Shenhua’s Tao Jin & United’s Kiko Macheda. Tao takes the collapsed defensive stance more seriously than most defenders.
Suffice it to say, Shanghai Shenhua took an anemic 1-0 loss on the chin against Manchester United last night at Shanghai Stadium, with both clubs reminding us that these financially-focused friendlies involving globetrotting elite clubs continue to be little more than disappointing dog and pony exhibitions. However, we still managed to find plenty of grist to mill about with, including the real reason why the game was the latest sordid chapter in the hurt football feelings of the Chinese people.
No rest for the wicked coordinated
Just about everything in the body language of the Mancunian players announced that they were positively itching for the chance to take it easy during the Premier League offseason, and maybe use the recuperation period to do relaxing things like take dips in the comfort of their own private swimming pools.
It’s really no fault of the individual players for playing most of the game on auto-pilot. The recent second-place Premier League finishers behind Manchester City had to push the ball around in separate kickfests against AmaZulu and Ajax Cape Town in South Africa just last week. Considering the six-hour time difference between South Africa and Shanghai, scheduling three games in one week seems like a case of ‘squeezing the oxen teat until it shrivels’.
Welsh international Ryan Giggs, captaining Team GB for the London Olympics.
These summer tours usually don’t even offer the footballers any shiny bits of metal they can win, unlike some lucky so-and-so’s on the Manchester squad who get to play in the Olympics.
One husband of a footballer’s wife who’s stayed in London and skipped the 2012 Tour is lifelong Red Devil Ryan Giggs, who could have the honor of kicking the traditional English penalty-shootout miss as captain of Team GB, the first such British Olympic football squad formed since 1972.
Maybe it could even happen in the final. Don’t be afraid to dream big, boys! Little did ye know, they give away metal bits for second and third place as well, and hey would you look at this, there might even be some dip-taking action going on in the Olympic Village once they’ve run out of metal bits to give away. Bonus!
Some handwringing about working hours in the new global economy
Regardless of the hardware to be won, football players, along with athletes in high-revenue generating sports like tennis and basketball, have now found themselves in situations where they’re constantly competing all year round to the detriment of their physical conditions.
Recent penalty-lob misser from the Wimbledon final Andy Murray threatened to call a players’ strike against the ATP Tour in September of last year over the issue of over-scheduling, while the NBA’s packed calendar in 2012 (with less time scheduled between games due to the recent lockout) arguably resulted in a slew of injuries for stars who would’ve otherwise been competing for Team USA at the London Olympics.
But then of course
an un- a semi-employed blogger would make fun of something crazy like working constantly, right? Zing.
Alright, who showed up to play then?
Vidic and Rooney both gave the tour a pass, while Chicharrito ran around for thirty minutes in the second half.
The just promoted tykes bore still unfamiliar names that have yet to resonate with the United faithful, like the Italian pair of Davide Petrucci and Kiko Macheda, along with the defensive duo of Freddie Veseli and Marnick Vermijil, to name a few of the players on the Shanghai pitch wearing shirt numbers approaching Rodmanesque heights.
Rio Ferdinand, making sense of the world via technology.
United’s longtime defensive anchor Rio Ferdinand was the only athlete out of the four plastered in the promo material (for the Chevrolet-sponsored “China Cup”) to actually start the match. Besides Giggs, both United’s regular captain Nemanja Vidic and vice-captain Patrice Evra were complete no-shows for the tour, in addition to Wayne Rooney, who’s managed to remain one of the biggest ticket draws in the footballing world since his precocious breakout with the English side at Euro 2004.
Rumors of recent Rooney sightings at Shrek the Musical (playing at Shanghai Cultural Square until August 5th!) proved to be unfounded.
Drogba’s children are afflicted with a rare strain of Blurry Face Disease (BFD).
And lest we forget, Shenhua’s own big-name signings were also nowhere to be seen, with both Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba missing from the livestreamed action. However, the pair didn’t manage to escape the purview of the paparazzi, and got snapped taking in the contest with their children in tow.
