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(2009-12-31 21:01)
There was a friendly between China and Jordan the other day, but I find it too boring and meaningless to discuss here, so let's get to the important news.  Yang Pu, a true all around player, a captain and leader, and member of the China national team, is to announce his retirement today, the summation of a 12 year career with Guoan and before that, time with junior sides in the city.  Yang was born and raised in Beijing and was Guoan through and through, this year's title victory was the best way for him to go out.

Some reflections on a great career:

We won't see him on the pitch anymore, but he's going to be a part of the Guoan coaching staff next year, so he'll still be around the team he loves.

*photos from Titan Sports

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Chinese soccer has long been an easy target for those looking to talk about what's wrong with sport in China.  If sport serves as an allegory for society,  than soccer speaks volumes about modern China, with its corrupt, do anything to win attitude.  The recent scandal involving Wang <span class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_0">Xin</span>, a former GM of the <span class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_1">Liaoning</span> side, has brought <a href="http://www.usatoday.com/sports/soccer/2009-11-25-3268380941_x.htm">every</a> <a href="http://www.dnaindia.com/lifestyle/report_chinese-football-a-source-of-shame-for-its-fans-for-years_1318435">news</a> <a href="http://www.straitstimes.com/BreakingNews/Asia/Story/STIStory_459309.html">agency</a> <a href="http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/1129/p06s01-woap.html">out of the wood work</a> and got them talking about Chinese soccer.  Never mind that most of the reporters writing these stories have never attended a Chinese league match or that they barely know anything about the state of soccer in China, its a story about corruption and they want it.

I guess I can't blame the reporters, its the headline writers and others who try to sex the story up that deserve my ire.  At the same time, too many have made it seem that Chinese soccer is still cancerous, when the story that they're reporting on occurred mostly in Singapore in 2007.

First, there are the problems with what these articles are saying.  Again, if sport serves as an analogy to society, than the oft quoted <span class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_2">Hong</span> Kong University professor <span class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_3">Xu</span> <span class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_4">Guoqing's</span> assessment is right on the money.  He stated that, "To solve the soccer problem in China you need the rule of law and an independent judiciary.  Chinese leaders seem quite serious about fixing this, but there is no way they can under the present regime."

While I'm all for the rule of law and independent judiciaries are a great thing, I don't see how these are the key to solving soccer corruption.  It would also seem like you could remove the "soccer" part of that quote and add in any other societal ill in China, and the quote would still work.

And while I don't want to beat up on any one story, the Christian Science <span class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_5">Moniter</span> article* not only used the above quote, but  also included this bit of brilliance, "So bad has Chinese soccer's reputation become that it is fast losing its popular appeal. Chinese state-owned television stopped broadcasting live games a year ago."

Can you not see my frustration?  CCTV stopped showing matches toward the end of last season due to an issue with on field violence.  They showed games this season and received large ratings.  Also, for a league "that is fast losing its popular appeal", the attendance stats from this season, which would be the envy of all but the most elite European leagues (as well as US NBA or NHL teams), would certainly come as a surprise.

I don't want to talk in depth about the corruption scandal and I've put it off this long because it just feels like old news to me.  The perpetrators were in China and it appears some Chinese domestic matches were fixed, but the majority of events were in Singapore.  I don't believe that I'm willfully blind on this issue, but I think the league has turned a corner and is, generally, clean.  Corruption may have some <span class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_6">fiending</span> like a drug addict, there may be some incidents here and there, but overall, we've come a long way since the "Black Whistles" of 2001.

Am I being oversensitive or should we see more intelligent, multisided reporting?
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The big story these days surrounding Guoan is the battle between the team and Newcastle Jets, the A-League side who loaned Joel Griffiths to Guoan.  Newcastle is claiming Guoan promised that if they liked Griffiths, they'd pay US$1 million as his loan fee, whereas Guoan said this never happened and refuse to pay such a high price tag. 

