Break­ing ground in Bei­jing: Bright lights, big city, and even big­ger plans

The for­mer Done­gal man­ager re­flects on his first four months in China with Su­per League team Guoan

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SOCCER - Clif­ford Coo­nan in Bei­jing

In the el­e­gant Chao Ho­tel on the hippest side of Bei­jing’s San­l­i­tun district, dec­o­rated with the bleached woods and down­light­ing of a con­tem­po­rary art gallery, Jim McGuin­ness is talk­ing tac­tics, scale and dy­namism. The ho­tel is just a few hun­dred me­tres from the Work­ers’ Sta­dium, where the for­mer Done­gal se­nior foot­ball man­ager has been work­ing with the Ger­man Roger Sch­midt to rev­o­lu­tionise the Chi­nese Su­per League team Bei­jing Si­nobo Guoan.

With six mil­lion cars clog­ging the streets, the cap­i­tal’s traf­fic snarl-ups leave lit­tle scope for big egos in fancy SUVs pulling up for train­ing. Bei­jing is a city of 22 mil­lion peo­ple that cares more about power than money, com­pared with, say, Shang­hai. And do­ing the work.

“The dy­nam­ics in Bei­jing are re­ally good. Maybe the city lends it­self to that. You don’t have peo­ple pulling up in BMWs and Mercedes and Range Rovers, be­cause ev­ery­body’s on a scooter – staff and play­ers. It takes a lot of the pomp out of it, and it just be­comes about get­ting into work and do­ing their work,” McGuin­ness says. When he ar­rived in Bei­jing, in July, the

Ir­ish Times colum­nist was struck by the heat, then by how new ev­ery­thing was, and he is still fiercely im­pressed as he walks each day across the Gongti in­ter­sec­tion to where Guoan train. “It’s been a lovely ex­pe­ri­ence, some­thing I thought would never hap­pen. Ev­ery­thing was be­ing built. There’s huge money in the coun­try, and peo­ple are pay­ing to stay in ho­tels like this. But then you’ve only got to go 700m down the road and it’s a dif­fer­ent city, a lot cheaper and a lot more re­laxed. We haven’t even started to ex­pe­ri­ence it.”

Leav­ing the coach­ing staff at Celtic to move to Bei­jing had been a tough de­ci­sion, but it of­fered McGuin­ness an op­por­tu­nity to move up a level in terms of first-team ex­pe­ri­ence and coach­ing. The ca­ma­raderie and the fun among the squad re­minded him of the way Gaelic foot­ballers were 15 years ago.

“That lends it­self to good dy­nam­ics. There’s a lot of re­spect. It’s been very re­fresh­ing to see how the for­eign play­ers in­ter­act with the Chi­nese play­ers, and the staff. There’s a lot of hu­mil­ity,” he says.

Hot-but­ton is­sue

For­eign play­ers are a hot-but­ton is­sue in the Chi­nese Su­per League. Big-money moves by the likes of the Brazil­ian mid­fielder Os­car, who left Chelsea to join Shang­hai SIPG, shun­ning of­fers from Atlético Madrid, or Car­los Tevez’s switch to Shang­hai Green­land Shen­hua for a re­ported salary of ¤35 mil­lion, made head­lines, but on a day-to-day ba­sis it’s dif­fer­ent. The fo­cus is do­mes­tic, on the Chi­nese play­ers.

“The chal­lenge is to raise the stan­dards and get ev­ery­one to a level. You’ve got eight Chi­nese play­ers in the team, and in many re­spects they are more im­por­tant than the three for­eign play­ers. The for­eign play­ers dic­tate a lot of the games, be­cause the games are played in mo­ments. But if you look at Ever­grande for ex­am­ple, they’ve put a huge em­pha­sis on get­ting the best Chi­nese play­ers, and that has given them the plat­form.”

Hav­ing chalked up their sev­enth con­sec­u­tive ti­tle last month – a league record – Guangzhou Ever­grande Taobao are in­deed the team to beat. Three of those ti­tles were with Luiz Felipe Sco­lari, who is leav­ing the club now, al­though he may stay in China.

“Ev­ery­one is com­pet­ing for for­eign play­ers, but the dif­fer­ence in level be­tween the for­eign play­ers is not sig­nif­i­cant, be­cause ev­ery­body is at an ex­tremely high level. The top eight or nine teams, it doesn’t mat­ter what team their for­eign play­ers are in: they’re in­cred­i­bly tal­ented play­ers. So it be­comes then about the other pool of play­ers. You’re kind of pick­ing from one na­tional team for the whole league.”

Bei­jing Guoan’s for­eign le­gion in­cludes the Span­ish striker Jonathan So­ri­ano, who has had a good run un­der Sch­midt, the Brazil­ian mid­field­ers Re­nato Au­gusto and Ralf, and Egor Krimets of Uzbek­istan.

