Demba Ba, Tim Cahill and Co spreading the gospel in the world’s most populous nation


Read more and First Published at the Chinese Super League healthy?

In a word, yes. Chinese football is in a healthy state.

Not perfect by any means but the Chinese Super League (CSL) has seemingly developed in the same way that China as a nation has grown – spectacularly and at a rapid rate beyond all expectations, tempered with the knowledge that this upward trajectory won’t last forever. Chinese football is on the up and overshadowing the longer established J-League in Japan and K-League in South Korea in terms of global appeal and star names. Also, a healthy fan culture has returned to the stadiums.

At the height of the endless corruption and refereeing scandals, the fans abandoned the stadiums in droves and took to following overseas teams from afar. Now, most stadia in the CSL are packed each weekend. Lower-league attendances are also high and all the major urban hubs have large populations, which means attendances have been excellent in the past few seasons.

Beijing Guoan have some of the most passionate and fervent fans in Asia and games against any Shanghai team are always tense and tetchy affairs as the teams battle it out for regional pride. Furthermore, corruption and “black” whistles – bent referees – are apparently a thing of the past, though, of course, this does not mean it will ever disappear. The CSL has such appeal that billionaires like Jack Ma – the founder of Alibaba, the group of highly successful internet-based businesses and the largest initial public offering in Wall Street history – has also invested in teams like Guangzhou Evergrande.

For someone like Ma to pour finances into Chinese football, when he could easily go abroad and invest in an overseas team, is a serious statement of intent. By purchasing a 50 per cent stake in Evergrande, the club’s lofty ambitions of becoming one of the biggest teams in the world in the near future is not that unrealistic.

Chinese billionaires are, of course, also casting an eye overseas. Earlier this year, the Wanda Group, the Chinese conglomerate, announced an investment of 45 million euros to acquire a 20 per cent equity stake in Atletico Madrid.

Aside from boosting Atletico, this would also allow the further expansion of “China’s Future Star Program” in Spain, with Chinese players going to the European country to enhance their development.

As always, results are a good indication of how things are going.

Chinese teams have done very well in the Asian Champions League recently, with Evergrande winning the 2013 title under the watchful eye of Italian coach Marcello Lippi.

They also did a reasonable job against eventual winners Bayern Munich in the 2013 Club World Cup semi-finals, when they lost 3-0. As for the national team, a strong run at the last Asian Cup has boosted interest in the side not seen since China qualified for the 2002 World Cup.

The Chinese fans are keen to support a strong team and the “Dragon” seems to have finally awoken from its eternal slumber under the guidance of head coach Alain Perrin. Some well-established stars such as Zhang Linpeng and Gao Lin are leading and guiding the team.

The CSL boardrooms can still be quite ruthless environments and have more control and wield more power than some coaches would like. Managers live and die by their results – as seen by the sacking of the popular Fabio Cannavaro, after only a few months in charge of Evergrande, due to perceived defensive failings. The Italian was quickly replaced by Luiz Felipe Scolari. Cannavaro’s love affair with Evergrande was short and sweet but the fans took to his energy and love of the game.

At Shanghai Shenua, an overly keen boardroom has also wielded more influence than their manager Francis Gillot would like. Star-studded Shenua have struggled and this was compounded when their fierce rivals Shanghai SIPG thrashed them 5-0 earlier this season. In terms of overseas teams visiting China, the 2014 Trophee des Champions – the French Super Cup – was played in Beijing as have been several Supercoppa Italiana finals, which have been played in the famous Beijing “Bird’s Nest” Stadium.

As recently as last year, Brazil took on Argentina in Beijing as well. The lure of establishing business, social and economic relations with China is proving to be an immense pull for many teams. The CSL is in a balanced state … by no means perfect but definitely in a better place than it was a few years ago. And it will improve slowly.

Will big player signings boost the profile of the sport?

Yes, I think so. It can only benefit the league and the level of play. Football has always been popular in China.

