation with Zhang Yuning and Bakambu up front and Viera tucking in behind them. On occasion, Viera moved out to play wide on the right, and the structure fell towards classic 4-4-2 with Renato on the opposite side.


Urawa started in a 3-1-4-2 formation. They included two Brazilians in the team. Mauricio Antonio was at the centre of the backs, while Ewerton was the player shielding in front of the back three. Both have come from Portuguese football and had played together for Portimonense. Ewerton is currently on Porto’s books and is in Japan on loan. The Red Diamonds third foreigner was Australian international Andrew Nabbout. Nabbout was a member of the Australian World Cup squad, and apart from a short spell in Malaysia had spent his career in the Australian Leagues.

 

Urawa had 6 Japanese Internationals on show with two of the Makino and Nagasawa having a little experience with Koln.


Beijing dominated the first period, and certainly should have built up a comfortable lead before the break. Unfortunately, Zhang Yuning and Cedric Bakambu both turned out to be extremely profligate in front of the goal, with the plaudits going to the Congolese player for doing the wrong thing in the right place most frequently.



At this stage, Viera was looking to be the player who was holding the moves together, while the midfield pair of Zhang Xizhi and Piao Cheng were both involved and creative. The back four looked solid, but had little work to do to counteract the lack of attacking flair.

 

Frequently, the Red Diamonds back line appeared to be torn apart and Guo’an had the ability to threaten both from wide balls and direct hits to the forwards.

 

There was only one period where there was a serious threat from the Chinese visitors. In a short spell early in the second half, Nabbout made several runs down the right side of the field, but support was slow to come forward and all come to nought.

 


 

The Japanese then demonstrated their lack of intent by substituting Nabbout and falling into a 5-4-1 formation.

 

By this time, the home attacks, while not lacking in numbers were lacking in intensity, and it appeared as if tiredness had set in. They also lacked vision to try different things, repeating the free kick routine where three players stood a yard in front of the defensive wall and consistently playing corners to a deep position outside the area where the ball would be lobbed into a position where the keeper or defence could easily clear.

 

Changes were needed but were not forthcoming. The home substitutes probably completed more miles than anyone on the field, with lengthy and regimented warm ups in both halves, but only one was used – coming on as a late forward substitution

 


One wonders if the team struggles to consider a substitution policy as a way of changing a game, forced as they often are to play their reserves in order to fulfil the regulations on U-23 players in Chinese League games. Or is it just a lack of quality in depth in the squad.

 

So, at the end, the visiting team held out to get the point they had come for, which added to the three from their home game against Buriram last week sets them to the top of the group. In Thailand, Buriram United managed a 1-0 win over the South Koreans, Jeonbuk. Jeonbuk had defeated Guo’an, so the pair are both on three points. Guo’an now face two games against the Thai champions, and clearly require a better return than they have managed so far if they are to have a chance of progressing

 

A BIT of an unusual day out

Saturday, March 9th, 2019

Since arriving in China in early February, my football trips have been curtailed somewhat, and there has only been a single match as I passed through Hong Kong before I settled for a stay in Beijing.

On the first weekend of March, the Chinese Super League started. This was to feature two sets of weekend fixtures, before all the teams took a two-week international break. The Chinese First Division (i.e. second tier) started a week later, and also featured two sets of fixtures followed by a single weekend of an international break. From the point of view of someone who does not want to travel far, there are two Beijing based teams in the top division, plus two in the nearby city of Tianjin and Hebei China Fortune in Langfang, somewhere between the two. There is another Beijing team in the second tier.

However, life in China is never simple. All six of these professional teams play both of their opening pair of league games away from home. Still, I am at least fortunate that the Super League Beijing derby is to be played before I leave, and it is at the only ground of these big six that I have not visited before.

The reason for the major matches being played away during the early part of the season is the security that ensues during the annual “two meetings” period. These are the major showpiece events where the policy directions for the following year and longer are discussed disseminated to the representatives from the regions.

Also, to be played in early March is the first round of the Chinese FA Cup. The CFA made a point of making announcements in the week leading up to the draw of the new expanded competition with the random draws made after each round and the end of two legged ties, except in the final. The expanded competition meant 32 ties in the first round, with half the teams coming from the China League 2 (the third tier, which has two regional groups. Regional, of course needs to be taken in context when some journeys in this division are further than London to Moscow.

I waited the draw with bated breath, and waited some more as the whole exercise was put back by one week. Apparently, this was partly in order to confirm the teams involved, with some of the teams in both divisions below the super league being under review. Somehow, this did not quite do its job. Despite the fact that it had been decided that Yanbian were to be expelled from division one before the draw was held, and it was known that Shaanxi would replace them, Shaanxi were still included in the draw. This resulted in their opponent being given a bye in the first round, while two other amateur teams were also denied entry at the first round and hence the round was reduced to 29 ties.

Fortunately for me, one of these ties was to be at BIT, the only Beijing based team in the third tier and a club that I had not yet visited. The visitors, Yanchuang Helanshan are at the same level. Again, there are delays in confirming the exact time and kick off of the match. The times of the fixtures actually make it to Wikipedia and soccerway before I spot them on the Chinese media feeds. The Chinese FA web site, which I would expect to be the definitive place to find the fixtures has still not been updated.

The website for BIT, which stands for the education institution, Beijing Institute of Technology, has not been updated for over a year. However, it contains a link to two sets of pages on Wechat, which is a Chinese social media account. I have an account on this, so I could find the details. Most of this was last season’s information, but there was an article on the start of the new season, and in response to a query put in English I received confirmation of where the venue was.

