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May 9, 2014

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‘You simply do not change team names’

AFTER a decade of gloom and controversies, Shanghai’s premier club Shenhua fired up hopes of a fresh new start when the country’s biggest real estate company, the Greenland Group, took over the reins in January.

Fans, who had spent most of the past year taking in the antics of maverick investor Zhu Jun, welcomed the arrival of Greenland. But any hopes that it would be a controversy-free start to the new Chinese Super League (CSL) season were dashed when the new owners did the inconceivable.

They changed the name of the club to Shanghai Greenland FC and then modified the emblem, angering fans. The new emblem had “Shenhua” — literally meaning Shanghai flower and used by the club for two decades — replaced by Greenland. Worse, the leopard head was replaced by the property dealer’s logo, though a full-size image of the ferocious cat was fitted on the side of the emblem.

Given that CSL broadcast regulations insist that a maximum of five Chinese characters, counting the city or province name, can appear in a television news or match broadcast, Shenhua had to be dropped as Shanghai Greenland Team took up the five Chinese characters.

“It is the habit of a non-football cultural country,” says Xie Hui, part of the team that won the title in the top-tier league’s Jia A era in 1995. He remains Shenhua’s top scorer, netting 25 goals in 95 appearances. “It will never happen in Manchester, London or Europe. You simply do not change team names.”

When pressed that Cardiff in Wales under a Malaysian owner and Hull City under an Egyptian boss were pushing for the same, Xie was more blunt.

“That’s because the owners come from non-football-playing countries. They don’t have a football culture like the kind you see in Europe,” he says.

“It is difficult for them though. You have new owners who put in money and they want to change the team name. That makes sense ... that’s part of the game but you have to respect football culture,” he adds. “That’s the most important thing in football. It ensures loyalty. It brings in the fans who identify with the team not with the owners. People follow the game like a religion.

“Sponsors also get a lot of returns because of the fans. They will never leave you. That is the best advertisement. Nobody knew Zhu Jun before. They know him because of Shenhua.”

New investors taking over soccer clubs is nothing new. They come from as far as Russia, the United States, Middle East and Asia. Both the Manchester clubs, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal in England, along with PSG and Monaco have seen a flood of money coming from abroad. Soccer was suddenly big business.

It has been true in China as well but not all investments have turned into gold, except probably for Guangzhou Evergrande. Guangzhou’s success has set the ball rolling with others keen to copy its model.

“I can understand why Greenland wanted to change the name. Evergrande is a much smaller entity (than Greenland). But that’s the thinking ... If Evergrande can, why can’t we?” Xie says.

“The loyalty of consumers will never change. If you change the brand, they will leave,” he says. “It is the name that lives for hundreds of years. Manchester United has new owners, new investors. Would they dare to change the name? Fans would be furious.”

Greenland has spoken to the fans and said they would revert to Shenhua next year. “So that’s a good thing. Nobody knows Greenland. Fans only know Shenhua. Even at the height of Yao Ming’s time at the Houston Rockets, Shenhua drew a larger audience.”

The former Shenhua, Alemannia Aachen and SpVgg Greuther Fürth player also believes fans in China get a very raw deal.

“The fans are never important in Chinese football. In Europe, we say fans are God. Here, it is different. There is simply too much politics involved,” Xie says. “Teams here can survive without fans. It is not healthy but it happens in some places. The same is probably true even in some Arabic countries.

“If you want the people to back you, you have to do the right thing. People know who you are. You come in, you win the title, people will know Greenland is the owner. It doesn’t change anything.”

But Xie takes pride in the fact that there are three Shanghai clubs vying for honors in the current CSL season and shrugs off talks of a split among fans hurting the sport.

“I don’t see that as a problem. I think Shanghai is fortunate. We are lucky we have this kind of culture here. Three teams are not too many for a megacity like Shanghai with a population of nearly 24 million. What’s the population of London? Eight-10 million? They have 12 teams with at least five playing in the Premier League. I think people here are getting the hang of it. It’s a good thing. There is room for some more. I see a lot of future.

“East Asia, which is currently on top, is Xu Genbao’s team. He was my coach when Shenhua won the title in 1995. He is a legend. He has been coaching a bunch of youngsters on Chongming Island. This team has been with him for 15 years. He is the godfather of Chinese football. He builds a new team and now it is sitting on top of the league,” Xie says.

So it doesn’t matter that it is not Shenhua but another team at the top?

“No. It does matter. It’s derby. In football, there are no friends. Shenhua’s task is to regain that glory and get its reputation back. They carry the best image of Shanghai’s football. It is important for Greenland Shenhua to move on to another level. But it won’t happen overnight.”

For Xie, who is currently coaching U-17 and U-19 teams, the best investment is in youngsters.

“Getting Drogba, Anelka doesn’t change things. You can’t burn money like that. It is not sustainable. Greenland has just bought Lucky Stars with an eye on the future. The U-19 team beat Shandong Luneng’s U-19 team in the final. We beat East Asia five times in a row. So that means we have something here.

“It is not just about investing in the first team but you have to look long-term ... at least five to six years to develop a young team. The money Xu Genbao invested 15 years ago was very small. I know that. He’s not a businessman. He put every single penny into his project. Now he has a team that is challenging for honors. That’s football ... doing the right things. Educate the young and they can go on to become stars. With Shenhua’s name they can easily attract 8-year-olds. But how many start that early? If you start at 12, you can never become a good footballer.

“This city is the best for the young generation of players. If you go 200km out of Shanghai there is no football. You go to Suzhou, there is nothing. Except for big cities like Beijing, Guangzhou, Shandong, the rest don’t exist on the football map. You can leave 90 percent out. That is a huge population without football,” Xie says.


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