The will they/won't they debate over Griffiths doesn't concern me too much.  While he was a solid player when he was on the pitch, they played him as the sole man up top and he doesn't have the height or ability to be the sole "fox in the box" type scorer.  There are talks that Guoan are looking into the likes of Ramirez, Barcos, Otto, and Guinee as possible foreign additions.  Any of those guys have the height and skill to play alone up top and would be a massive addition to our roster next season.

Keeping Matic, who was one of the "heart and soul" players to our side this past season, was an absolute must and the team has done that, so I'm very pleased about that.  With him in the side, our midfield is sure to be solid, no matter what combo Hong or any other manager decides to use.  The other foreigner that will stay on with the side in 2010 is Ryan Griffiths, who was a sub for much of the year, but was solid for us down the stretch.

As I said, as long as we have Matic, I'm okay with getting rid of the other foreigners.  Martinez left China almost immediately after the final match, it seems he's spent long enough in China and I have no problem with that.  Without him, there's no chance we'd have won the championship, his contribution during the last 5 games was huge, however before that, he was pretty much invisible on the pitch and had little impact. 

While it would have been nice to keep Paul for continuity's sake and because as of now our defense looks weeks, I don't mind the fact he left.  He started off the year on a bad foot, but by the end of the season, he was a fan favorite.  He was solid at the back, though too often he was over anxious, leading to mistakes that sometimes cost us goals.

Will Guoan give up the scratch to keep Griffiths?  At this point, I'd say no, as talked about, Luo Ning is very egotistical and won't like the ultimatum (buy Griffiths by November 30th or else) that Newcastle has given them.
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The firing of Lee Jangsoo was one of Guoan's biggest mistakes in recent years and the sole reason for his firing was Luo Ning's personal ego. Having made statements in the media about Lee's need to win, the club was faced with the choice of firing Lee or embarassing Luo after the Changchun loss and they made the wrong choice. Hong Yuanshuo, who came on as interim manager for the final few matches, did a decent job for Guoan, securing the title, though whether his position should be made permanent has yet to be decided. As Guoan is in the midst of weighing their options, Luo has once again made himself look silly calling for a Beijinger to be the next manager of Guoan. I really don't understand if Luo just says these things to get his name in papers or if he actually believes them, but this is pure stupidity. Sure, it would be great to have a Beijinger in charge of the Beijing side, but more important is finding the best candidate. Look at the top European clubs, how many of them have someone from the city the team plays as their manager (let alone from the same country)? Luo needs to savor the title and shut his mouth.
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(2009-11-19 20:48)
While Beijing has began its coaching search for next season, a number of teams are interested in the guy who helped get them their first title.  No, not Hong Yuanshuo, the man Guoan really needs to thank, Lee Jangsoo.

It started out with rumblings out of Shanghai that Shenhua was mulling over the idea of bringing in Lee, as of late, two other rivals have gotten into the race, Henan Construction and the hated Tianjin Teda.  While Tianjin is denying rumors that Lee's at the top of their list, he appears to be on a short list of 4, one that includes former national team coach Arie Haan.

Lee was also being considered by Changchun Yatai, though right now it appears that another former Guoan head coach, Shen Xiangfu, will be leaving Guangzhou for Changchun next year.  I know its not going to be part of Tianjin's considerations, but hiring Lee will certainly ramp up the already tense rivalry between the sides.  With 6 months to go before the start of the CSL season, its "gossip" like this that will keep me going through the long, cold winter.
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(2009-11-10 17:28)
It's now 2 weeks since that wonderful Saturday late fall afternoon at Gongti, what a wonderful way to end the season.  The mood in the stands was great, everyone was happy and there was a rare spirit inside and outside the venue.  The number of people who lined up outside the North Gate in full regalia but without tickets, settling for hanging outside the stadium listening to the match and hearing the sounds from inside was startling.  In 16 years the club never won a title and, though on the verge of it on Saturday, the job was far from being finished.  The fans were in full voice, louder than I've ever heard Gongti before and from the very beginning, the team responded with a goal 2 minutes in.