The game started out as a testament to why Americans avoid handless football in the first place, with stretches of the English side playing keep-away with the ball, and at least one shoelace-tying incident happening during the course of play.
Playing in only his second game for United, 18-year-old Nick Powell squandered a sparkling chance to score in the 23rd minute, after a chip pass from Petrucci left Powell alone with keeper Fei Xiong (Flying Bear?! Awesome. Goalie. Name.) standing between him and the goal.
Powell shot it wide with his left foot off the right goalpost, missing out on a chance to score his first United goal just minutes after receiving a nasty “Welcome-To-Shanghai” studs-first tackle from Wang Shouting (wonder if he has an indoor voice?).
Shinji Kagawa, controlling the ball against Shenhua.
A similar golden opportunity in front of goal was granted to Shenhua (and former Beijing Guoan) forward Joel Griffiths minutes before half-time, when he managed to get by temporary captain Ferdinand and had the ball in front of him after receiving a space-finding pass from Wang Shouting. Griffiths struck the ball clean, only to have his shot deflected high by a diving save from United’s reserve goalie Anders Lindegaard.
Though Javier Hernandez (¡Chicharrito en la casa!) and Paul “I-can’t-believe-I’m-still-here-either” Scholes were subbed in during the second half, it was United’s new signing Shinji Kagawa who knocked home the only goal of the match during the 68th minute.
Bébé and Kagawa prepare to join hands after producing a beautiful, healthy goal together.
Little-used Portuguese forward Bébé managed to find space after making a run on the left side towards the goal, before making a quick pass to Kagawa. The Japanese international handled the pass with his right foot, bounced it back off his chest as it popped up, and then struck the ball again with his right foot as the ball came back down, sending it past 5 Shenhua defenders crowding the box, sending the ball above the keeper towards the roof of the goal.
And thus ended the first and only sequence of actual goal-scoring that paying fans were hoping to see in abundance. Shenhua never pulled one back, and the visitors didn’t bother to go up any further.
So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. The inaugural China Cup, brought to you by Chevrolet! It was United’s one-and-only appearance in Asia this year, and its first visit to the Jiangnan region since a match played in Hangzhou in 2009. Maybe if we’re lucky, they’ll manage to score a whopping 2 goals when they play Jiangsu Sainty in 2015. Dare to dream!
Worth the cost of admission?
No one is debating that there certainly is value in these games for both teams involved, as well as the sponsors. For Shenhua, it’s an exhibition match against superior talent, and for United, it’s a chance to test out your new signings.
But is it worth it to the
consumer football supporter who shows up to watch?
Hey, if you want to spend between 180 to 1680 of your hard-earned RMB on watching players like Nick Powell get his bungling-it-in-front-goal reps in, then by all means. After all, Kagawa bungled a goal-scoring chance in South Africa against Ajax Cape Town, before managing to hit the net in the next game in Shanghai.
Evidently it’s already enough to earn him the status of greatest Japanese import to England since Kazuo Ishiguro.
Anders Lindegaard, the second coming of Peter Schmeichel?
Then there’s the young goalie Lindegaard, who is enticing if for no other reasons than the fact that a) he’s a goalie; b) he plays for United; and c) he’s Danish! The only other player in history who’s also matched those three criteria is none other than Peter Schmeichel, and we all know how well that turned out.
So buying a ticket to see United play in Shanghai was essentially buying a ticket to see the future, which is quite the contrast to other recent sporting tours in Asia that sold tickets to see the past.
Though a game featuring retired NBA greats squaring off against overweight former somebodies from the Philippines Basketball Association featured embarrassing sights like Mitch Richmond, considered one of the best guards of the 90’s and good enough to go toe-to-toe with Michael Jordan in a shooting display for the ages, just lackadaisically missing open 3-pointers in a Manila mall, there still managed to be at least one crowd-pleasing ooh-AHH moment during the contest.
