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What the Chinese Super League teaches us about China

This article can also be read at Asia Times

Forget the choreographed yawnfest wrapping up in Beijing right now. For any understanding of the Chinese model of development, one might as well behold a Beijing sunset, in all its glorious opacity, as try to make sense of the Communist Party’s smoke signals. Alternatively, one might ponder a prominent undercurrent – a meme, if you like – of Chairman Xi’s Chinese dream: football. As the 2017 Chinese Super League season draws – wheezing, limping, splint-shinned – to a close, here are some takeaways.

#1 In the grander scheme of things, the Chinese still aren’t all that interested in watching Chinese football. While the growing market in China for European football – notably the English Premier League – has put the latter’s marketing warlocks in a froth of activity, average attendances at CSL matches haven’t risen enormously in recent years, despite an ongoing whirlwind of interest from Xi and a regiment of newly-minted Chinese billionaires. In a nation of 1.4 billion, the average CSL game in 2017 drew around 24,000 spectators, which is actually respectable by European standards, but once you strip out a handful of top sides, that figure falls away significantly. An absence of quality on the pitch remains a factor, but so too does the fact that China only got a proper league going in 1994 and has now set itself the task of building a sporting imperium from the top down. The league lacks domestic heroes, folklore, a sense of history and – barring some emerging needle between Shanghai SIPG and Shanghai Shenhua – meaningful rivalries.

#2 The suspicion that there may be something pyramid-shaped about Chinese football has yet to be dispelled. Some of China’s richest men have put very large sums of money in, without the league developing any kind of sustainable revenue streams. Seemingly sold on the promise of jam tomorrow, China Sports Media Ltd (CSM) acquired broadcasting rights to the CSL in 2015, agreeing to pay 8 billion yuan (US$1.18 billion) in instalments over a five-year period. In 2016, the company farmed online broadcasting out to the tech giant LeEco in a two-year deal worth 2.7 billion yuan. Owing to a “cash crunch,” however, LeEco, in turn, sold its 2017 rights to the video streaming site PPTV for 1.35 billion yuan. Then, in July this year, CSM – after withholding its 2017 instalment – announced it is seeking to extend the period of its initial deal from five to 10 years, complaining that new regulations (see #3, below) from the Chinese Football Authority (CFA), a government supervisory body that is the largest shareholder in the CSL, hurt its ability to recoup its investment. Could it be that the projected subscriber base just doesn’t exist?

#3 The current campaign has been, in one respect at least, the proverbial season of two halves. In the winter transfer window, CSL clubs shelled out some jaw-dropping sums to acquire players that have been big names in the global game. Shanghai Shenhua’s capture of Carlos Tevez, regarded a decade or so ago as one of football’s finest strikers, in a deal that reportedly made him the world’s highest-paid player, on an annual salary of $41 million, raised eyebrows among aficionados everywhere. SIPG’s signing of Brazilian midfielder Oscar from English giants Chelsea involved similar levels of cash and suspension of disbelief but at least brought on a player in his prime who could easily be lighting up a higher stage. Others leaving European football for China on tidy contracts included Belgian international Axel Witsel; another former Chelsea man, Nigeria’s John Obi Mikel; and Brazilian forward Alexandre Pato.

The CFA had, in fact, already signaled its dissatisfaction with the influx of money-grabbing foreign talents by reducing the number of overseas players teams can field in a game from four plus a substitute to three. Then, in June, came the coup de main – overseas transfers in the mid-season window would carry a 100% levy. If a club paid less than 45 million yuan ($6.63 million) for a player, the same amount again would have to be put into the club’s own youth system; if more, then a matching sum would have to be rendered unto Caesar, or rather the state’s football development fund.

The whole idea is to nurture more young Chinese players – a laudable aim, but one hedged in by commercial imperatives that create something of a Catch-22. If the league is banking on foreign stars, however superannuated, for box-office appeal, then what happens to the whole enterprise if they’re removed from the picture? It’s unclear if the rule will remain in place for next season or what impact it might have in the long run. But certainly, summer signings were significantly more mid-market, which is probably a good thing, as teams built around a small nucleus of bling-encumbered big-shots famously struggle to find balance. Tevez, incidentally, has been utterly useless, scoring just three goals in a meager 14 appearances to date.

#4 Similarly, it’s no longer enough just to appoint a European or South American manager and expect success on a plate in the CSL. OK, Guangzhou Evergrande have just sealed their seventh straight league title, and their second under former Chelsea and Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, and SIPG have had a good season under another former Chelsea manager, Andre Villas-Boas – they will finish second in the table and got to the semi-finals of the Asian Champions League. But other foreign coaches have fared less well this term. Beijing Gouan showed Spaniard Jose Gonzalez the door in June, after just six months in the job, and Shenhua – who sit a lowly 12th in the standings – parted company with Gus Poyet (yeah, he used to play for Chelsea) last month. Fabio Capello, hugely successful at the helm of AC Milan back in the 1990s, took over at struggling Jiangsu Suning in June but has only just been able to ensure their top-flight survival.

#5 As one might expect given the mishmash of coaching influences in Chinese football – Italian, German, Portuguese, Brazilian, Korean – and the lack of a tried and trusted formula for the national team, which remains calamitously feeble, there is still no identifiably Chinese style of football. It can be a task getting anywhere near Evergrande’s or SIPG’s Brazilians but games otherwise often seem to have a pronounced physical edge. There is also the occasional dust-up, with the fiercest of them this season coming in an SIPG-Guangzhou R&F clash when a couple of over-enthusiastic interventions from Oscar – for which he was subsequently, and quite unfairly, banned for eight matches – sparked a mass brawl. His team-mates Hulk and Wu Lei were also suspended later for wearing t-shirts supporting Oscar, and Villas-Boas earned his own sanction for an Instagram post that questioned his player’s treatment. The Chinese are all about the rule of law, you understand.