As well as Sco­lari, the league has at­tracted the big-name man­agers An­dré Vil­las-Boas, the for­mer Chelsea boss; the for­mer Manch­ester City boss Manuel Pel­le­grini; Sven-Göran Eriks­son, the one-time Eng­land coach; the ex-Bay­ern Mu­nich man­ager Felix Ma­gath; and, of course, Sch­midt, who used to coach Bayer Lev­erkusen and Salzburg.

“There’s a lot of good teams in the league, and there’s a lot of well-coached teams in the league. You sit down and you do the anal­y­sis and you look at the op­po­si­tion, look at the re­port and the video con­tent, and the man­ager will al­ways say, ‘This is a good team.’ We re­ally need to be ready here.” McGuin­ness says.

Sch­midt and the team are look­ing to the start of the sea­son, in March 2018, with play­ers ex­pected to come and go over the break, but de­cided to come mid­sea­son to start prepar­ing for the next. Bei­jing Guoan fin­ished ninth in the sea­son just ended; af­ter an ini­tial seven-match un­beaten run, fol­low­ing Sch­midt’s ap­point­ment to re­place José González, the re­sults be­came mixed, and the wins pe­tered out. But a lot of ground­work has been done, and McGuin­ness says they’re prepar­ing a full course of pre­sea­son train­ing in Por­tu­gal and China.

Se­lec­tion headache

One thing ev­ery­one in the league is think­ing about is a se­ries of new rules for next sea­son, aimed at boost­ing the num­ber of young do­mes­tic play­ers, that are go­ing to make team se­lec­tion much more of a headache.

Su­per League teams are cur­rently re­stricted to three for­eign play­ers. One of the new rules means teams must have at least three un­der-23 play­ers in the match-day squad of 18. At least one must start the game, as is the rule cur­rently, but an­other new rule says that at least as many un­der-23s as for­eign play­ers must be on the pitch – ef­fec­tively, three for­eign play­ers and three un­der-23s at any one time dur­ing a Chi­nese Su­per League match.

“If you’re 20 years of age and you’re a good player now, you’re go­ing to be in­cred­i­bly sought-af­ter. Ev­ery­one’s try­ing to find the best ones and look to de­velop the ones they have. You’re go­ing to have kids com­ing into league with not a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence, and they are go­ing to be cut­ting their teeth against some of the best play­ers in the world. Maybe that’s what the Chi­nese fed­er­a­tion wants to achieve, wants to put them in at the deep end,” McGuin­ness says.

“Three is a lot. Think­ing about Gaelic foot­ball, if you had three un­der-21 play­ers from a team from the year pre­vi­ous, it would be good go­ing. The av­er­age age for break­ing into the league in Eng­land is 23. It will be in­ter­est­ing to see what hap­pens.”

It will also make it tougher for 27- or 28-year-old play­ers at the peak of their ca­reers, who may have to give way to less-skilled play­ers with the age ad­van­tage. The move is pri­mar­ily driven by Chi­nese soc­cer’s puz­zling, and na­tion­ally em­bar­rass­ing, lack of in­ter­na­tional suc­cess. Dur­ing their doomed qual­i­fy­ing cam­paign for Rus­sia 2018, they were beaten by Uzbek­istan and

Syria.

The push comes from Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping, a soc­cer fan who has har­nessed na­tion­al­ism as a po­lit­i­cal tool and knows well how valu­able the sport is in boost­ing China’s soft power. A pho­to­graph of him kick­ing a Gaelic foot­ball at Croke Park went around the world, as did a selfie of him at Manch­ester City with Ser­gio Agüero and David Cameron, the Bri­tish prime min­is­ter at the time. His anti-cor­rup­tion cam­paign has net­ted some ma­jor scalps, in­clud­ing some se­nior foot­ball ad­min­is­tra­tors’.

A Ron­aldo or a Messi

Ul­ti­mately, for Chi­nese soc­cer to suc­ceed it needs to win back some of the ground lost to basketball, whose pop­u­lar­ity surged through a com­bi­na­tion of clever mar­ket­ing by the Na­tional Basketball As­so­ci­a­tion and the high pro­file of the for­mer Hous­ton Rock­ets star Yao Ming. Chi­nese soc­cer lacks a star for fans to get be­hind – and for that to hap­pen there needs to be more de­vel­op­ment of younger play­ers.

“They are cry­ing out for a role model, a top, top player. Hun­dreds of mil­lions of kids are look­ing for a Ron­aldo or a Messi, some­body of real top qual­ity that will be the top Chi­nese player in the league, and when that hap­pens you will have a rip­ple ef­fect, with them say­ing, ‘That’s what I want to be, that’s where I want to go,’ whereas now it’s ping-pong or basketball.”