That’s certainly more than you can say for the Man U-Shenhua match.
But hey, at least Shenhua didn’t get their entire bottoms spanked off 6-0 like Beijing Guoan did against Bayern Munich. Way to go, guys!
What the game means for Shenhua’s season
The worst-case scenario is that the season ends with Shanghai being relegated to the lesser Jia A division, a loss of face that would see heads roll, hair pulled and teeth gnashed to a serioius degree.
At this stage, with 12 Chinese Super League matches left to go and a mere three point cushion above relegation-ready Qingdao Jonoon, Shenhua still have a healthy chance of finishing on the safe side of the relegation zone, though challenging any of the league leaders would require a serious winning streak, the likes of which the team hasn’t seen in years.
So asking for trophies this season might be a bit out of the question. However, what the average punter can ask for instead is for Shenhua to try and turn things up a notch in the spectacle department.
There has been a great deal of anticipation this season, with few actual returns for all the hoopla surrounding the team. A lot of bungling-it-in-front-of-the-crowd has been coming from the club and its management, it seems.
Anelka didn’t play in the Shenhua season opener in March against Jiangsu due to injury, fair enough. But after joining the roster in full strength, he’s still barely managed to score any goals, with Le Sulk blaming the fact that decent passes from other players aren’t coming his way, thus limiting his opportunities to score.
The coach brought in at the beginning of the season was scuttled, with Anelka then taking the wacky initiative to act as player-manager for a spell, before Argentinean coach Sergio Batista came in to right the ship.
Didier Drogba in his first game for Shenhua, playing against Guangzhou R&F in Guangdong province on Sunday.
Then there was the revitalizing news that Drogba decided to sign with Shenhua to play with Anelka, his former goalscoring partner at Chelsea. However, it isn’t completely clear as to why Drogba arrived only just in time to show off his waving skills in front of the Shanghai crowd before the match against Guoan, and not early enough to train for a week and get his kit on for the biggest rivalry in Chinese football.
The Man U friendly and its lack of both sides’ biggest names is merely the latest mildly deflating disappointment in a season full of them, unless it’s considered a genuinely positive victory that Shenhua didn’t concede more goals to the visitors.
Add it all together, and you get a pretty maddening situation in which nothing has worked out like the Shenhua faithful thought it would this entire season, and mediocrity still rules the day.
Beginning this Saturday against Hangzhou Greentown at Hongkou Football Stadium, Shenhua will have a little more than a third of their season left to try and salvage the pre-season promise of the 2012 campaign.
For anyone who was paying attention, the biggest storyline of all in the game is the fact that the lone goal came from Kobe-born Shinji Kagawa, the only East Asian player currently on the United roster, and the third player of East Asian descent to sign with Manchester United.
Shinji Kagawa being congratulated for his first United goal. Kagawa scored 16 goals last season for the Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund.
Kagawa took home Man of the Match honors for his efforts, and already seems well on his way to justifying his ₤17m transfer fee from the Bundesliga Champions Borussia Dortumund, a sum that qualifies him as the most expensive Asian footballer ever, according to Wild East Football.
The presentation of the Man of the Match award to Kagawa by some combed-over Chinese Chevrolet
figurehead executive said it all. Handing the award over awkwardly like he was conferring an icky official Sino-Japanese Friendship gift bracelet, the executive didn’t really know what to make of having to crown a Japanese footballer as the belle of his ball, and just smiled at the crowd, standing at a (shall we say) healthy distance away from Kagawa. Far enough to make certain there’s no way he can catch any of those yucky superior football skill germs Kagawa might be harboring.
What the game means for Chinese football
This means, effectively, that the three major football-crazy countries in East Asia have all had one of their own signed to the mighty Manchester United, no less than the world’s most expensive team according to Forbes, and that only China looks to be the odd man out.
Imprisoned Chinese fans wait to get their shirts signed by Man U players so they can be free to leave the castle.