#6 Chinese football displays a glaring lack of transparency in terms of relationships between clubs, their investors, players, fans and the powers-that-be. In July, Jiangsu Suning’s owners – the retailers Suning – were as good as accused of using football to launder money by Chinese state TV. And in the same month, 13 CSL clubs were forced to deny that they were in breach of regulations in relation to unpaid player transfers, salaries or bonuses. Non-resolution, they were told, could see them kicked out of the league next season. Some issued statements denying irregularities; others said they were investigating matters. Then, miraculously, the issue just went away. Who paid what to whom, and when? Cui bono, apart from some young foreign men with tattoos and their agents? Who knows? Perhaps the skies over Beijing hold the answers.


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Tokyo’s Olympic organisers are smarter than the PR hustlers think

This article can also be read at SCMP.COM

You have probably noticed that there is something of a backlash underway against the free movement of money. In America and Europe, even people who were for it have looked at how the wind’s blowing and are suddenly against it. Borders and barriers and sounding like you’ve read a Noam Chomsky book are in vogue. Free trade is being spoken of in tones usually reserved by conspiracy theorists for the Jesuits or the Bilderberg Group.

Some aspects of globalisation are likely invulnerable, though. However far the nations of the world opt to go in protecting their own industries against foreign encroachment, or in turning the screws on capital flows, the universal triumph of branding seems a fait accompli.

Branding has gone viral – in the way that pathogens are viral. It is both a pollutant and a parasite. Every organisation under the sun has been hoodwinked into adopting a “vision”, and a “mission”, and “values”. It is all so much tumescent mumbo jumbo, but the hubris of the so-called creative industries has conquered the globe.

That is why when the PR and marketing monkeys mess up, it becomes news. On the face of it, this is what has happened with the Tokyo Olympic Games over the last year. First the British architect Zaha Hadid’s winning design for a new stadium for 2020 was thrown over due to exorbitant costs and another bid hastily selected. Then along came a plagiarism controversy over the logo. I am not so sure, though: I think perhaps the Japanese organisers are smarter than all the PR hustlers competing for their largesse give them credit for.

The original winning proposal for the Games emblem, by Kenjiro Sano, was withdrawn late last year. A theatre in the Belgian city of Liege had said it must have been copied from their own logotype and threatened to sue. Sano’s design, an assortment of shapes arranged to form a “T”, certainly looked like something you had seen before. Quite possibly a “T”. At any rate, it hardly rivalled Caravaggio in its originality.

A few days ago, a new design shortlist was revealed. The selection process had been opened to the public and the 15,000 entries received have been whittled down to four. Stressing their “outstanding” qualities, Ryohei Miyata, head of the Tokyo 2020 emblem committee, told journalists: “I’m proud to say that these are the best works at this point.”

I have long believed having a sense of humour to be among the most vital qualities in a public functionary. Mr Miyata is therefore to be congratulated. Unkind appraisals of previous Olympic logos have likened them to drawings done by slightly backwards children. At least two of the four presented for public consultation by Miyata et al fall into this category, which may or may not be explicable by the fact that over a thousand Japanese schoolchildren entered.

In any event, the important thing is that throwing the contest open has irked the creative wallahs. The American Institute of Graphic Arts says the design profession has been “disrespected”. I don’t know; maybe they’re miffed about the money. The emblem for the London Olympics, which looked like some pieces of broken glass, cost the British public £400,000 (HK$4.5 million). The winning design in Japan will be awarded ¥1 million (HK$70,000) and a ticket to the opening ceremonies of both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Same result, fraction of the cost.

The joke gets even better, though, when you consider the stress put on the committee’s rigorous “international trademark verification procedures” to ensure that the designs were all original this time. According to a statement on the subject, applicants were referred to the Tokyo 2020 Games Vision and “key concepts” for inspiration.

Alas, there is nothing original whatsoever contained in these sources of inspiration. They tell us that the Games are “innovative”. There is some drivel about diversity (“Accepting one another”) and some equally nebulous stuff about legacy. And there is a derisory nod to actual sport: “Striving for your personal best”. One could be reading about Kentucky Fried Chicken, or the Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department of the Hong Kong government, or hell, who knows, the Bilderberg Group.

It’s conceivable that I’m wrong about this but what I’d like to believe the Japanese are saying here is that all corporate emblems are rubbish, modern corporate branding is stupid and we hope you enjoy the Games, lol. As with the stadium, they’re just not up for being rinsed financially. Fair play to them.


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Hong Kong Rugby Sevens diary

These entries appeared in the South China Morning Post

SATURDAY

Is it ever OK to make light of tragedy? If it is, sometimes, then when? And if not, why not? And who decides?

Perhaps those in the audience at the Hong Kong Sevens attired as airline pilots – channeling, to adopt the fashion industry’s argot, the disappearance of Malaysia flight MH370 with 239 people on board – mulled the moral niceties long and hard before dressing yesterday.

Or perhaps they didn’t. Topicality is king in the domain of fancy dress; it’s like Twitter, only with costumes instead of keystrokes. No point getting done up like Colonel Gaddafi – that’s so 2011.

Funny or not, there’s a gory instant celebrity about pilot garb, as the amiable Kiwi gentlemen I spoke to recognised. They had, they said, ordered their outfits for this weekend’s tournament – for which they have flown to Hong Kong specifically to attend – some time ago. When news of the plane’s disappearance broke three weeks ago, they hesitated, but their qualms were easily mastered. Their next thought was to incorporate a black box recorder into the ensemble, “but it was doubtful that would get past security.”

One imagines the same impulse drives the popularity of the website Sickipedia, where currently a tab advises: “Click here for all the best missing Malaysia MH370 jokes.”

There is a theory that empathy in the wake of a tragic event diminishes the more geographically or culturally remote people feel from it; or, to put it more directly, “westerners” mourn less for disasters in places where there are fewer white people.

