Guangzhou Evergrande FC Was Better When It Had Richard Pryor And John Candy
Posted on March 15, 2012 11:53 am
As much as MLS fans might, on occasion, disparage New York fans for being “walking sandwich boards”, Red Bull is serious about the MLS team they own. They did build Red Bull Arena, eventually. They aren’t an ambulant advertisement for some other club, in some other league, like Chivas USA. It’s been years since we had to remind ourselves they-aren’t-called-that-now-they’re-called-this-now. Throwing them in the same category as former factory workers’ clubs like PSV Eindhoven and Bayer Leverkusen isn’t that much of a stretch.
The true sandwich boards of soccer, for my money, are in the Chinese Super League. When last I bought season tickets for Shenzhen Ruby (shirt and scarf included) I paid 100RMB—which is like dinner for two at Burger King, so it’s not really all that much money. Shenzhen Ruby currently plays in the Chinese second division (the “China League One”) after Philippe Troussier—the “white witch doctor” you most likely remember having coached Japan at the 2002 World Cup—oversaw their meteoric rise to the relegation zone. Two quick addenda: 1) If you hire a guy described as a “witch doctor” as your manager, you can’t be surprised when your team play like zombies. 2) Meteors, by definition, never “rise”.
Since it was established in 1994, Shenzhen F.C. has been rebranded more times than the ass of an epileptic cow. They were actually named after a travel agency for awhile. They were owned by the Ping’An Group from 1997 to 2002, sometimes named Ping’An, sometimes Ping’An Insurance, and sometimes half named after Ping’An and half named after Kejian (of Everton shirts fame).
They were briefly “owned” by Kingway Beer, uncontestedly the local beer of Shenzhen (despite being incorporated in Bermuda, they are mostly owned by an HK-based holding of the Guangdong provincial government, and have a brewery in Shenzhen’s Bao’An District), who are currently facing bankruptcy less than a year after the Heineken/Asia Pacific Breweries joint venture divested. “Kingway Beer”, I’ll note, is the English name of 金威啤酒. 百威啤酒 is the Chinese name under which Budweiser (St. Louis, not Budweis) is sold. So basically Shenzhen F.C. spent a year as a sandwich board for the lawnmower lager equivalent of Stars & Bucks Cafe. Except, of course, that Arabs make coffee you’d actually drink.
All this is prelude to my incredulity at John Duerden of ESPN/Soccernet’s rose-tinted appraisal of Guangzhou Evergrande and Chinese soccer in general:
Guangzhou are the standard bearers for the new-look Chinese football scene at home and overseas. The team, from the city formerly known as Canton, started the spending spree in the country and are showing little signs of stopping. They have already gone from the second division to the Chinese title in successive seasons. Now, with a squad jam-packed full of domestic internationals and highly-paid foreign stars (Dario Conca from Argentina is reportedly among the top five top earners in the world), they have eyes on the Asian Champions League that starts this week. (emphasis mine)
Yes, Shenzhen soccer fans despise and envy Guangzhou’s soccer largese. Unlike Shenzhen Ruby, Guangzhou Evergrande gets increasing amounts of money from their government depending on how high up the table they finish, and Guangzhou’s owners, real estate behemoth Evergrande Real Estate (perhaps better known as Hengda Real Estate), give the club enough of their own money that… well, “lighting cigars with 100RMB bills” doesn’t work, because 100RMB is like dinner for two at Burger King, and that’s the highest denomination they have. Enough to make the government monies look like pocket lint, at any rate.
2012 sees a modified version of Guangzhou Evergrande’s 2011 5-1-3 performance incentive system—500k per league win, 100k per league tie, –300k per league loss—coupled with even larger win bonuses for Champions League results (1.4 million RMB for the 5-1 pasting they handed Jeonbuk) have yielded 2.4 million RMB in player bonuses for the first three matches. Under the 5-1-3 policy they lost 300,000RMB per league loss, a practice still in place in the current 3-0-3 system (for CSL) and 6-3-0 system (for ACL), but you can see why the rest of us envy them. Add to that also that Shenzhen fans have no idea how Ruby owner/chairman Wan Hongwei earned his fortune… but bear in mind that we also have no idea how Troussier earns his, so maybe we’re just generally clueless… like hockey fans.