From that point on, it was pretty much over.  Any fans worried about the pressure being too much for this team doesn't know how much players like Tao Wei and Xu Yunlong have been through, or how strong Matic and Yang Zhi were mentally.  Only up 1-nil,not overwhelming, but early on the news went through the stands that Shenzhen also got an early goal, it seemed we were in the clear.  One more goal for us in the final moments of the 1st half put away the match, again thanks to Martinez, the celebrations could begin.

Two more goals in the 2nd half, through Martinez once again and Zhou Ting, finished off an overwhelmed Hangzhou squad, while Shenzhen beat Henan 3-1.  The celebration began on the Guoan bench with 5 minutes left and when the final whistle went, it was pandemonium amongst the fans and players.  The fans remained inside the stadium, singing and just soaking it in for over an hour after the match, then took the celebration to the streets, bars, and little restaurants all over the city.

A truly amazing Halloween that I'll never forget, it took 16 years to get there, hopefully it won't take that long before we get to celebrate again.  I think I said everything I could about how meaningful the match was before the game, now I can only say, still 2 weeks on, I'm walking around happier than usual because Beijing is the champions.  I've never enjoyed Gloria Gaynor's "I will Survive" (played over and over before and after the match) and Queen's "We Are the Champions" that much before.

For pictures, head to Beijing Guoan - Hangzhou Greentown photos.
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(2009-10-30 18:49)
I've gone over a preview of the relegation scene and the race for a position in Asia (or more aptly the race to stay out of a position).

There are so many different scenarios, but this is the one time I'm going to admit to doing my readers an injustice and not going over them all, because to me, its simple, it comes down to 1: Beijing wins and they are the champions.  That's it, final, finato, wan le...

You can talk about what happens if this team wins and that team loses, and about tie breakers and the like, but at the end of the day, it comes down to one thing, Beijing wins and they are the champions.

So I just want to focus and hope for that win.  Though one thing should be noted, unlike a lot of leagues, when 2 or more teams are tied on points, the first tie breaker in the CSL are the results of head-to-head matches between the 2 (or 3 or 4) teams tied for the top spot.  The second tie breaker is then goal differential.

Win and none of this matters.
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(2009-10-30 15:43)
When the schedule was finally released in early March, there was excitement, just 30 matches, many lacking even solid dates or times, but 30 matches, home, away, opponents.  There was excitement about the new Asian Champions League and, of course, about the CSL, a new season, new hope, that's how it always goes.

The fixture list looked good, an easy start, a big match against Shandong, a May Day clash against Shanghai, and of course Tianjin.  The squad looked even better, one couldn't blame a Guoan fan for having hope this season.  Lee Jangsoo was an experienced coach, someone we had a lot of faith in, he steered us to the top, but always just a bit short, in 2007 we were one sticking point away, in 2008 we fell 5 points short.  The Aussie brothers, combined with Matic and our experienced core of players (Tao Wei, Xu Yunlong), plus the young'uns like Huang Bowen and Yan Xiangchuang who should finally be coming into their own, it was set, we had a strong side, we'd already shown it against the Aussies in the Champions League.  This. Could. Finally. Be. Our. Year.

From that cold evening in March to tonight, a cold evening in October, the final days of the month, a lot has transpired.  For the side this year has been filled with drama, Paul's early errors to being a cult hero, Matic and Xu and Yang in the net always serving as our rock, Joel Griffiths first suspension from a bad red card, the injury that knocked out Huang for 3 months and the revelation, both for us and the national team that was Yang Hao, 51,000 in Gongti for the match against Tianjin, the string of draws, the Asia Trophy, the firing of Lee Jangsoo, Griffiths' second suspension, and through it all, all the mediocre play, we've maintained our top position. 

The song that plays at Gongti every match, our side's anthem, is about always loving Guoan, but this year, the chants have been about Guoan always being number 1, about "fortress Gongti" and the fact we don't lose there.  The faithful have come out in large numbers, Guoan has the largest average attendance in the CSL this year and Gongti has been our safe, only 1 team has come there and been able to walk away with 3 points and Changchun only managed that feat last month.