Not an easy thing to gauge, I don’t suppose, but on the other hand studies have confirmed that 9/11 jokes originated – in America – the day after the attacks, so it’d be wrong conflate dubious taste and discrimination. Either way, if avoiding the former is a priority, the Hong Kong Sevens may not be your thing.

******

It comes to our attention that the most read “Sevens story” on Friday was about an Australian chap who was, it seems, dispossessed of “almost HK$100,000 in foreign currency” after he met three African ladies in Wan Chai.

Police were keen to warn other tourists in town for the rugby that “butch African women” operating in the area are deliberately targeting drunken expatriates in pubs on Lockhart Road and Jaffe Road. The man in question apparently realised he was being robbed and tried to resist, whereupon he found himself deposited in a rubbish bin, his wallet considerably lighter.

Perhaps understandably the fellow did not come forward with more details of his misadventure and his identity remains a mystery. Instead, the reports stressed the intimidating scale of his assailants, who, we learn, were “powerfully built” and “stood about 1.8 metres tall” – proportions which would not preclude them, you might well think, from engaging in a more legitimate form of scrimmage this weekend.

Scientists announced the other day that they have discovered a new planet. Or at least they think it’s a planet; they’re not quite sure. Their uncertainty will be familiar to followers of rugby. Seeing an actual, fully-formed rugby player can induce a kind of wonder, even terror, similar, it might be supposed, to that engendered by the movement of tectonic plates.

Similarly, the rugby-going populace is little known for its “shrinking violet” tendency, either in appearance or temperament.

What I am driving at is this: could it be that our Australian friend, accustomed to being able to handle himself, magnified the immensity of his muggers out of embarrassment? It is to be hoped so. Visitors to Wan Chai must not succumb to fear. Keep calm and carry on drinking is probably the best advice.

******

With Fiji going for their third hat-trick of wins at the Hong Kong Sevens this weekend, one face in the crowd will be that of former captain Samisoni Rabaka Nasagavesi. The 44-year-old played in the Sevens here four times but hasn’t been back at the event since 2003, his last appearance. When we bumped into him on Friday he told us he was here on a “sort of pilgrimage, with my missus and her mate”, both of whom had gone shopping but would join him at Hong Kong Stadium on Sunday.

Now living in Australia, the former scrum-half won 29 caps for Fiji at XVs but lamented that even now rugby was not as lucrative a career prospect for Fijians as in other nations. “There is more support than there was when I was playing but there’s still not a lot of money or sponsorship,” he said. “Despite the fact that everyone in Fiji plays from the moment they can run.”

Rabaka’s first experience of the Hong Kong Sevens came in 1992, when he played in the Fiji side that beat New Zealand 22-6 in the final, the second time they had won three tournaments in a row here. His main memory of the game is that it was raining.

More discomforting was the Scottish rain he experienced the following April, when he played in the very first World Cup Sevens at a muddy Murrayfield, losing to England in the final.

Rabaka recalled fondly, however, that “in those days you just ran from one end of the pitch to the other, just like playing touch,” adding that Sevens is now more of a structured game. “It’s become more physical, there’s more breakdown, more stoppages. And the players are more muscular.”

Standing 6’2”, Rabaka weighed 14st in his playing days. A skelf of a lad.

 

SUNDAY

Tales abound of amatory trysts of every stamp at the Hong Kong Sevens. Some (including former Scotland captain Andy Nicol) have even met their future spouses during the event.

Love is a many-horned beast, however – and chance encounters often play out less providentially. Or at least so it was for two Canadian men whose eyes met across across the rows at Hong Kong Stadium on Friday. After several glances to and fro, the penny dropped that they knew each other; or rather they knew of each other – from having had the same girlfriend; non-concurrently, I understand.

Of course, for all we know this may be an everyday occurrence in Canada, where the winters are very long. Equally hard to verify was the boast, heard second hand, of a man who claims to have achieved sexual congress one year at the Sevens with seven different women – in one day – and that, furthermore, several of these conquests occurred inside the stadium itself; in the environs of the South Stand, inevitably.

However implausible such figures may seem, it cannot be truthfully said that prudishness holds sway in that area of the stadium. One American expat lady – stressing, in that way that girls do, that she doesn’t normally do these sorts of things – recounts one year taking home a Smurf. Having painted herself red for the occasion – she had dressed as a ketchup bottle – she awoke to find the mingling of colours had left purple smudges all over her apartment.

No doubt you are wondering whether Mr Seven at the Sevens wore a costume. Sadly I have been unable to settle that question; but anyway it strikes me that the age of smartphones and social media may have put the brakes on such activities. One imagines there are downside risks to it, if you will, for people “high up” at Standard Chartered.

Incidentally, our source reports back that “actually, it turns out seven might have been closer to two.”

******

They come from all corners of the globe for the carnival of rugby that is the Hong Kong Sevens – albeit mainly from Anglophone rugby strongholds like New Zealand, Britain and, erm, the United States. The roster of nations able to compete at Sevens suggests, indeed, that it may in fact be more of a genuinely global game than XVs.

On a personal level I have been frustrated in my search for visitors from Germany. It may be simply that they are more reserved than people from countries like Wales and Australia, who tend to festoon themselves in national insignia even for simple endeavours like nipping out to the shops for a loaf of bread. But the Germans’ absence is another missed opportunity to address one of the great sporting mysteries, namely the non-existence of rugby in Teutonic nations.

Also untraceable so far have been spectators from either the Cook Islands (population 19,569) or American Samoa (55,159), both of whom are represented in the qualifying competition this weekend. It would seem counter-productive that these territories compete in both rugby union and rugby league and no doubt they would be well-advised to consolidate operations; but clearly the very fact that they are putting out teams of players capable of not always getting completely trounced (I’d back them against a German select, certainly) is remarkable in itself.