A few years, when Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets was at the height of his powers, the NBA became the hottest trend in China as football struggled with scandal after scandal. Parity has been restored and football is emerging again from its dark years; star names, stability and a stronger national team has drawn the fans back.

Several years ago, the CSL signalled its intent with the signings of players like Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba and this was a sign of things to come. The pair, ultimately, were flamboyant yet unsuccessful but these ambitious signings proved to be an early indicator of the amount of finances that now abounds in Chinese football.

The J-League went through the same cycle as early big-name arrivals like Zico (Kashima Antlers), Salvatore “Toto” Schillaci (Jubilo Iwata) and Gary Lineker (Nagoya Grampus Eight) definitely brought the league global exposure.

The star players soon gave way to lesser-known professionals … but whom were equally effective. Clubs in China have become more cautious in their transfer policies as they realised that having a star name would not be a guarantee of anything or could simply be more trouble than they were worth.

There then came an influx of seemingly high-profile but steady players whom would not only add some flair but would fit into a team or system. Players who were by no means global superstars but were driven to excel and win and not simply chase huge pay cheques and look to end their careers in a far-flung nation. Evergrande had reliable players like Dario Conca, from Argentina, Elkeson and Muriqui, both from Brazil, and the fans took to them.

They were truly passionate for the cause and blended in well with their Chinese team-mates such as Zhang Linpeng, who excels as defender who loves to get forward to cause havoc. The zenith for that Evergrande generation was winning the Asian Champions League final under the stewardship of Lippi.

Only Elkeson remains at Evergrande. Conca went back to South America but has since returned to Shanghai SIPG, where Sven – yes, that Sven! – is in charge. Evergrande may have lost some players but they brought in Alberto Gilardino and Alessandro Diamanti, who proved to be seasoned professionals and gave their all. Now Paulinho has joined and Evergrande can boast quite an incredible squad, with the Brazilian now looking to rebuild his career after a torrid time in England with Tottenham Hotspur.

Rumours also abound that Robinho will also join the squad. Beijing Guoan have the cult hero Darko Matic in their ranks and his fluency in Mandarin and loyalty to Beijing has seen him become incredibly loved in the capital and across the nation, with him having amassed over one million followers on “Weibo”.

His team-mate Dejan Damjanovic is equally established and beloved. There is an unique lure to the grandeur of Beijing as even former NBA star Stephon Marbury came to China’s capital to play basketball for the Beijing Ducks and loves it so much that he may stay on.

He even has a statue and a postage stamp of himself. I don’t think that Matic has a statue or stamps yet but if Beijing win a title soon, then he will have … and more!

Tim Cahill is at Shanghai Shenua and this was seen as huge coup for the CSL to entice the Australia striker who, ironically, knocked China out of the 2015 Asian Cup finals. His two goals, including a sensational bicycle kick, gave the Aussies a 2-0 win in their last-eight clash in Brisbane.

Cahill has adapted quite well to his new surroundings and has proved to be immensely popular with the Shenua fans due to his down-to-earth and approachable nature. Demba Ba and now Mohamed Sissoko will join Cahill at Shenua, alongside their Colombian club captain, Giovanni Moreno. The aforementioned new signings will be keen to impress. The fans at a very below-par Shenua will demand no less than the best effort. Another seasoned and well-known name is the Icelander Eidur Gudjohnsen, who will join Shijiazhuang Ever Bright.

What is the overall aim of the Chinese FA?

Qualify for another World Cup finals and to win the Asian Cup. China is a football-mad nation but, until recently, their national team had flattered to deceive and often disappointed their legions of fans. The last Asian Cup and China’s fantastic run in that competition has again sparked encouragement.

The overall aim is to qualify for the World Cup finals again and if they do, then not to crash out immediately as in 2002. Qualifying is always difficult as Japan, South Korea, Australia, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran are always going to be major contenders.