There are also struc­tural is­sues to be ad­dressed. The top-down ap­proach has been crit­i­cised. In the ab­sence of a mean­ing­ful academy sys­tem at most Chi­nese clubs, and the dearth of soc­cer de­vel­op­ment in schools, there are fears for the over­all qual­ity of the game in China.

One of Xi’s pro­grammes re­quires schools to of­fer soc­cer coach­ing. The schools need to get on board if Chi­nese soc­cer is to de­velop. But with 1.35 bil­lion peo­ple, China is a com­pet­i­tive place, and ed­u­ca­tion is one way to get ahead of your con­tem­po­raries. This of­ten stops chil­dren play­ing soc­cer, as study trumps sport.

“Chi­nese peo­ple say if foot­ball prac­tice is on a col­li­sion course with any­thing to do with school, the school­ing side of things will al­ways win out. They’ll say that’s why ev­ery­body al­ways wears glasses in China, be­cause they are all book­worms and look­ing at screens the whole time,” McGuin­ness says. “What I would be think­ing is that schools are the an­swer, be­cause if schools can make it okay for foot­ball to co­ex­ist, then that means one is not a threat to the other, and that will be good for the de­vel­op­ment of the game.

New rules are also com­ing in that say an in­debted club that buys a player for more than 45 mil­lion yuan, or about ¤5.8 mil­lion, must give the same amount to a youth-de­vel­op­ment pro­gramme.

“There are a lot of pos­i­tive things hap­pen­ing. I al­ways say that if your heart’s in the right place you will find a way. There is a lot of money in the league now, but that money needs to start go­ing into acad­e­mies and pro­fes­sional set-ups and de­vel­op­ment, cov­er­ing all the ar­eas – tech­ni­cal and tac­ti­cal, nu­tri­tion and psy­chol­ogy – so they will have the same op­por­tu­ni­ties as they’d get at Celtic or Man Utd or any­where else. That’s the next step. The league is only in its in­cep­tion. It’s only re­ally early days.” Cul­ture shock One of the things McGuin­ness has re­ally en­joyed has been the chang­ing sea­sons.

“At home you’re in the same sea­son all year round: you could get a beau­ti­ful day in Jan­uary, and it could rain all sum­mer. It’s been nice to ex­pe­ri­ence the sea­sons. It elon­gates the year, when you’ve been through a few cy­cles. It feels that we’ve been here a lot longer than four months, be­cause it feels we’ve been part of a process,” he says. “Though I am still look­ing for­ward to go­ing home to get some rain on my face for a cou­ple of months. The wind and the rain. Even when it does rain here it’s a dif­fer­ent thing; it’s just buck­et­ing. I miss that swirl and swish of the wind and the rain, a soft day.”

Com­ing to China has been a cul­ture shock for sure, but there is enough shared ex­pe­ri­ence for McGuin­ness to feel com­fort­able here. He seems to rel­ish the scale of the place.

“Foot­ball clubs are foot­ball clubs, and peo­ple are peo­ple. The big­gest dif­fer­ence is the vast­ness of it. The scale of the city. The pop­u­la­tions. The travel. Whereas we would think a five-hour jour­ney leav­ing Glas­gow is a mas­sive jour­ney, you don’t even blink at the thought of it here. It’s a three- or a four-hour jour­ney, it’s just not a big deal. They are def­i­nitely not sit­ting on the plane or a train say­ing, ‘I won­der how I’m go­ing to feel af­ter this long travel.’ A lot of that is psy­cho­log­i­cal for play­ers. This is the way it rolls,” he says.

“I re­mem­ber our flight to Shang­hai was can­celled, and we had to get the bul­let train. I was just sit­ting in the train, watch­ing the coun­try­side pass, and city af­ter city: just the size of it was in­cred­i­ble. How many peo­ple in that city? Seven mil­lion, and you’d never heard of the place. Some­times the Chi­nese didn’t know the place. Get­ting your head around that is dif­fi­cult, but good as well: it opens you up as a per­son. You have to per­ceive the world slightly dif­fer­ently. Be­cause the re­al­ity around you is very much dif­fer­ent.”

You’ve got eight Chi­nese play­ers in the team and in many re­spects they are more im­por­tant than the three for­eign play­ers The wind and the rain. Even when it does rain here, it’s a dif­fer­ent thing, it’s just buck­et­ing. I miss that swirl and swish of the wind and the rain, a soft day

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: AFP PHOTO

A gen­eral view of the cen­tral busi­ness district in Bei­jing: “The big­gest dif­fer­ence is the vast­ness of it. The scale of the city. The pop­u­la­tions. The travel,” says McGuin­ness. Be­low: McGuin­ness with Guoan man­ager FC Roger Sch­midt (far right) and a mem­ber of the coach­ing staff.

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