(One popular theory is private equity investments. He’s pledged US$1 million over 4 years to UNESCO, so he’s not the new New York Cosmos or anything, but it’s not as concrete as, well, concrete, one of the products Dalian Aerbin’s owners manufacture.)
But oddly ignored in both the passage quoted above and the article as a whole is the (much publicized) fact that Guangzhou was sent down to the China League One (China’s D-2) as punishment for their role in a (again, much publicized) match-fixing scandal that saw one-time CFA deputy chief Yang Yimin, that-Chinese-guy-you-saw-refereeing-at-the-World-Cup Lu Jun, and at least 19 others sent to prison. I’m taking that count from the first google hit to not include video, but this story was everywhere. It is, as the kids sometimes say, “a thing”.
That Juventus went from playing in Serie B to a third place finish in Serie A in consecutive seasons is hardly indicative of new ambitions. In the case of Juventus, it’s actually indicative of genuine struggles, as is their failure to win a scudetto since.
Guangzhou’s real rise to the first division occurred when they won the second division in 2007, several years before Evergrande bought the team. Evergrande assumed ownership a week after the punitive relegation was announced—punishment for a match fixed in 2006, while still a second division club. The real cause for optimism is not simply the rampant spending, with no hope of the club itself ever making a profit, but the assumption of control by an untainted ownership group.
Guangzhou won the league in 2011, are 1-0 thus far in 2012 league play with that 5-1 AFC Champions League victory over Jeonbuk last Wednesday to dispel any remaining doubts about their on-the-field ability. But for Duerden to so glaringly ignore the role that Chinese soccer’s biggest club played in Chinese soccer’s biggest scandal of, at the very least, the Super League era, raises both questions and suspicions. Perhaps he felt we all knew the story? But if the core of his op-ed is that Chinese club football is turning a corner and striding confidently out into a bright new day, then the darkness and dankness of past years offers stark contrast to the optimistic radiance of the new chapter Guangzhou is writing for the CSL. It provides, as the kids sometimes say, “a foil”.
I suspect Duerden is, as Roger Ebert sometimes says, a “quote whore”.
Several years ago, the old Jia-A League, founded at roughly the same time as MLS and Japan’s J-League, was is in imminent danger of joining the NASL, the W-USA and (let’s be real) the WPS on the trash heap of history. With the establishment of the Chinese Super League came new guidelines to ensure owners’ long-term financial viability, reminiscent of US Soccer’s recent NASLv2 guidelines (though thornier and less enforceable; how do you enforce division-graded financial requirements while employing English-style promotion and relegation? for starters), as well as youth development initiatives that could likewise be compared to American/Canadian youth development standards put in place by MLS (with the occasional prodding from the Players’ Union). Talk of imminent collapse evaporated. So too did the success of the Chinese national team. The Chinese men made their only Word Cup finals appearance in 2002 (helped in part, no doubt, by the host byes granted Japan and South Korea, as well as remaining AFC powerhouses Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia all being drawn in the other of the two final qualifying groups) and were runner-up to Japan in the 2003 AFC Asian Cup (with riots in Beijing following that loss). The CSL played its inaugural season in 2004.
China has already been eliminated for Brazil 2014. Being able to beat Korea might be a big deal. It might not be. But not being able to beat Jordan is definitely a big deal. Jordanian soccer fans routinely complain that their national soccer team hasn’t won a World Cup since 1966.
Give it a minute.
