Dogged by corruption for decades, is football in China about to turn a corner?
Chinese football is at best a mercurial concept. It doesn’t have the wholesome, inherently cute feel that the Japanese or Korean football, with its orchestrated cheering and family atmosphere, has worked hard to create.
Instead the Chinese Super League exists almost as a footballing Pandora’s box, where teams rise, fall and sometimes vanish from existence completely. It’s a league where money doesn’t so much talk but angrily screams in your face and where maverick individuals can change the destinies of a football club at a whim. In short, it’s compulsive viewing for a football fan looking for something a little different.
The CSL is a sixteen-team league with sides based across China. It was formed in 2003, a year after China competed in its first and only World Cup, in a drive by the Chinese Football Association (CFA) to modernize its footballing set-up and create a more effective youth development.
At first, it was dominated by a small group of teams that tended to monopolize the league and cup competitions. However, a lot of this has changed as recently as this season, and the old guard now find themselves in decline. Shenzhen Ruby, the inaugural champions were relegated whilst other former power houses Dalian Shide, Shanghai Shenhua and Shandong Luneng all finished outside out the Asian Champions League spots. In their places, the CSL was won by Guangzhou Evergrande whilst the CFA Cup was picked up by Tianjin Teda under the management of Dutch great, Arie Han.
Indeed, the emergence of the new champions is particularly noteworthy. Two years ago, Guangzhou were relegated down to the second tier, China League One, as part of a match fixing scandal dating back to 2006. A week after the verdict, the club was bought by the Evergrande Real Estate Group, who promptly opened up the cheque book and started recruiting a host of big name footballers.
First came prominent Chinese players, Gao Lin, Sun Xiang and Zheng Zhi before Brazilian, Muriqui joined them following his 2.2 million pound move from Athletico Mineiro. Chinese football, astounded at the idea of a second division club smashing the country’s transfer record, sat up and took notice of the team from Guangdong Province, who duly got cantered towards promotion.
Now back in the top tier of Chinese football, Evergrande’s owner, Xu Jiayin, continued to throw money around and broke the transfer record again with the signing of another Brazilian, Cleo, from Partizan Belgrade. Argentine playmaker, Dario Conca then followed on a contract worth 6.6million pounds a year, as Guangzhou steamrollered its rivals to win the 2011 CSL with ease.
All of this money brings us to what has thrust the CSL into the spotlight- the recent singing of Nicolas Anelka, which in itself is a milestone in the development of the CSL.
Firstly, it has set the benchmark for the sort of signings that fans could expect to see. Whilst there have been a reasonable amount of decent players that have played in the CSL; Jorg Albertz, Carsten Jancker, Ahn Jung-Hwan, Marlon Harewood and Derek Riordan are a few examples but it’s rare that these imports either stay or are still at the peak of their powers.
Anelka, though at 32, could still be playing in the Premiership and his transfer represents a coup for a league that frequently resembles a lucrative, albeit second-choice elephants graveyard- an MLS lite, if you will.
Secondly, it demonstrates the willingness of clubs to fight fire with fire and invest large sums of money in player transfers. Shanghai’s funding has come from mysterious sources who desperately want their city’s team to win the league again, and other clubs besides Shenhua are willing to do the same. Dalian Shide, another of the CSL’s fallen giants, are rumored to be courting Didier Drogba whilst Ronaldinho and Michael Ballack have also been mentioned in the Chinese media.
This raises real problems for Chinese football, whose bigger clubs must now fight the urge not to raise ticket prices or divert funds away from youth development to fund these big money moves. However, the CFA is, shall we say, not the most adept at managing its football clubs, most of whom are predominantly owned by wealthy individuals with more money than sense.
Indeed, the antics of Xi and Shanghai’s spectacularly unpopular chairman, Zhu Jan are the tip of the iceberg in a league where clubs are merged and moved without warning or sense. Just three weeks ago, Shaanxi Chan-Ba fans found out their team was being moved from Xi’an to Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou province, with immediate effect because the latter city is more agreeable to club owner, Jia Yongghe’s business interests.
Football fans in China are monitoring developments with bated breath. It could take a few years but there is now the tantalizing possibility that a basketball-mad country might be swayed into liking football. These are strange days in an already unpredictable league and the next season or two may well end up affecting Chinese football for a generation.