We fell 5 points short in '02 and '08, 4 points short in '91 and '95, and that 1 damn point in '07.  It's not that we were short of glory, we're the Cup Kings, taking the FA Cup in 1985, 1996, 1997, and 2003.  I remember closely that last glory, sitting in class while watching text updates on sina of that cold day in Dalian when we walked away with the cup, that glory, with Casiano and Yang Pu doing the deed, was sweet, but it was never completely satisfying.  4 FA Cups, but zero league titles, our hated rivals to the south won two during the 10 years of Jia A, Shandong's dominated the CSL with 2 titles, and its been zero for us.  That big, fat, goddam goose egg.

This feels like it should be written Monday, a recap of the season, coming off (hopefully) the high or the low of what happens when the clock hits 17:15 Saturday and the matches are all over for another year.  But if you're a Beijing fan, if you've been through the close calls and the depressing lows that I have, you'll understand.  I know this isn't a proper preview, I know I'm not doing predictions, I can't, I wouldn't dare, the lineup, you already know, there will be few changes, it will all come down to how those 11 guys come together, if they'll be up to play 1 more time, if they can stand up to the pressure, the tension that 60,000 watchful eyes will place on them.

I couldn't write something this composed after Saturday, no matter the result, right now, it's all about when Saturday comes.

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It's interesting to see all the stories about fans camping out overnight or at least starting to line up very early in the morning for tickets to tomorrow's match.  I would say Guoan has a pretty large number of true supporters, there were over 7,000 who lined up to buy season tickets at the start of the year and they actually ended up selling closer to 10,000 season tickets.

In the US or UK, you'd get a lot of fair weather hangers on who want to come out for the spectacle and the fun, who start to claim to be "with" the team for years.  While I'm sure a lot of those waiting in line are these type of fans, there just doesn't seem to be the same excitement in the air that you'd have in the US.  I'm sure I'll feel different when I bike or take the subway to Gongti tomorrow, but other than on Beijing's sports television station and in the papers, it just doesn't seem to be a big deal.  Interestingly enough, the other place where the match is picking up a lot of coverage is amongst expat bloggers in Beijing, hopefully this will get more foreigners to come out next year, though they'll probably miss out on tomorrow's match.  It often feels strange heading to Gongti on matchday, I tend to get to the area around the stadium two hours or so beforehand and while there are always a lot of fans, there are a large number of people just going about their daily lives, as if 30,00 people aren't suddenly descending on their neighborhood.

Is it just me or is the city just not that excited about tomorrow?
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Chinese teams have struggled in Asian competition over the past few years and this year, with the creation of the Asian Champions League, things were no different.  All 4 Chinese sides went out in the group stage, with major disappointments in Beijing, Shanghai, and Jinan (Tianjin's group was very difficult and so it wasn't treated as negatively).  Unlike the European Champions League, where travel is a minor issue, in Asia, teams from China most travel throughout southeast Asia or, the nightmare trip, to Australia.  Those teams without a deep roster are often affected by the travel and extra training and matches and perhaps that was an issue in the early season performances of the 4 Chinese teams in Asia.  The change to the "Champions League" moniker still hasn't seen the league taken seriously among squads and supporters and it seems almost a blessing to not make it into the competition.

With that in mind, Beijing, Henan, and Changchun can't avoid the "curse" of Asia, but there will be a battle for that 4th position.  If Shandong wins or draws, they'll be back in Asia next year, though if they lose, that position is up for grabs with both Tianjin and Shanghai potentially moving into that spot.  The only team with a really tough match, on paper, is Tianjin, who host Guangzhou, while Shandong host barely up Chengdu and Shanghai go up against Changsha, who aren't completely safe from relegation yet.

Unlike in Europe where this situation would create some final day drama as the sides would grab for the millions that come with Champions League play, in Asia I think all 3 sides want to avoid falling into that dreaded 4th spot.  If Shandong fails to earn a point, Shanghai is then thrust in the driver's seat, having the best goal differential of the three.  Just one more thing to watch for on this final Saturday of the season.
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