After a forgettable 2007 exiled in Pudong, Shanghai Shenhua return to their beloved Hongkou Football Stadium to kick off their 2008 Chinese Super League season against Shenzhen Shangqingyin tomorrow.
The two-time domestic champions of China spent an unhappy year at the unatmospheric athletics sports facility on the other side of town whilst their home was refurbished, somewhat needlessly for the women’s world cup. A corresponding fall in attendances, a troublesome merger, a first-ever defeat at home to bitter rivals Beijing Guoan, and a miserable Asian Champions League campaign were just some of the lowlights that culminated in a mediocre 4th-placed finish.
But hopes are high that Shenhua’s return to their spiritual home tomorrow will help them shake off their tag as Chinese football’s perennial under-achievers. Indeed, all followers of Shenhua have much to look forward to this season. Crowd favourite Wu Jing Gui, who coached the side to their last title in 2003, is now back in the hotseat for the third time after leaving last year as part of the controversial merger with Shanghai United. In defence, Chinese international pair Li Wei Feng and Du Wei have signed new contracts. Columbian striker Hamilton Ricard will also stay for another year, whilst this year’s new foreign players are Honduran midfielder Emil Martinez and Costa Rica striker Erick Scott. Developments unlikely to be viewed in the same light however are rumours that unpopular club owner Zhu Jun, who masterminded last year’s merger, will step down from his post as CEO of The 9 gaming company to concentrate on the day-to-day running of Shenhua.
This year, the league will finally feature 16 teams at the third attempt. Last year only 15 clubs competed, after the two Shanghai teams merged, and the season before that Sichuan Guancheng folded to leave an odd-15. Further interest is added this year in the form of two newly-promoted teams. Chengdu Blades, owned by English Championship side Sheffiled United feature for the first time since adpoting their new moniker a few years back, and Guangzhou Pharmaceutical bring top-level domestic football back to China’s third city after an absence of nearly a decade. Making way for these two to bring the CSL up to 16 teams was Xiamen who now find themselves in China’s second division.
On a different but related note, talks are underway to bring a team from Hong Kong into the mainland league next season, and the League has a new sponsor in the shape of domestic wine brand Jinliufu.
All in all it looks like it will be an interesting season for the CSL as last year’s surprise winners Changchun try to defend their title. After years of scandal, match-fixing and all manner of untoward shenanigans in Chinese football, crowds increased modestly last season and allegations of corruption were conspicuous by their absence. It will be interesting to see what influence the Olympics has on proceedings this year. All those with an interest in Chinese football will hope that, from an organizational perspective, Beijing 2008 will leave a fitting legacy for China’s domestic sports competitions to benefit from. Frankly, there are few who doubt the desperate need for such lessons to be learned if Chinese football is to pull its way out of the malise which it has found itself in after the boom years of the 90s.
Season tickets priced at a mere 300rmb for 15 home games, are available and will get you into the crazy ultras section for the rest of the season. Call or text Frank Ding on 15800594141 if interested.
Shenhua kick off their match at Hong Kou Football Stadium tomorrow night at 7.45pm.
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Shenhua bid reluctant farewell to Hongkou Stadium