As an aside, I note that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a significant presence in American Samoa, with 37 congregations. If any of their members have taken the pulse in the South Stand at Hong Kong Stadium this weekend, we would love to hear from them.

******

The phrase, I think, is “well-intentioned”. There exists a branch of the Hong Kong government called “the environment bureau” – perhaps you are dimly aware of it – and it has teamed up this weekend with the HKRFU and (don’t laugh) Sevens co-sponsor Cathay Pacific to mutter about about environmental impacts and the like.

Their big idea, according to our information, is “to minimise the environmental footprint of the event and trial new ideas and best practices that could be applied to other major events in Hong Kong in the future.”

Seemingly this involves sending out the bureau’s new mascot, “Big Waster” – who has a very large, swollen-looking head, presumably from inhaling bus fumes or something – and some student volunteers, to harry people about recycling. There are also a few recycling bins, somewhat indistinguishable from the other bins, dotted around the stadium. And that’s about it. Maybe some shrubs have been consecrated – I don’t know.

By my own admittedly rough estimates, Hong Kong Sevens weekend produces enough plastic waste (from beer cups alone) to litter all of American Samoa, methane (from various sources) equivalent to half the annual emissions of Argentina’s cow population and an asteroid cloud’s worth of other gases from whatever it is planes run on these days; not to mention frazzling Shenzhen’s power grid in the mania for fancy-dress costumes.

In short, minimising the Sevens’ “footprint” will be far from straightforward. It is to be hoped Big Waster understands the magnitude of his responsibilities.

 

MONDAY

My colleague Tim Noonan averred yesterday that the attraction of rugby for many female spectators is in large part to do with watching physically fit men run about. His thesis was supported by comments from one interviewee, a girl called Jessica (not her real name), who referred in glowing to terms to the “specimens” on show.

It is be hoped none of the players read Tim’s column – the objectification of men is a serious issue and can be very damaging to male self-esteem. It got me thinking about the levels of actual rugby fandom at the Hong Kong Sevens, though. My own observations tell me that sections of the audience have little interest in rugby and come primarily to ogle each other.

With this in mind, it seemed to me the best way to further probe these very pressing questions would be via what is referred to as the off-side test: asking women to explain how the off-side rule works. It is widely accepted that off-side in football is quite beyond female comprehension. Would they fare any better with the rugby version?

A selection of the best answers: “When there’s a yellow card”; “Something to do with passing forward when the other team is behind; “If you’re about to score nobody can be in front of you”; “When the ball goes out on the touchline”; “f*** off you sexist ****”.

For the record, none of my colleagues who write regularly about rugby know any of the rules. In fact, such knowledge is generally avoided by sportswriters and those who claim it are viewed with great suspicion.

******

You don’t hear them quite so much nowadays, those jokes that start off with an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman – and sometimes also a Welshman – walking into a bar, and end with each of them confirming some national stereotype or other: thick Paddy, drunken Scot, English toff, that sort of thing. Political correctness – or more likely the exhaustion of the genre – has probably done for them.

I only mention this as of course the whole scenario will have played out in a thousand ways and with a thousand punchlines this weekend in Hong Kong. And as a Scot living abroad, I was curious to know how the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence from the United Kingdom might play into the social brew, as it were.

My findings were somewhat disappointing. Nary a Scot I encountered wanted to “go there” – so divisive has the question become, I gather, that people are on eggshells in social situations lest they unloosen a hail of brickbats from the other side.

It used to be that Scots exempted themselves from the old rule about no talk of politics or religion in company. What has happened to them? They cannot be accused of drinking any less, certainly.

******

I had hoped to report tales of anti-Russian sentiment at Hong Kong Stadium over the weekend. Foreign correspondents will know the feeling – “tensions” at least furnish you with copy; sadly for the news cycle, however, players representing the world’s newest pariah nation received only the most half-hearted smattering of boos as they took to the field to face Japan yesterday.

Not to worry. I will, instead, convey the major incidents from the match, which the Japanese won 19-14 in extra-time.

Hostilities got underway with the Russians well fired up – they considered that one or two of their opponents looked a bit effeminate; seeing the Japanese engage in conversation with players from European teams before the game had also riled them somewhat.

After racing in front with two tries, they attempted to camp on the Japanese 10 metre line, calling a plebiscite on the question of whether they should remain there (the results are still being counted). The Russians then came unstuck as the Japanese mounted a comeback and ultimately clinched it on sudden death. Vladimir Putin declared his team’s elimination unacceptable, however, adding that all options for settling the score would be considered.


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Polyester politics

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine

In all the recent controversy over colonial flags and British Council MTR advertisements, it is curious that the vast yarns of polyester clothing the citizenry of Hong Kong in the livery of English football clubs have escaped mention.

It would be a stretch to label the English Premier League neo-colonialist. For a start most of its clubs’ owners, and players, are foreigners. But as Britain ‘s biggest cultural export these days, it is unsurpassed in its global reach; and for the ex-pat that means fending off one-word questions like “Chelsea ?”, or ” Liverpool?”.

Call me churlish – I’m Scottish and nobody ever says “Aberdeen?” – but it seems obvious to point out that in embracing English football, Hong Kong has spurned its own footballing heritage. After all, the city has the oldest professional league in Asia, had a handy “national” side when most other Asian countries still couldn’t kick their grannies, and, pre-EPL, important local matches could attract crowds of 30,000. Nowadays, the average first division gate is just over 1,000. Heavens above, in the 80s fans even had the cojones for the odd riot.

It doesn’t help that those in charge of football in Hong Kong – the same small group of people who seem to have a hand in most of the city’s sporting initiatives – have such a knack for making a Horlicks of everything, or that national coaches rival David Beckham’s hairdos for getting the chop. But consider this: EPL sides make a total of some £1 billion in broadcasting revenues every season; in Hong Kong, clubs pay NowTV to show games. Time to get back to watching football in the flesh. Polyester optional.