The Chinese FA will also focus on the women’s team, which used to be a powerhouse at the turn of the century. After a decade in the wilderness, they are back on track, with a strong showing at the recent Women’s World Cup finals in Canada, in which they lost 1-0 to old rivals the United States, the eventual winners, in the quarter-finals. The Chinese FA, in line with the government, announced that football would become a part of the school curriculum across the nation.

It aims to have up to 20,000 schools having football as a mandatory part of their physical education plans. In turn, that should be able to develop the standards of play for the current youth generation. The Chinese FA will still keep an eye on corruption and those who may fall prey to it.

As clubs’ financing has increased so has wages for the players, which off-balances the need to seek other means to make a living. There also needs to be a finer balance between nurturing promising footballers and then simply “producing” them.Hopefully, some truly skilled and creative players are not overwhelmed in the processes involved in the long road to becoming professional athletes.

The Chinese FA will also try to change the mentality of some segments of Chinese society who do not see sports or football as a viable career. China is going through one of the greatest societal changes and upheavals it has seen. For those looking to move up the social and economic ladder, from poverty into the emerging middle class, then sport, as a career, may simply not cut it as a stable profession and would also be seen as purely a recreational pursuit. Academic achievement is still more highly valued. Why risk a potentially short career? Other professions can last long into the future and offer a steady income in a world that offers no reassurances or fall backs.

The hopes and dreams of entire families can rest on the shoulders of their offspring and the national college entrance exam for university – the “Gaokao” – is where many youths concentrate their time and energy. Passing or failing it can determine an entire person’s life, so there is no time to do sports. A change in mentality towards professional sports and the livelihood that it can bring is probably going to be the greatest challenge for the Chinese FA.

Where do you see the league in five to ten years?

I expect there to be a greater interest in the CSL on a global basis as the league slowly evolves and becomes even more professional, in line with global standards of advertising, sponsorship and financial transparency. I expect more star names to arrive in China and boost the profile of the league even higher. All leagues go through cycles and I believe the CSL is on the up. If the amount of money pumped in continues unabated, with greater accountability, then the good times can carry on.

I expect Chinese teams to continue to do well in the Asian Champions leagues and this, hopefully, will also benefit the national team. In turn, this will see fans grow in numbers in terms of attendance and for Chinese fan culture to further evolve, develop and become truly ingrained in every-day Chinese society.

Basically, all positive. But with a cautious optimism!

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Kitchee Squander Golden Chance To Reach AFC Cup Final

Kitchee’s dream run to the AFC Cup Semi-finals is now over. With the away goal, a capacity crowd and home advantage, Kitchee were clearly favorites in the second leg of the semi-finals yet nerves clearly got the better of them and they threw away all hopes after conceding two soft goals within the first nine minutes of the first half. From there on they had to constantly chase the game to no avail.

Abril weathered the frenzied atmosphere to hold onto their lead. The Iraqis settled much faster than the home team and their difficult task ahead was made easier on the 3rd minute when they were awarded a free-kick from twenty yards out which Ali Atiyah converted. The shot was on target but should have been saved and slipped in between the post and Kitchee goalkeeper Wang Zhenpeng. This made it 1-2 to Abril. The visitors took advantage of Kitchee’s lack of composure and unease and made it a two-goal lead on the 9th minute when Amjed Radhi’s looping header nestled into the side of the net. Kitchee now had the momental task of overhauling the two goal deficit and scoring three goals due to the away goals rule. Kitchee slowly recovered from this incredible set back and regained their composure and resorted back to their well known quick passing game. Both sides had close half chances as the game went on but Abril were still in control.


