Bird's Nest pitch

Will Premier League teams ever come back to China?

Thousands of Chinese soccer fans went home very disappointed last Monday evening, following the cancellation of the much-anticipated Manchester derby, after rain the previous week had left the pitch at the Bird’s Nest stadium in an unplayable state. Coupled with less than stellar pre-season tours in previous years, it’s hard to see many top Premier League teams jumping at the chance to return to China, especially when trips to the US and elsewhere are so much more enjoyable.

The expected resumption of hostilities between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, the new coaches of City and United respectively, had shone an unusually bright spotlight on this pre-season friendly, which, unfortunately, only served to highlight the inadequacies of the event’s preparation.

When the dust has settled on the Match That Never Was, it can only be hoped that the post-event internal report – assuming one is actually written – does not place the blame solely on a freak weather occurrence that could never have been foreseen. Yes, Beijing experienced some heavy rainfall in the run-up to the match, but the worst of it came nearly a week beforehand and the city’s drains – not known as among the world’s best – had long since cleared standing water from the streets.

In fact, Manchester City’s deputy head groundsman had been dispatched to Beijing ten days before the game, by which point it would have been abundantly clear that the pitch was in no fit state to host some of the best players on the planet. Moreover, despite the fact that officials waited until early afternoon to call off the game – perhaps waiting for the forecast rain (which never materialized) to use as an additional excuse – witnessed said the players has earlier taken one look at the pitch and immediately turned around, either because they knew that the game would never go ahead, or because they would never agree to play on such a poor surface.

Pep Guardiola Beijing
Guardiola: It wasn’t the water, it wasn’t the rain. It was just the state of the pitch.

The managers did not hold back. Guardiola “slammed organizers” over the “unacceptable pitch” (Mirror), launched a “scathing attack” (Telegraph), “blasted the promoters” over the “pitch fiasco” (Express) and, well, you get the idea.

Sound familiar?

Meanwhile, the playing surface was pretty much the only thing that Mourinho had talked about in the build-up – “slated” and “condemned” the pitch (Mail), wrote the match off “as a joke” (Sun) etc – although that was far from the only hiccup of United’s trip, given that half the players had been diverted to Tianjin on their way north and the initial press conference in Beijing was held al fresco due to the press room being too hot and overcrowded press room – oh, and a 4-1 drubbing by Borussia Dortmund in Shanghai.

Jose Mourinho press conference Beijing
Not exactly the press conference setting Mourinho expected…

The fact that the turf in China’s national stadium was originally designed to accommodate javelins at a track and field event means that a proper drainage system would have been only a secondary concern. Additionally, the stadium rarely hosts football matches – China’s national team, for example, has never played there – meaning that the local staff had little, if any, experience in preparing a pitch.

Neither of these factors should have been a surprise, but the decision was still made to stage the match there.

Money has been pouring into Chinese football in recent months, but lessons need to be learnt that the sport is about far, far more than simply assembling an expensive squad. Off-field matters – everything from event management, the match-day experience and, yes, pitch preparation – can be equally important.

Hong Kong pitch
Spurs play Sunderland in a pre-season friendly in Hong Kong in 2013.

What is even more frustrating is that we’ve seen this movie here before. Three years ago, the Barclays Asia Trophy was blighted by a Hong Kong Stadium pitch (see above) that was so bad several players fell victim to injury. Both Manchester teams were present then, and the best that can be said for this latest embarrassment is that at least those involved had the guts to call it off. The following year (2014), China was effectively boycotted by English Premier League teams as they all chose to go elsewhere in south-east Asia or to other corners of the globe.

Fearless prediction: none of the top EPL teams will visit China next summer.
Disappointed Man Utd fans
Despite isolated reports of fan anger, much coverage of the cancellation and subsequent disappointment/blame was censored in China, not surprising given that the Bird’s Nest is run by a state-owned company.

No one wins from this latest debacle. Not the disappointed fans, not the players, who will have been wondering why they came in the first place, and not the organizers, who will have taken a massive hit due to lost revenue (and refunds), with the teams reportedly still pocketing $3 million for their troubles.

That it was fully avoidable only adds to the farce.

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An abridged version of this article first appeared here. For further discussion of the cancelled derby match and its implications, take a listen to this podcast on Share Radio: Business of Sport.

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