Global interest in Chinese football may have faded with the recent departure of its two biggest stars, but the league champions and their derby rivals are in it for the long run
By Peter Davis
Didier Drogba and Nicholas Anelka have left Shanghai Shenhua.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I want to make it clear that they left Shanghai Shenhua and not specifically China; while foreigners coming and going have become commonplace, some relationships in the Middle Kingdom are anything but short lived. Chinese football's pride is of course slightly wounded from the departure of those two rather famous players, but as one Chinese proverb goes, 'The loftiest towers rise from the ground.' One part of China on the way to building a footballing skyscraper is Guangzhou.
Guangzhou Evergrande, winners of the last two Chinese Super League titles, and Guangzhou R&F fly an unusual flag for not just Chinese football but also football rivalry itself. The neighbouring Canton clubs have the unlikeliest of friendships, the roots of which come from their owners, Xu Jiayin and Zhang Li, who head Evergrande Real Estate Group and Guangzhou R&F Properties respectively.
|[Evergrande and R&F owners] Xu and Zhang famously missed their clubs’ local derby last year, instead choosing to drink with one another and watch the game on TV|
Xu and Zhang famously missed their clubs’ local derby last year, instead choosing to drink with one another and watch the game on TV. This may not have changed fan opinions on wealth within the game, but it did make it quite clear that the two are very good friends. Evergrande’s Xu has quite the empire with projects in 22 cities covering near 50 million square meters, while Zhang’s R&F became the first mainland Chinese real estate company to join the Hang Seng China Enterprises Index.
Guangzhou Evergrande won the China League One in 2010 and went on to win the Chinese Super League in 2011 and 2012. They also have a fantastic squad including new Brazilian signing Elkeson as well as China’s captain Zheng Zhi, Argentinian Darío Conca and Paraguayan international Lucas Barrios. Above all that, a whopping 11 of the 26 players named in China’s last international against Saudi Arabia were on Evergrande’s books.
Meanwhile, Guangzhou R&F just completed their first CSL campaign with a seventh-place finish highlighted by the massive signing of Yakubu from Blackburn Rovers. Though overshadowed by the arrival of Drogba and Anelka, Yakubu bagged 9 goals in 14 games in comparison to the 3 in 22 from the former French international.
|"Big Canton derby today... Got the parents over for it that's why I'm gonna play even on one leg! #ticketssoldout"
-Rostyn Griffiths via Twitter
R&F have benefited from the clubs' close relationship this off-season, receiving three China internationals with 30 caps between them in Li Jianhua, Jiang Ning, and Wu Pingfeng, plus former loanee Li Yan, from Evergrande. Two-time CSL winner Zhang Yaokun has also arrived at R&F from the now-disbanded Dalian Shide. The relationship is felt by the foreign players themselves, such as R&F’s Rostyn Griffiths who tweeted on the eve of the derby; "Big Canton derby today... Got the parents over for it that's why I'm gonna play even on one leg! #ticketssoldout"
Evergrande have also solidified two very big strategic partnerships that appear lucrative on paper, despite critics who claim otherwise. Early last year, Evergrande facilitated the opening of a Guangzhou branch of Real Madrid Soccer Schools. They closed out 2012 with a commercial partnership with AC Milan.
“We will spread our selection to more than 100 cities around [China] to pick 3,150 students from millions of aspirants,” Evergrande chief Xu Jiayin told local media in laying out his plans for the Real Madrid project. “We also plan to open a university that only has 100 elite graduates each year, and we will benefit from the growing price of Chinese players at that time.” While the school will be used to train the next generation of Chinese players, the Milan link could lead to mutually-beneficial loans moves between the two sides.
|"[Guangzhou is] terrific. They recognise me and ask for photos and autographs; there's a great sense of admiration"
But the champions are not without controversy; former South Korean manager Lee Jang-Soo was replaced by Marcello Lippi following three trophies in just over two years in a move worth of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich. Lippi seems happy with life in Guangzhou, telling La Gazzetta dello Sport; "It's terrific. They recognise me and ask for photos and autographs; there's a great sense of admiration."
Evergrande have arguably become China’s most-developed side with a fantastic squad, powerful international ties and a decent shot at the Asia Champions League in 2013. Their local ‘rivals’ R&F are beginning to blossom and should they hold onto Yakubu, could be looking at the top four and ACL qualification themselves in the coming campaign. As the hype over Drogba and Anelka fades away, spare a thought for clubs such as Evergrande and R&F who are focusing on development, growth and the long term expansion of Chinese football.
Beijing-based Peter Davis watched Liaoning Whowin play Chengdu Blades in 2008 and has been hooked on Chinese football ever since. He is a regular contributor to Wild East Football and can be found on Twitter at @peteydavis