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An interview with Yao Ming

A version of this article appeared in Hong Kong Tatler

Yao Ming isn’t for talking about his basketball career today. Not directly, anyway. That’s the message from his phalanx of PR go-betweens – and the man whom the sport made probably the world’s most famous living Chinese before his retirement a year ago this month is on it.

Okay, so it seems a bit like talking to Steven Spielberg and not asking about films but let’s roll with this. China’s most feted athlete (and until recently its wealthiest celebrity, according to Forbes magazine) has long been exercised by matters other than his own greatness, whether on or off the basketball court. And he has often seemed a more complex individual – private, considered, even at times conflicted – than his very public, billboard-friendly image might suggest.

His reluctance to dwell on the past, then, speaks of what, exactly? “Slightly, I feel like I wish I still played basketball,” is all he offers when Tatler disobeys instructions by venturing to ask whether or not he regrets his career ending – at the relatively tender age of 30 – following a gruelling sequence of injuries to his feet and ankles. So there may be lingering dismay, but what else? In another interview recently Yao spoke of how being a celebrity sportsman created “discrepancies with real life”. Not the kind of insight you’d expect from, say, David Beckham, but a smart reflection, certainly, on the realm of stardom which they both, and few others from the world of sport, inhabit.Those who become, for want of a better phrase, “public property” without necessarily asking for it often find their predicament self-alienating. And there can be little doubt Yao knows the feeling: no extrovert by nature, he is forced to live in a world that offers few hiding places when you’re 7’6″ tall and everybody knows your face.

Be that as it may, there is a very clear sense that in “retirement” he wishes to take fuller ownership of the Yao Ming brand. His request, last August, to have his nomination for induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame put on hold on the grounds that it was “too soon” is one indication of that. His restlessness in terms of applying himself to other endeavours since is another. “Former NBA star Yao Ming” might always be the calling card but there will be no resting on laurels.

Right now, the focus is seemingly on building on the charitable work Yao has involved himself with for a number of years. “It’s taking up a lot of my time after basketball,” he says of his own Yao Foundation and his partnerships with a network of other philanthropic organisations.

His visit to Hong Kong, arranged in collaboration with local businessman and socialite Moses Tsang, finds him participating in a charity basketball event for children and families in order to raise funds for the international conservation charity Rare. According to the literature, the Yao-Rare partnership aims to engage “an army of young, motivated conservation ambassadors” across China.

“We share the same dream of making a difference in the world,” says Yao, stretching out his enormous frame on a suddenly incommodious-looking drawing-room chair on the top floor of Upper House in Admiralty. “I share Rare’s vision of protecting the environment and young people have to be [the guardians] of that.”

The desire to “make a difference”, or, if you like, “give something back”, is hardly new to him. In his first off-season as a Houston Rockets player, in 2003, he responded to the SARS pandemic by hosting a telethon in Shanghai to raise funds for treatment and research. His now longstanding involvement in HIV and Aids advocacy and awareness campaigns began soon after and in 2007 he held an auction that raised ¥6.75million for underprivileged children. Later, after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, he donated US$2million to relief work and established the Yao Foundation to help rebuild schools destroyed in the catastrophe.

Since then the foundation has funded the construction of 14 schools in rural areas and improved facilities at many others, including installing computer rooms and equipment, libraries, sports and exercise areas and kitchens. And this year sees the start of a new initiative: the Yao Foundation Hope Primary School Basketball Season aims to introduce the sport to thousands of youngsters across China. “Hopefully this will run for many, many years,” he says. “Basketball will always be part of what I can offer to young people.”

Can he see himself becoming more involved in the coaching side of the sport? “I
honestly don’t have experience in that aspect,” he answers, his low, deep voice competing for attention with chatter in the hotel bar. “But I try to share something with the kids I work with. What I share is what I have learnt from sport. You have to trust the guy who stands shoulder to shoulder with you, you cant just rely on yourself. You don’t want to let your team-mates down; you have to back them up and trust them to back you up the same way.”

And how do those principles apply to his own life away from basketball? “In sport, there is physical contact and competition, as well as the team work… If I am working in charity, sometimes competition has to be put to one side. You have to work together with other organisations to achieve things.”

Savvy commentators have opined that Yao’s achievements in the NBA – his incredible averages with the Rockets, his inclusion on the All-NBA Team five times – were all the more remarkable for the absence of an instinctively aggressive streak in his make-up. Sure, he learned about the pressure of competing in one of the world’s most demanding sports leagues but he also brought with him from China his own cultural standards and values and they were not found to be limiting. In the man whose proudest moment was carrying the Chinese flag and leading his country’s delegation during the opening ceremony at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a certain Confucian selflessness and humility are widely discerned.

Many, in fact, choose to see Yao – a gentle-seeming giant with his broad, kind features – as a sort of modern-day Chinese wunderkind. But if the Yao Ming success story is intoxicating it’s only half the picture. “Sometimes it can feel like there are a billion people on my shoulders,” he once said, and little wonder.

As the stress fractures and hairline fractures, the complicated surgical procedures and the months of rehabilitation proliferated in the latter part of Yao’s NBA career, there were those who made the link with his hothousing as a youth. It is claimed the government took an interest in Yao’s sporting potential from birth: both his parents were professional basketball players. By the time he was 13 – and already 6’5″ – he was training 10 hours a day at the the Shanghai Sports technical institute.

In his unauthorised biography of Yao, Operation Yao Ming, the former Newsweek journalist Brook Larmer alleges that his parents were induced to marry in order to produce a champion. He also describes in detail the quasi-scientific “special treatment”, harsh training and relentless testing the teenage Yao endured. If it is difficult to prove the ill-effects of his railroading, it is also hard to over-estimate the pressure it exerted on him to succeed – for his family and for the country. “People love Yao Ming, but no one wants to be him,” is one of Larmer’s observations.