Koreans were able to collectively grin with the knowledge that Three-Lung Park Ji-Sung raised the profile of South Korean football every time he played well in the midfield for Man U during the past 7 seasons (Park just signed a new contract with Queens Park Rangers…how apropos! Hopefully the fans get some Parklife sing-a-longs going).
Now, Kagawa looks to be securing his place in the starting 11 for United’s upcoming bid to take back the league title from Manchester City with his decent performances in South Africa and Shanghai, which gives Japan further proof that their football culture is healthy as ever.
United’s manager Alex Ferguson chimed in on Kagawa’s game:
The thing that’s impressed me is that every exercise we do on the training ground, he’s never needed it to be explained. After one demonstration he joins in, as if he’s known the language forever. We know he doesn’t speak the language, but it isn’t a problem. It just goes to show that a good footballer can pick up exactly what’s needed. He’s been fantastic in that respect.”
Alex Ferguson gets his inbox bombarded with A LOT of email.
So indirectly, the budding success of Kagawa can be interpreted as yet another damning indictment of the Chinese football system, to add to the already sky-high pile of general condemnations.
Really now, how can any sports official or apologist continue to prattle on about genetic makeup or the traditional diet of East Asian athletes being unsuitable for football’s biggest leagues, when East Asian athletes have proven they can succeed at the highest level?
For their part, Kagawa and Ferguson have raised the bar and even put the lie to the idea that a language barrier between East Asian footballers and their teams is enough of a hinderance to cause sporting failure.
The only thing that anyone can say then, about why there isn’t any Chinese footballer playing with Manchester United, is simply because the system that produces local talent isn’t good enough.
The reason why Dong Fangzhuo, a Dalian native who signed with United from 2004 to 2008 (meaning he was signed even earlier than Park), only managed to play 2 games with United in four years, from now on should have nothing to do with East Asian culture, or the calcified tides of ancient history, or even massive quantities of rice consumption.
Being bad at football is not an immutable fact of life, it isn’t something simply in the ether (unless we’re talking about pollution, maybe). If China sucks at football, then the problem has to simply be a man-made problem; there’s nowhere else to finger the blame. Crackpot theories of yesteryear including ones about the relation between peripheral field or court vision and slanted eyes simply don’t hold water any more.
Ultimately, the success of non-Chinese athletes like Park (and potentially Kagawa) is little different from the success of ethnic Chinese athletes like Liu Xiang and Jeremy Lin, in terms of the effect they’ve had on the global consciousness. All are athletes who’ve succeeded in arenas where previously ironclad rules and limits existed about what Asian males could and couldn’t do in the field of athletics.
Anyone who gets hung up on the fact that Lin is a product of America, and thus not truly Chinese, fails to realize that Lin has already rendered the previous racially-tinged questions about whether Asians shorter than 7″ 6′ belonged on a basketball court moot.
If Kagawa continues to play well, and early reports are that he has the tools to surpass the achievements of Park, then one can only hope that the Chinese football grapes get sour enough for the sport to speed up its pace from glacial to slightly-less-than-glacial in the mainland.
Next up for United & Shenhua
Manchester United moves on to Norway, Sweden and Germany for their next few pre-season matches (You want recession-proof markets? Oh, we GOTS RECESSION-PROOF MARKETS!), including two games against Barcelona in Gothenburg, Sweden and Hannover, Germany.
As for Shenhua, their next game at Hongkou is the first and only time they’ll be hosting Hangzhou Greentown this season on Saturday, August 4th, which the smart internet money says will be Drogba’s first Shenhua game in front of the Shanghai faithful. We’ll be there, in the 80 RMB cheap seats and shouty as ever, while possibly also protecting our head from potential flying projectiles.
Shenhua’s last home game against Hangzhou took place last year, and involved two busloads of Shenhua and Greentown fans having it out, getting bloody and the like. DROGBA! INTRIGUE! FOOTBALL! Ooh, can’t wait.