Bright lights, big city, bigger plans: Jim McGuinness in Beijing

The ‘Irish Times’ columnist is helping to revolutionise the Chinese Super League team

Beijing Guoan: Workers’ Stadium, the club’s ground. Photograph: Sino/Getty

Beijing Guoan: Workers’ Stadium, the club’s ground. Photograph: Sino/Getty

 

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.

Beijing Guoan: Jim McGuinness with head coach Roger Schmidt. Photograph: VCG via Getty
Beijing Guoan: Jim McGuinness with head coach Roger Schmidt. Photograph: VCG via Getty

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.

Beijing Guoan: ultra supporters celebrate a goal against Chongcing Lifan in the Chinese Super League. Photograph: Kevin Frayer/Getty
Beijing Guoan: ultra supporters celebrate a goal against Chongcing Lifan in the Chinese Super League. Photograph: Kevin Frayer/Getty

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.”

Soccer fan: Xi Jinping in Sergio Agüero’s selfie

Beijing gridlock: with six million cars clogging the streets, the Chinese capital’s traffic snarl-ups leave little scope for big egos in fancy SUVs pulling up for soccer training. Photograph: Xiao Lu Chu/Getty
Beijing gridlock: with six million cars clogging the streets, the Chinese capital’s traffic snarl-ups leave little scope for big egos in fancy SUVs pulling up for soccer training. Photograph: Xiao Lu Chu/Getty

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.

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

“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 very 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’.

Viral photograph: sports fan Xi Jinping, who is now his country’s president, kicking a football at Croke Park in 2012. Photograph: Alan Betson
Viral photograph: sports fan Xi Jinping, who is now his country’s president, kicking a football at Croke Park in 2012. Photograph: Alan Betson

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.

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

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.”

Beijing Guoan: the club is based in a city with a population of 22 million people. Photograph: Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty
Beijing Guoan: the club is based in a city with a population of 22 million people. Photograph: Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty

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.”

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