And yet, if Yao has cause to resent aspects of the sporting crucible from which he sprang, he does a good job of hiding it. Now based again in his native Shanghai, where he lives with his wife Le Yi – who also played basketball for China at the Olympics, in 2004 – and their two-year-old daughter, Yan Qinlei, he says: “It’s like my crib. Everything feels very comfortable in Shanghai.”

Since 2009 he has even owned his former club, the Shanghai Sharks, who were then on the verge of financial collapse. That they have continued to make losses suggests there is a philanthropic dimension to his involvement to match his charity in other areas. Meanwhile, other vehicles into which he has poured some of his estimated US$105 million personal fortune – including a restaurant in Texas, a Shenzen-listed GPS tech company, a legal music download website and the recently-launched Yao Family Wines, an “artisanal” Napa Valley wine company targetting the Chinese market – seem destined be more lucrative.

Wine is said to be a passion Yao picked up from his Houston team-mate Dikemebe Mutumbo, but like the Rockets themselves, it’s off-bounds today. Perhaps it’s understandable: time is of the essence and Yao has many balls to juggle. But still, let’s throw another pass. Are his various commercial and humanitarian endeavours enough to fill the basketball-shaped void in his life? “I’ve played basketball for the last 20 years and basketball is in my blood; but it’s still part of my life with the Sharks, and that is time-consuming,” he protests. “The Shanghai Sharks is where I came from… But it’s no competition for my charity work.” Message delivered.


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Interview with Rory McIlroy

This article appeared in Hong Kong Tatler

If Rory McIlroy is feeling the pressure of being golf’s hottest young property since Tiger Woods first emerged on the scene, he is not showing it. The 22-year-old has come a very long way in rather a short space of time – quite literally in the case of his participation in last month’s Shui On Land China Golf Challenge, a seven-day whistle-stop tour of seven Chinese golf courses, including Caesars in Macau, but also in terms of his own bigger picture.

Little over four years ago McIlroy was still an amateur. Nowadays he’s the youngest winner of the US Open in almost a century – in June he wiped the floor with the field at Congressional Country Club in Maryland – and is currently being afforded all the fuss befitting that accomplishment, by sponsors, fans, media and tournament organisers alike.

It has been a good year for him, but it’s not one that’s about to fizzle out quietly. The McIlroy brand has been undergoing some serious exposure and there’s plenty more of it to come before 2011 is through, with commitments in Asia – including the Hong Kong Open at the beginning of December – dominating a heavy schedule.

And so one cannot but be struck by the diminutive Northern Irishman’s chirpiness as he bounds into a room overlooking a neon Macau evening to meet Tatler. He’s spent the last hour or so shaking hands with various people in suits in the lobby of the Venetian and charming inquisitors at a packed media conference. How’s that part of life among golf’s elite working out, then?

“Things have calmed down a little bit,” he insists. “The first tournament I played after winning the US Open was the British Open and I probably just wasn’t quite ready for the welcome I received, the attention, the hype and everything. Winning one of the majors at 22 – not a lot of golfers have done that. I think Seve [Ballesteros] won one at 22, as did Jack [Nicklaus], so that’s a nice bit of company. It does bring its own pressures and attention, but I feel as if I’ve adjusted to that now. For me, it’s actually nice to get on a golf course because you sort of get away from everything else. It’s where I feel most at home.”

Not that he is afforded too many opportunities to play the links courses of his native land this weather. After the week in China, he was due to fly to Bermuda for the Grand Slam of Golf, a showcase involving only the year’s four major winners – of which group this year, astonishingly, two others (Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke), also hail from Northern Ireland. This month he will play at the World Golf Championship in Shanghai, then at the strokeplay World Cup of Golf at Mission Hills Haikou in Hainan – where he will partner McDowell – and after Hong Kong he has further engagements in Dubai and Thailand.

“It’s important for the development of the game in Asia that there are now so many big tournaments,” he says. “In China, golf is going to become so big, partly because of its inclusion at the Olympics in 2016. The point of doing the China Golf Challenge was to help promote the game here, and for the outside world as well, to showcase what China has to offer in golf. There are some really fantastic courses.”

The notion of establishing a fifth golf major, to be played in Asia, has been mooted recently. McIlory is sceptical about it happening any time soon, but says: “I think it’s good that there are now so many events co-sanctioned by the European and Asian Tours. You even see the PGA Tour now moving into Asia – they have a tournament in Malaysia and are trying to branch out in this market. Personally I love playing golf in this part of the world.”

In fact, he claims to reserve special affection for Hong Kong, where he was beaten in a play-off in 2008 by Lin Wen-tang. “I played a couple of events as an amateur in Hong Kong and now the Hong Kong Open is probably one of my favourite events of the year,” he says. “And because I keep coming back, I get to know it better every time – restaurants that I like, places to go.”

Life on tour, he acknowledges, is not always conducive to letting down his considerable head of hair or sampling local cultures, but there is a sense that for all his determination to succeed on the golf course – he talks of becoming the best player in the world in the next three years – McIlroy is out to enjoy life along the way. Currently that involves making time for his new girlfriend, the world No.1-ranked tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, with whom he plans to spend a fortnight in the Maldives this month between tournaments. You might be forgiven for suspecting the sponsors of hijacking Cupid’s bow, but it’s clear the pair have no wish to parade themselves as some kind of sporting power couple.

“We have very similar lifestyles, so I think we understand one another more than anything else,” McIlroy says. “If I shoot a bad score, I feel as if she knows what to say. And you know what she would like to hear if she has a bad result. We’re both working hard to be the best in our sport, but you have to some sort of life outside that.”

If he needs a pep talk from a fellow golfer, on the other hand, McIlroy need only turn to the greatest of them all. Jack Nicklaus, who went on to win 17 more majors after his first fresh-faced triumph in 1962, has invited him to spend the beginning of next year practicing at his club in Florida. McIlroy has already proven his lack of physical stature to be no hindrance to his game, but perhaps there is still something to be said for standing on the shoulders of giants.