As it appears my purpose on this trip is to help my wife out with caring for boy while she got on with other business, she dropped me at the metro station and I made the journey with the boy in tow. He spent much of the day in talkative mode, as we made our journey. Fortunately, I was able to provide him with his main objective, a visit to a McDonalds just outside the nearest metro. From there it is a short walk to the ground.

It is a simple stadium, with steep concrete seats on one side only within the track. Behind the ground is the impressive building of the gymnasium. The main access to the seats being from an upper level of the gymnasium. However, once we got up there, we found that the area was closed off with a row of tape and a security guard saying no passage past. We checked the other side and the same story. No reason was given but we were advised to watch through the fences from the far side. I made a quick check inside the gymnasium. From here, the only entrance to the ground were pitch side and I was not going to get passage there.

I get no help either when I find the club officials. They will not even allow me to do more than see a copy of the team sheets. Apparently, for me to make a photograph of or take a sheet may be against republic rules, despite them being available to the official press at the ground. The only match report I have found to date gives only the home team line up, and then without numbers. However, last season, the Chinese FA did release the squads of teams at this level and they were posted on Wikipedia.

At the far side of the ground, I counted roughly 180 people watching through the fence. Almost everyone of these were there to see the game and would have normally paid admission. Inside the ground, I made it that around 70 had been let in, apart from the officials and press area. These appeared to be in two groups – a home supporters’ section where almost everyone was wearing club colours and others who looked as if they may have been players from within the club structure.

The home supporters were seen leaving the ground at the break and did not return. I did not see any behind the fence on the other side where we were watching. I did ask the supporters around me why we being forced to watch in this way. No one had been told, but when asked if it had any connection to the “two meetings”, I was told this was probably the cause. Exactly what security concerns there were over around 250 people entering a stadium is unclear, especially as more security staff were needed to keep the people out than would have been required if they were inside.

As for the game, it was not without its moments, but it lacked any sort of pace. It is never clear to what extent the third level of the Chinese league is professional, but these players lacked fitness, even for the first match of the season and would not fare well in the National League in England. The home side, BIT had the better of the first half and deservedly led at the break, but they were then put under pressure in a much more interesting second period.

With the pressure not telling, BIT had a few chances to put some clear space between them and Helanshan on the counter attack, but fluffed their chances. Things changed with ten minutes to go when a cross from the right was met by a visiting attacker who found himself a little quicker than a couple of leaden footed defenders to get the equaliser. This led to Yanchuan pushing harder and leaving less behind to protect against the counter. The counter duly followed with a through pass finding four players onside, but goal side of the last defender. The ball was safely slotted in by the first one on the ball for 2-1. It should have been three a couple of minutes later, but somehow and open goal was missed.

Adding a little to this post, a few days after the original. A match report on the home clubs’ Wechat feed gives me all the names of the players who took the field for the home team. Not all the numbers were confirmed, but I have the majority pinned down. There is pettiness in refusing to allow access to the paper copies when the information is being released to official news channels, which may then add them to the reports. I would have both sets if I had been able to find a news report from the away side, or possible even if I had taken more photos as the players’ names are all written on the back of the shirts. I should be able to pick up the rest with a reasonable degree of confidence later, if the squad lists are published in the next week or two. This has happened in the past.

It says something (to me at least) about the general Chinese responses to officialdom that around 200 people could be turned away from the grounds, and yet I saw no one apart from myself asking why this was. I am sure that many fewer would have been in attendance if they had known in advance they could not enter. In Europe, one can be sure that there would be far more protest from those trying to attend if they arrived and found they could not enter, without reasons given. In China, it appeared that most or all of those there merely accepted the restrictions placed upon them. Even the BIT supporters’ group in their bright orange scarves appeared to accept it when they were sent away from the game halfway through. No one official I spoke to would give any reasons for not allowing people in. The security who were the first line did not speak English, but once I had managed to get into the office looking for the team lists, I encountered people who clearly could speak my language, at least to some extent and they to were adamant that rules were there and must be followed, but the reasons for the rules could not be explained.

Being a university ground, there was a level of English available amongst the watching crowd, but it was difficult to get them to speculate the reasons for being forced outside the ground. Once I had ventured an opinion, there was some confirmation that this could be it. To some extent this is down to the Chinese psych. Not only do they not want to lose face but they do not want to lose the Nation’s face either. Hence many will try to avoid answering a question if they think the person hearing might not like the answer, or if they feel that the officialdom is not being sensible. To be openly critical in front of someone they do not already know is a problem.

I am reminding of two incidents from my first visits to China. On my first ever visit, which was work only – no football available (at least that I could find out about), I recall being in a technical meeting. One of my English colleagues asked a simple question, to which one of the Chinese technicians made a reply which was clearly false. I was sitting close to him, and could even see that the answer given differed from the notes he had written down. The problem was not even the technician’s fault, but probably the responsibility of one of his superiors – so he could not come out and say something. I waited until after the meeting to quietly let my colleague know that he had been misinformed.

On a later trip, I did get to see some football, including a series of derbies in Guangzhou. Back at that time, the Chinese were not so secretive and were on a charm offensive towards foreigners, so I had no trouble obtaining a team sheet and got a good seat up in the stand close to the one or two other Gwailou (a Chinese term for white people). Early in the second half, tempers in the stand were raised, and I think there was a small amount of actual fighting. I only think this occurred, as the first objective of the security people was not to stop the event, but to make sure the foreigners could not see the problem.