How’s this for a conspiracy theory? With Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign showing no signs of abating, and all manner of tigers and flies being caught in the net, a particular target of the crackdown is the gambling mecca of Macao, which had grown so fast it was bringing in SEVEN times as much as Vegas as of a year ago.
Lots happened last year – Li Na retired, Sun Yang tested positive, and Chinese soccer continued to suck – but what awaits in 2015? 10 questions for you below…
1. How will China fare at the Asian Cup?
We’ll start with the most pressing questions because China kicks off its Asian Cup campaign on Saturday. Group B – China, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia and North Korea – is a Group of Death only in terms of capital punishment. Alain Perrin has lost just once in 11 games since taking charge last February, but if China fails to progress into the knockout stages, the knives will be sharpened. The days of China finishing 2nd (twice), 3rd (twice) and 4th (twice) in the Asian Cup seem a distant memory, but this tournament will show how much progress has been made under Perrin.
2. Will Zhang Xizhe ever play substantial minutes?
One player who is not in Perrin’s squad is Wolfsburg’s new recruit Zhang Xizhe. The Volkswagen-owned club has already scored a victory following their low-risk, 1.5 million euro signing, with the VW logo on Zhang’s jersey beamed all over China just from a few training sessions. Cynics say that this was precisely the point of the transfer, and the only way to prove them wrong will be if Zhang sees substantial minutes on the pitch – but it won’t be easy to break into a side that currently sits second in the Bundesliga.
3. Who will replace Li Na?
Remarkably, it was less than a year ago when Li Na won her second major title at the Australian Open, but her retirement offers a huge opportunity to whoever is ready to take over at the top of Chinese tennis. Peng Shuai (22), Zhang Shuai (61) and Zheng Jie (95) are the three Chinese players currently in the Top 100, but with another seven in the Top 200, plus youngsters like Youth Olympics singles champ Xu Shilin waiting in the wings, it’s a question of when – not if – we see the next Top 10 player. The men not so much…
4. Which city will be awarded the 2022 Winter Olympics?
Just Beijing and Almaty are left in the running, with the result due to be announced on July 31. Almaty is a stronger bid than it’s given credit for, but Beijing remains a firm favorite in this two-horse race. Sub-question: will the Games clash with the 2022 World Cup?
5. When will Stephon Marbury make the jump into coaching full-time?
He’s made no secret of the fact he wants to coach in China and has already taken up some coaching roles, while continuing to lead on the court. But Marbury turns 38 in a few weeks and can’t play on forever, even though his contract will keep him in the capital until 2017. He’s been named both an honorary and a model citizen of Beijing, so he would seem the perfect role model to lead the Ducks in a more official capacity.
6. Who will be the next major winner from China?
While the tennis scene is looking healthy, it’s more likely China’s next major winner will be a golfer. 25-year-old Feng Shanshan has already won the 2012 LPGA Championship, but watch for teenagers Cindy Feng Yueer, Janet Lin Xiyu and Feng Simin to soar up the world rankings now that they will all be on the LPGA Tour this year.
7. Which male golfer will emerge from the pack?
Guan Tianlang made global headlines by making the cut at the Masters as a 14-year-old in 2013. He may well go onto to have a stellar career, along with a whole crop of other promising Chinese teenagers, but 19-year-old Li Haotong is leading the way at the moment. He won three of the final four PGA Tour China tournaments to top the order of merit and earn a card for the Web.com Tour. Keep an eye on him this year.
8. Can Ding Junhui win the World Champs?
While golfers and tennis players have four majors to contest each year, for snooker players it’s all about the World Championships. Ding Junhui set records on his way to becoming world number 1 last year, but until he can win the big prize, he won’t truly have fulfilled his potential. Chinese sports fans will be glued to their TVs in April to see if he can do it.