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Villas Boas – the new Sir Bobby

This article appeared in The Herald

Liverpool re-hiring Kenny Dalglish was described as a gamble. Rangers promoting Ally McCoist, their assistant these last four years, is explained in similar language. But few gambles in football seem on the face of matters as speculative as the punt taken on one Andre Villas Boas by Porto last summer.

His name was barely familiar even to his countrymen. He was 32, an age at which most players are still coming to terms with the idea that they are “experienced”. And, in fact, he had never actually been a footballer. For anyone.

There have been others who’ve been given their chance at managing big clubs without ever having played on any grand stage – Arsene Wenger is one who springs to mind – but usually there is a requirement to work one’s ticket in the lower divisions. Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa, however, is a man who knows his own mind. The Porto president handed a spiky young Jose Mourinho his first major appointment and did not live to regret it; Villas Boas was, similarly, his personal choice to succeed Jesualdo Ferreira.

Once again he has been vindicated. Porto host Spartak Moscow in the first leg of a Europa League quarter-final tonight having eliminated CSKA in the last round and fresh from clinching the Liga Sagres title with a 2-1 win at Benfica on Sunday. Before they took that punt on Dalglish, Liverpool were sniffing around Villas Boas; more recently Roma were rebuffed. The Porto native – a supporter of the club as a boy – has made it clear he wants to guide them into the Champions League next season.

So far, so much a case of Mourinho Mark II. And Villas Boas’ relationship to the “Special One” seems almost umbilical. Before taking over at bottom-of-the-league Academica in October 2009 – from which position he led them to a safe 11th place – he spent years working under the current Real Madrid manager, first at Porto, then at Chelsea, and then at Inter Milan.

The younger man has been keen to downplay this relationship, however. Rumours that his split from Mourinho 18 months ago was an acrimonious one may or may not be well-founded, but he has at times seemed annoyed at attempts to paint him as some kind of De Niro to his master’s Brando. “I am not a clone of anyone,” he has said. “I want to leave my mark on this club. We do not have the same character and personality. We communicate and work differently.”

“He’s very insistent that he’s not the new Mourinho,” the editor of the Portugoal football website, Tom Kundert, told Herald Sport. “He was in fact originally taken on at Porto by Bobby Robson and he is quoted as saying that he sees himself more as Robson’s successor. He said ‘I have English ancestry (his late grandmother was from Manchester), a big nose and I like drinking wine.'”

The story of Villas Boas’ conscription by the late Robson might well be the stuff of a Hollywood yarn. As a teenager he lived in the same building as Robson – who coached Porto from 1994-96 – and harassed the latter into reading some of his meticulous scouting reports on the team’s next opponents. The former England manager was impressed enough to offer the precocious youngster a role within the club’s observation department.

At 17, he achieved his UEFA C coaching licence in Scotland before, aged 21, becoming head coach of the British Virgin Islands. When Pinto da Costa appointed Mourinho in 2002, the latter brought Villas Boas in as an assistant, and so began his higher education in the managerial arts.

It would not be accurate to suggest the new Porto coach has simply transplanted Mourinho’s template, however. Like Mourinho he is adept at motivating players and impeccably organised, but there are major tactical differences: like Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, Villas Boas’ Porto play high pressure, passing football; his is a more fluid 4-3-3 than Mourinho’s was at Chelsea, with the wingers frequently becoming strikers.
“Where Mourinho is results driven and therefore traditionally quite defensive, Villas Boas gives his players a lot of licence,” says Kundert. “At the same time they lose very few goals. Tactically he has to be given credit.”

In the last four years, Porto have lost the likes of Bruno Alves and Raul Meireles, Lucho Gonzalez, Lisandro Lopez, Ricardo Quaresma, Jose Bosingwa, Pepe and Anderson. Benfica, meanwhile, looked a much stronger side than their domestic rivals this season: Luisao, Fabio Coentrao, Javi Garcia, Gaitan and Saviola would all walk into Villas Boas’ team.

In such circumstances, any manager who can put out a side as ruthless and tactically superior as the current Porto is bound to have Europe’s elite clubs taking note. He may not be able to keep him forever, but Pinto da Costa’s gamble has paid off. The risks for future suitors are beginning to seem negligible.


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Poetry, war and bicycles

This article appeared in the magazine Metropolitan

It is the first Sunday in April, 2009, and my train has chuntered out of Brussels, bound for East Flanders. Ghent, famed for its immaculately-preserved medieval architecture, is less than an hour to the north, but my destination is the lesser-known hilly area to the south of the region – the Flemish Ardennes – home to the “hellingen” which provide the dramatic setting for the cobbled classic cycle races run in Flanders each Spring.

In professional cycling, cobbles are to these “Classics” what the high mountain passes of the Pyrenees and the Alps are to the Tour de France. It is on these sections of the course that the ambitions of the few are realised, the hopes of many are crushed and, in such short, steep climbs as the famous Koppenberg, near the town of Oudenaarde, that thousands fervently line the route to experience the thrill of the race as it hurtles past.

Where the colour, celebrity and scale of the Tour de France lend it a glorious, epic glamour, the grittiness of the so-called “northern” Classics has a fascination all of its own. The Paris-Roubaix race – run over an unrelenting series of punishing cobbled farm tracks in northern France – is considered the “Queen of the Classics”, but is preceded in late March and early April each year by the Vlaamse Wielerweek (Flemish cycling week).

This festival of racing includes the Classic Ghent-Wevelgem, which features the ascent and terrifying descent of the famous Kemmelberg climb, and the “Three Days of De Panne” stage race in West Flanders. But the highlight, and the race which brings all of Flanders to a standstill, is the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders).