The second half saw a momentum shift with Kitchee taking the game to Abril and trying to claw back their dignity and pride and even stage one of the greatest comebacks of all time! Kitchee’s Tarres took the game to Abril in the 48th minute with his low drive and shot which was well saved by the Abril keeper Jalal Hachim. In the 68th minute, a Lo Ka Wai corner caused confusion in the box and Gao Wen was first on hand to poke the ball home. It was now 1-2 on the night. The crowd urged Kitchee team forward and each corner, free kick and attack was met with heightened expectations. Hachim pulled off another great save on the 72nd minute when he clawed away Xu Deshuai’s diving header. As the game progressed, Kitchee pressed forward and left wide open spaces to be exploited but they defended resolutely. Kitchee’s Jang Kyungjin had his injury time header cleared off the line and the game ended with all players slumping to the ground in exhaustion. It was a stirring fightback but too little too late.

Abril have made to the the AFC cup final where they will now play Al Qadsia in the final. Sports and politics always intertwine so there were several banners of support for the Hong Kong protests and a period of applause from some sections of the crowd in acknowledgement of the current situation in the city. Kitchee played some nice football through the group and knock out stages and will no doubt bounce back from this disappointment.

Hong Kong Knocked Out of the Asian Games:

Hong Kong strong run to the Asian games (Incheon) knock out stages is over after a comprehensive defeat to South Korea. Lee Yong-Jae, Park Coo-Ho and Kim Jin-Su all got on the score sheet in an one sided game. Hong Kong were a shadow of the side they were in the group stages where they defeated Bangladesh, Afghanistan and drew with a strong Uzbekistan team. Hong Kong’s highlight in the tournament was their equalizer against Uzbekistan scored by Philip Chan.

Hong Kong Premier League Continues:

The Hong Kong Premier League is still in its early days and Sun Pegasus are the early pace setters with two wins out of two over I Sky Yuen Long and Wong Tai Sin. Many games have been delayed or postponed due to Hong Kong’s involvement in the Asian games. Normal fixtures will resume in October.

Once in a Life Time and Never Again. Hong Kong’s South China’s Epic 2009 AFC Cup Semi-Final 2nd Leg against Kuwait SC


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Hong Kong football stands on the cusp of one of its greatest achievements – Kitchee are just 90 minutes away from the AFC cup final following an away 1-1 draw to Iraq’s Erbil this week. With the second leg of the semi at Mong Kok stadium just two weeks away, Hong Kong correspondent

Christopher KL Lau looks back to the city’s last huge night in continental football when South China fell at the final hurdle.

The local media first issued the simple yet effective battle cry “Wear red and go and support South China”. From there the momentum stirred and the message was repeated and drummed in. On October 21, 2009, something truly amazing happened, local Hong Kong fans heeded the call and descended to Hong Kong stadium in their tens of thousands. The occasion ? The rare opportunity to see the most popular team in the city, South China, attempt to overhaul a 2-1 first leg loss to Kuwait SC in the AFC Cup semi-finals 2009. For local fans starved of truly meaningful and competitive matches, this was basically an once in a lifetime opportunity to savor a grand occasion and urge (scream) the people’s club to reach the final of an Asian-wide competition. Hong Kong fans may support club teams in nations thousand of miles away but the domestic game still stirs interest and many are still emotionally and spiritually tied to the teams they watched before the ascent of cable TV and live overseas games saw a dramatic drop in attendance.

The first leg of the semi-final saw South China fall 2-1 but they secured the crucial away goal; it was now simple; win 1-0 at home and they would be guaranteed a place in the AFC Cup final and be the first Hong Kong team to reach the final in the competition’s history. South China had navigated the group stages with relative ease and scored some dramatic victories in the knock out stages. With each win, the crowds grew exponentially larger and when the “Caroliners” won their quarter-finals, the anticipation and expectations exploded beyond all belief and expectations and the ingredients for a grandstand finish were all in place; home advantage, city’s most popular team and a very achievable target of at least scoring one goal.