9. Will Sun Yang remain China’s dominant swimming star?
2014 was not a good year for Sun Yang after testing positive for a banned substance and then appearing to be involved in the mother of all cover-ups. Note I said appearing, because whatever CHINADA and WADA said, it did not look at all good for China’s top sporting star. He has talent to burn, but was overshadowed in the pool by both Ning Zetao and Chen Duo who each won more golds (4) at the Asian Games than Sun (3). Rio in 18 months will still be the main yardstick, though.
10. Will China ever take to boxing?
Listen to boxing promoters (and, unfortunately, western journalists all too happy to print without fact-checking) and you would think that literally hundreds of millions of Chinese sports fans avidly tune in to watch two-time Olympic champ Zou Shiming knock down a series of tomato cans. The truth is more like two million (at a push). This year, though, he will finally fight for a world title, so the stakes will be real for the first time. If he wins, will the sport take off? I’m less and less convinced…
What would you like to see happen in 2015? Feel free to leave your questions or predictions in the comments section below.
Zou Shiming’s tomato can era has officially ended. In beating Luis de la Rosa on points last weekend, Zou moved to 5-0 (with 1 KO), and he remains on track for a world title bid later this year (though promoter Bob Arum is already talking about his first title defense). Some world champions are clearly tougher than others, but you can’t stage manage a title fight in quite the same way as you can line up a pushover opponent. In other words, shit just got real. Here is this week’s Sports Talk column:
All promotion is about smoke and mirrors to some extent, and none more so than in boxing promotion. I’ve written before about the massaged truth behind exactly how many are actually watching boxing in China (rather than the “estimated” numbers, which are often then reported as fact).
Zou Shiming moved to 3-0 in his professional career with a one-sided points decision over Mexican Juan Tozcano in their six-round fight in Macau last weekend, but was it a convincing performance or just another tomato can victory? Again, it depends on who you believe. It’s telling, though, that six months into his China venture, Zou’s promoter Bob Arum has already conceded that the pay-per-view model won’t work (at least at the moment). That PPV model, of course, was the big reason why Arum tried to crack the China market in the first place.
Pac-Man, Zou Shiming have early start in Macau
Manny Pacquiao takes on Brandon Rios in Macau at around lunchtime on Sunday China time (to ensure a prime-time Saturday evening audience in the US). There was lots of talk from the Manny camp about how this one is for the Philippines given the recent typhoon, but that will all be forgotten when the bell goes. There was also a predictably entertaining build-up with trainers from each side getting into it in the gym – in other words, typical pre-bout stuff.
Top Rank promoter Bob Arum said he expects around 200 million homes in China to tune in to see the main event, which, as usual, is way, way beyond the realms of reality. Continue reading Weekly Wrap: Beckham, Pacquiao, Liverpool, Asian Cup & ATP
Below is my feature for That’s Beijing on Mike Tyson, who was recently in town to promote a cold/flu supplement that he will never use since, as he proudly announced, he has never had a cold. He was typically enthusiastic, despite admitting alcoholism just days before, and covered a range of topics – obesity, racing pigeons and 10-foot giants. Here’s an extract:
Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao was in Beijing this week, along with legendary boxing promoter Bob Arum, to promote his fight against Brandon “Bam Bam” Rios at the end of November in Macao. I had the chance to interview Manny and some of his camp. Here’s what I found out:
Lists like SportsPro magazine’s Most Marketable Athletes [full list below] are equal parts inspired and enraging. I love the fact that Brazilian Paralympian Alan Oliveira (no. 17) is included, combining his age, talent and good looks with the undoubted boost to Brazilian sport that the next World Cup and Olympics will bring, almost as much as I hate the selection of Seth Jones (39), who is largely unknown even within his own sport, and, at 18, may not even play a single NHL game in the next three years even if he later develops into an All-Star.
Even Homer Simpson knows statistics can be used to prove anything. That’s particularly true in China, where data is not known for being the most reliable. Whether it’s GDP figures, box office numbers or internal accounting, numbers in China are best taken with a sack or two of salt.