The Chinese Super League returns this month, and the stakes have never been higher. We met with two evergreen Beijing Guoan superfans to talk past, present and predictions.
Owner, Team Beijing Shop and collector of all things Guoan
Zhao Yuejin (centre) with Jason Zhang (left)
Impressive collection! What have we got here then?
There’s match-worn shirts and boots, training gear, autographed photos, posters, balls, tickets, scarves, pennants – all sorts! And this isn’t even everything.
There’s more at home!? How many items have you collected in total?
[Laughs and looks at wife] I couldn’t tell you! Between here and home, we’ve gathered so many. My wife and son collect too, so between the three of us, probably over one hundred, a few hundred maybe? Every cupboard has something hidden in it!
Nice! And so which is your absolute favourite?
I really love my signed shirt and boots from [former Guoan star and Mali international] Frédi Kanouté – both match-worn – but it has to be this commemorative shirt from when we won the league in 2009. It’s just a simple white t-shirt they handed out at the stadium on the day we lifted the trophy, but I managed to get mine signed by the entire squad – it’s priceless. Well, actually none of these are for sale!
There’s a new head coach this season in José González, but what else needs to change?
We’re still weak going forward. Our biggest problem last season was finishing off our opposition and putting the game to bed. Under [former coach] Alberto Zaccheroni, things just didn’t click and tactics that worked for him back in Europe just weren’t appropriate for the Chinese league. Hopefully González will adapt better and also teach the team to adapt to see games through.
After six straight titles, can anyone finally catch the seemingly unbeatable Guangzhou Evergrande?
They’re standing tall, head and shoulders above the rest. In the long term, I think only Guoan can compete with them as, in terms of finances at least, we’re best placed to do so. We’re now the second most valuable team in the country – apparently worth more than AC Milan, too! We don’t seem willing to spend at the moment though.
We heard Guoan actually beat AC Milan a few years back.
1994. 2-1 in a friendly here in Beijing. I didn’t make it though – the queues were piling up all through the night!
There’s space for one more foreign star in your squad, so is it time to splash some of that cash?
Maybe, though sometimes they can upset the balance, and feel like a big fish in a small pond. But this is the coach’s problem to resolve – he must get them onto the same level of communication and understanding as their teammates, working hard for each other in order to get the best for the team.
Who is Guoan’s most important player right now?
Zhang Xizhe, our number ten. He’s the focal point of the team and has always performed well for us. He’s always aware of what’s going on around him, who’s around him, shouting for the ball and directing play.
And finally, where will Guoan finish this season?
Fourth. No, third! Of course it would be great to be champions, but we still have a long way to go and weaknesses to improve on. Qualifying for the AFC (Asian) Champions League should be our main aim after missing out last season.
Wrote the book on Guoan superfandom – literally
So tell us about your book, The Story of Beijing Football Fans. Is writing your full-time job?
No, it’s just a hobby. I do household repairs by day, but I’m a professional Guoan fan since 1994! The book is made up from a series of interviews I did with 20 or so fans – superfans – discussing their experiences and relationships with their beloved Beijing Guoan.
What made you want to write about them? What makes Guoan fans special?
I wanted to document just how fiercely loyal Guoan’s fans are. Since 1994, they have stuck with the team, come rain or shine – quite literally. One story comes from summer 2012, when we played Hangzhou during the heaviest rain Beijing had seen for 60 years. We all remember how terrible those floods were. Guoan lost 2-0, and many fans were forced to stay in the stadium as there was no way to return home.
Are there any other stories that stand out for you?
I suppose there was the fan who sold his house and possessions to move to a place right next to the stadium – an expensive choice! Although I really like the tale of Liu Dongsheng, the Guoan Grandfather, who’s never missed a home game in over 20 years. In 2001, it was a bitterly cold winter and attendance for one particular game was practically zero, but he still turned up, and there’s a now-famous photo of him sitting alone, surrounded by an empty stand.
How do you feel about taking on champions Evergrande on the opening day of the 2017 season?
They’re a very tough team – they have hired another World Cup-winning coach in [Brazilian Luis Felipe] Scolari and, overall, they have a better balance and quality to their squad. It’s going to be tough, but we have a strong team spirit, so maybe we have a chance. It’s a good time to play them away, particularly as it gets hotter and hotter down south as the season goes on!
Guoan seem to be a little tighter with the purse strings than other clubs – why?
Investment has been big in the last few years, and we are one of the most financially stable and powerful clubs in the league, but we’re very prudent about spending. We were owned by the CITIC Group for years – if the boss is a bank, you’ve got to stick to a budget!
What shape is the squad in?
We’ve improved at the back with the return of defender Yu Yang from Guangzhou R&F, but I feel like right now the attack could be better, as we don’t have one player who can consistently grab the game and drive the whole team on.
So do the foreign stars still need to step up?
There’s no doubt our three foreign players are all very talented. They certainly have the quality. Settling into their second season, [Turkish striker] Burak Yilmaz and [Brazilian midfielder] Renato Augusto will hopefully be very important for us, if they play to their full abilities and the experience they both gained back in Europe.
Last August, the Super League signed a huge deal with big-name sports networks across the world, and this season will see more games broadcast than ever before. How important is this?
There are two sides to every story, and the side of Chinese football that’s shown in the foreign media only talks negatively of the financial aspects. Hopefully these new TV deals can be a great advert for the league, and help to improve its image. In any case, everyone’s starting to acknowledge and take notice of the competition.
So where will the boys in green finish this time round?
I think between fourth and sixth, but hopefully higher if we can strengthen the squad with some attackers.
Last CSL title 2009.
Recent finishes 5th, 4th, 2nd, 3rd, 3rd.
Home ground Workers’ Stadium.
2016 average attendance 38,140.
Head coach José González (Spain).
Captain Xu Yunlong, their 38-year-old one-club man.
Foreign stars Burak Yilmaz (Turkey), Renato Augusto and Ralf (Brazil).
Key domestic players Zhang Xizhe, Yu Dabao.
Main rivals Shanghai Shenhua, Guangzhou Evergrande, Tianjin Teda.
Evergrande vs Guoan. 7.35pm. Sunday 5 March. Available on CCTV 5. Beijing Guoan’s first home game is against Shanghai Shenhua on Sunday 2 April.