To top it all off, 40,000 South China fans packed out the stadium and except for handful of Kuwait SC fans, the noise echoed and reverberated from the stands. The stadium was a sea of red and the infamous South stand of the stadium was pretty much standing room only as the most hard core of fans stirred up a frenzy. Thousands of fans were unable to get tickets at the gates and had to rush to the nearest bar or restaurant showing the game. Sure, there have been sell out crowds in the past though the majority were for friendlies where the stakes were low and the results ultimately rendered meaningless. On this night, thousands of fans were locked outside; unseen and basically unheard of at a Hong Kong game whereby normally fans can have entire rows or sections to themselves if they so wish. That night, there was not a single seat left empty; from the corporate boxes to the east, west, north and south stands, everything was taken and a simple ‘full house’ sign was placed up outside when the final ticket was sold.


The match itself was tight given the end prize at hand. Kuwait SC had a pressing passing game which caught South China short a few times but for some fine saves from Zhang Chunhui, the game would have been out of South China’s reach. Throughout the rest of the first period, South China’s Brazilian striker Leandro Carrijó had several half chances and a disputed penalty claim but nothing which threatened to break the deadlock. Carrijo had been decisive in the quarter-final second leg win over the Uzbekistan side, Neftchi, and Kuwait SC tracked him closely. Kuwait SC knew they could break away and counter attack as South China needed to get that decisive goal to bring the tie back to 2-2 to progress on the away goal. In the second half, chances fell to striker Leandro Carrijó who had the chance to be a national hero and write himself into Hong Kong sporting folklore but luck was not on his side. Each attack, corner or shot was greeted with bated breath with the normally hard to please fans urging the home side to press forward.


Carrijo was also involved in the most decisive moment of the game; in the 70th minute, he backed heeled the ball in the Kuwait SC penalty area to his teammate Li Haiqiang who toe poked the ball past the Kuwait SC goalkeeper sparking scenes of total yet short lived pandemonium. The goal was deemed offside by the closet of margins much to the severe indignation of 99% of the stadium. This lead to the linesman unfortunately running the gauntlet of being pelted by water bottles. South China were unsettled and Kuwait SC’s Ismail Sulaiman scored the decisive blow and placed the visitors ahead 1-0 on the night and 3-1 overall. The stadium fell into a deathly silence as the fans knew the game was beyond them. Yet, after the initial shock the fans gathered themselves and continued to drive the home team forward but it was too little too late and upon the final whistle many still hung around safe in the knowledge that they had been part of and witnessed something unique and special. Fans knew South China had gone beyond expectations and their own limits to stage the grandest of shows and cheered the team off the pitch.

A few weeks later, the Hong Kong Olympic side won the East Asian games title (against Japan) again in-front of a packed out crowd at Hong Kong stadium while this victory sent the city into wild celebrations yet, for many, this semi-final loss still endures and remains in the collective memory much longer; it could have been the long-meandering journey that South China took to that fateful night, it could have been the fervent and frenzied full house atmosphere or it could have been the many what-ifs that were played out that night or it could have been the honorable way that South China fought and were ultimately defeated that stirred people’s emotions. For many fans, it is very hard to quantify and discern and each to their own opinions but for many who have seen the slow and gradual decline of local football, this marked an example of what could be achieved and the potential to reach greater heights. This match also represented something rarely seen in the city in a sporting, social, economic or cultural sense; for a city which has slowly developed its own unique identity, there are still many divisions. On a daily basis, politics and the ever-widening economic gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ threatens to polarize society but here, for once, all opinions were seemingly set aside with everyone uniting behind one cause.

On September 30th, local champions Kitchee will play their AFC Cup semi-final 2nd leg (1-1 after the first leg) at the much smaller capacity Mong Kok stadium. Kitchee for all their titles do not have the long storied history that South China can boast of but for the sake of the local game, hopefully the fans will come out, fill Mong Kok to capacity and cheer them onto the final.

Will Hong Kong sports ever again witness and experience such a night like the delirious, frenetic and soul stirring one seen at Hong Kong stadium on October 21st, 2009? Once in a lifetime and never again……..

All pictures courtesy of the HKFA