Heart and sole on show at Tianjin's bitter football derby
Jealousy, the whiff of corruption and some therapeutic insoles will all be thrown into the mix when Tianjin Teda host ambitious rivals Tianjin Quanjian in the Chinese Super League on Sunday.
The derby in Tianjin, a port city of 15 million people close to Beijing, showcases two very different sides of modern Chinese football.
Teda are the traditional but fading power, the older club with a dwindling following and facing another season fighting to stay in the CSL.
Quanjian, named after and bankrolled by a healthcare company, are the upstarts now with the better attendances and star names in Brazilian forward Alexandre Pato, French striker Anthony Modeste and Belgian international Axel Witsel.
To spice things up further, many of Quanjian's fans are former Teda supporters who defected because they were fed up seeing their team lose.
There was no Tianjin Quanjian until 2015 when Quanjian Natural Medical Group took over relative minnows Tianjin Songjiang, having ended their sponsorship of Teda in acrimonious circumstances.
Sam Wang, co-founder of the Tianjin Teda ultra group "Tiger Wings" comprising about 120 fanatical fans, said that much of his "hatred" of Quanjian stems from this.
Wang, 23, who was born and raised in Tianjin but currently studies in the United States, said the animosity of Teda fans towards their rivals is also rooted in distrust of Quanjian's healthcare claims.
When referring to Quanjian fans, Teda ultras sneeringly invoke a shoe insole product sold by the Quanjian Group -- self-professed experts in natural remedies -- and said to have healing properties.
Wang concedes that compared to Teda, who have one point from two games this season under German coach Uli Stielike, Quanjian are a modern club.
"They are richer, they are willing to catch everyone's attention and the company is eager to propagandise itself," said Wang, referring to the Quanjian Group.
"They bought famous players so a lot of our fans ditched us to support them, which made the rivalry between them and us worse and worse.
"We used to be the only team and a really good team, but now Quanjian get all the attention."
Beijing Guoan were traditionally Teda's arch rivals, but relations between the two sets of fans improved markedly in 2015 when a series of explosions tore through Tianjin, said Wang.
The blasts at a chemical storage facility killed at least 165 people.
"That was when the rivalry with Beijing Guoan dissolved because after that lots of Beijing football supporters and ultras came to Tianjin to help us and they made banners paying tribute to the people who died," Wang said.
- Match-fixing probe -
Quanjian, who have denied making a move for Barcelona star Andres Iniesta, have endured mixed fortunes so far this season under new boss Paulo Sousa.
The Portuguese coach took over when Italian legend Fabio Cannavaro left to coach CSL champions Guangzhou Evergrande after leading Tianjin into the AFC Champions League for the first time.
Pato and Modeste both scored in a priceless 4-2 win on Wednesday over 2016 AFC Champions League winners Jeonbuk Motors to leave themselves with a good chance of reaching the last 16 and Quanjian will go into Sunday's derby at the 37,000-capacity Teda Football Stadium as favourites.
But this is Chinese football and shocks are never far away: a Quanjian side pushing for third place towards the end of last season were stunned 4-1 by a Teda team who appeared doomed for relegation.
Teda's spectacular victory and the wide margin was so surprising that the Chinese Football Association (CFA) launched an investigation.
It consequently cleared both teams of wrongdoing and Teda dodged relegation thanks to a late surge in form, but the CFA findings did little to stop chatter about suspected manipulation in Teda's favour.
Shen Wei, a sports journalist with the state newspaper the Tianjin Daily, likened the derby to the one in Shanghai -- the fading glory of Shenhua against the wealth and newfound status of SIPG.
"Some Teda fans hold the view that Quanjian fans are sort of 'plastic'," he said, adding that while Teda fans may hate their rivals, that is not really shared by the two clubs or many Quanjian fans.
"Deep down, Teda fans may envy Quanjian or feel disappointed about Teda.
"But most Quanjian fans came from Teda so they don?t even really care about Teda anymore."
© 2018 AFP