“You can either ride the cobbles or you can’t”, says Barry Hoban, an Englishman whose successes in the 1960s and 70s endeared him to Flandrians to such an extent that he became known as The Gent of Ghent. “Some guys are terrified of them. You have to ride them hard and fast and take whatever the weather throws at you. I’ve ridden Paris-Roubaix in snowstorms and I’ve ridden it in a heatwave. And when it’s hot and dry it’s worse because the dust gets up and your eyes are red for about three days afterwards.”

As someone who “hit the north” as an outsider, Hoban – whose results included victory in Gent-Wevelgem, third in Paris-Roubaix and fifth in the Ronde – is well-placed to comment on what distinguishes the culture of cycling there. “As a young man, I left West Yorkshire – a hard-grafting, coal-mining area – and moved to northern France and lived among hard-grafting, coal-mining people there,” recalls the 71-year-old.

“The only difference was the language and the fact that they loved cycling, because the people were exactly the same. I lived first in Bethune (in France) and later in Ghent, and at that time there were very few English-speaking riders. But I didn’t feel out of place. I learned French and Flemish and just immersed myself in it. People took me to their hearts as one of their own.”

Hoban describes his Ghent-Wevelgem win in 1974 as being as special as his Tour de France stage wins. “In that race I beat everyone, all of the guys from that great generation of Belgian cyclists: Eddy Merckx was second, Roger de Vlaeminck was third. [Walter] Godefroot, Freddy Maertens were both there. I beat them all, I beat the hierarchy of Belgium. It was good.”

He also remembers losing out against Merckx, probably the greatest cyclist of all time, when they hit the “muur” together in the 1969 Ronde. Muur means “wall” in Dutch, and the Muur van Geraardsbergen, with its half-kilometre cobbled section, scaling upwards at a gradient of up to 20% to the iconic Chapel of Our Lady at its summit, often proves the decisive battleground at the head of the race. The latter half of the Ronde features more than a dozen similar hellingen, but because the Muur comes after 250km of racing – only 17km from the finish in Ninove – those not reaching the chapel with the leaders have no chance of contesting the win.

My train into Geraardsbergen – one of the oldest “cities” in Europe, but now a modestly-sized municipality – is not busy. Few, it seems, travel from metropolitan, cosmopolitan Brussels to watch this race. But as I reach the main street leading up to the town square, I realise the party is already in full swing. It is a bright, sunny day, warm for April, and old and young mingle together in the square’s packed bars and restaurants.

The race passes through the square and it is just before it that the Muur begins in earnest, albeit the cobbled section isn’t for another half kilometre. Past the square the road swings upwards and left, and several thousand fans are packed in along the wide boulevard.

The riders are still more than 40 minutes away, but already a decisive break has formed. The biggest name in Belgian cycling, and two-time winner of the race, Tom Boonen, has missed it, but last year’s winner, the Flandrian Stijn Devolder, is present. There are black and yellow Lion of Flanders flags everywhere.

I head further on up the hill. At the end of Oudebergstraate a cobbled lane narrows and steepens, making its way up through a wooded section and round a hairpin bend which kicks up again to the Chapel at the top. This is the heart of the Muur, where the toughest riders create the fractional gaps that can quickly lengthen into decisive ten or 20 second leads. All the way up, on both sides of the road, people are tucked into the embankment, holding on to the branches of trees to stop themselves falling on to the road. Some have been there for hours, waiting like snipers for a Boonen, Devolder or Lief Hoste to pass by inches in front of them. Waiting, I discover, to unleash their noise on the Ronde.

Among the crowd the orange of visiting Dutch fans is visible; a few English voices can be heard; and a fan club of Italians is vocalising its support for the young up-and-coming Italian rider Marco Bandiera. But though the appeal of the race is international, its identity is distinctly Flandrian: the majority of the spectators are behind the local riders and chants of “Sti -jn – Devolder” ring out.

“When you’re a kid and you take up cycling you dream of making it to the Muur van Geraardsbergen in first place,” is how Boonen, a native Flandrian, explains the passion and frenzy. “Belgians grow up with cycling in their hearts. It’s ingrained in our culture like football in Italy or skiing in Austria. [The Ronde] has always been part of my life, ever since I was a kid and would watch the race on television. It’s my country’s race and it’s where I had my first great victory in a Classic [in 2005]. It was an unforgettable moment. When I crossed the finish line in front of thousands of supporters screaming my name it was like living a dream.”

As I squeeze into a spot just below the chapel, the scene is a flurry of nervous activity. Some have radios pressed to their ears and I catch the names Devolder, Boonen, Gilbert and Chavanel at various intervals. A man, fuelled by strong beer and sensing a captive audience, decides to break the tension by performing a dance with his trousers at his ankles, much to the delight of his peers.

And then the television helicopter is sighted overhead. A new expectation fills the air: the race is near, the distant roar of crowds further down the road can be heard, and as the volume increases men, women, children, even dogs strain their eyes on the road. People know Devolder and the Frenchman Chavanel are up there, and they know that Boonen hasn’t made it. A flash of colour is sighted through a chicane in the road, and the crowd slowly recognises it is one rider on his own. It is Devolder.

An ecstasy fills the air. Men roar and women shriek as he rounds the bend at the top of the Muur in a flash, sweat glistening over his muscles in the sunlight, a grimace of pain etched on his face. And his effort is not in vain: he crests the summit with a gap of some ten seconds on his pursuers and by the time he reaches Ninove it is almost a minute.

I eventually make my way back to the square, where a full-scale celebration is underway. Assuming it to be a Flandrian beer, I order an Orval, and am chided for it by a local man, who explains to me that it is, in fact, from the French-speaking Walloonian south. And maybe he is right to chide: maybe the passion and parochiality of Vlaamse Wielerweek is what gives it its distinctiveness, its enduring appeal in a world in which sport is becoming ever-more globalised and commercialised. “It’s poetry and war at the same time,” Boonen tells me. “This sport is like religion to us.”