The Chinese real estate bubble is more or less everyone in China’s favorite topic of conversation, as long as they’re kind of sober and don’t have line-of-sight on girls in bikinis selling cigarettes or monkeys smoking cigarettes they bought from girls in bikinis. “Needless to say that there is a huge bubble in Chinese real estate… it is almost ludicrous to say that there is no bubble” –thus spoke Zarathustra. How financially dependant the government is upon the existence of an incredibly—I mean the word literally, one simply cannot credit it—successful property development/real estate sector is beyond both my ability to analyze and the scope of this blog. Certainly much revenue comes from taxation, profitable SOEs like China Tobacco and interest collected from loans to deadbeat nations like the United States. But selling public land to wealthy developers for increasingly incredible (again, used literally) prices makes up a good chunk of government revenue. The lack of property tax, down payments of (up until a few years ago) 20% (now 30%) on 75 year mortgages with little-to-nothing in the way of rent control… incredible-used-literally. “Too big to fail” takes on a whole new resonance. But with, by my half-assed count, 10 of the 16 (by others’ more competent counts, 14 of 16) current CSL teams owned by companies either wholly or significantly invested in construction or property development or real estate there is some nervous… I almost said “twittering”, but that verb’s been hijacked by social media technologies. Griping? Gossiping? Murmuring makes it sounds seditious, or conspiratorial, and it’s really just something to do with fellow footie fans when your team’s season sucks. So “commiserating”, I’ll go with that.
Shanghai Shenhua is mostly owned by Zhu Jun, i.e. The9, the video game company that until 2009 had exclusive Chinese rights to World of Warcraft, and still have the rights to FIFA Online 2 and a slew of other titles that are so much more fun than
好好学习，天天向上！ or talking to girls. Jiangsu Sainty are, I believe, more concerned with exporting manufactured goods. Beijing Guo’An is owned by state-owned financial investment company CITIC. But in a preponderance of instances, the long term outlook of CSL teams is tied to the long term outlook of the famously problematic, infamously gamed Chinese real estate market. With far too many people paying far too much to either share cold-water efficiencies and/or commute long distances at slower speeds than even non-Kenyans can run, and too many shiny new condos sitting empty, titles held by wealthy real estate speculators who don’t pay property tax, something has to give well before China makes it to another World Cup—unless they qualify by hosting, as Qatar has.
Expecting clubs to run at Abramovichesque deficits can’t be a long term solution to China’s club-level woes. Ticketing isn’t much of a revenue generator (I was an STH for 100RMB), no one pays for parking in China (they see sidewalks through Italian eyes, and often see bus stops as sidewalks) and their TV viewership makes that of MLS matches look like the Apollo 11 landing. Concessions aren’t much of a revenue stream, either; China isn’t a nation of beer drinkers, and south China isn’t really a nation of drinkers, period. Hell, even the hard-drinking Mongolians up north get more baijiu and arak on their shirts than in their mouths. If they had girls in micro-shorts with pony kegs on their backs selling beer in all their stadiums… they’d be Japanese baseball, not Chinese soccer.
The “Eurosnob” factor is much stronger in China, as well, though when most teams change names more often than the Colorado Rapids change primary home colors, it’s hard to blame fans for being drawn to clubs that not only participate in elite competitions, but actually value their tradition.
Matches are often viewed as fixed affairs even before kick-off, including the (to me) perplexing school of conspiracy thought that claims a player on loan from Club A to Club B will play to lose when Club B (whose shirt he’s wearing) plays Club A (with whom he’s ultimately technically signed). In the States we assume he’s going to want to make his original club sorry they loaned him out. I mean, if your boss made you hire a moving van twice in one year, you’d wanna feed him his teeth through his Jumbotron, right?
And then, between the failures of the Chinese national team and the rise of Chinese basketball stars like Yao Ming and “Chinese” basketball stars like Jeremy Lin, participation wanes. Also, half-court works for basketball, and Chinese, being non-Kenyans, don’t like to run. Hence the snail-paced commutes.
Blackburn overspent and won an EPL title in ’95, only to be relegated four years later. Fiorentina in 2002 is every non-San Jose fan’s worst nightmare. Investing money to win games or to grow the brand is hells-yeah-awesome in the short run, but without strong fan support both independent of on-the-field performance and of genuine financial benefit to the club, the CSL will at best become a top-heavy, SPL-type league of no real use to the national team, or at worst an NASL redux with Guangzhou as the Cosmos and everyone else as everyone else.
EDIT: numbers on the 5-1-3 system and 3-0-3 system are in millions, not hundred thousands, as should be apparent from the links.