Read more and First Published at http://www.thesecretfootballer.com/articles/tsf-guest/26712/demba-ba-tim-cahill-and-co-spreading-the-gospel-in-the-worlds-most-populous-nation/#pqsTUGPt7hOLlU0B.99Is the Chinese Super League healthy?
In a word, yes. Chinese football is in a healthy state.
Not perfect by any means but the Chinese Super League (CSL) has seemingly developed in the same way that China as a nation has grown – spectacularly and at a rapid rate beyond all expectations, tempered with the knowledge that this upward trajectory won’t last forever. Chinese football is on the up and overshadowing the longer established J-League in Japan and K-League in South Korea in terms of global appeal and star names. Also, a healthy fan culture has returned to the stadiums.
At the height of the endless corruption and refereeing scandals, the fans abandoned the stadiums in droves and took to following overseas teams from afar. Now, most stadia in the CSL are packed each weekend. Lower-league attendances are also high and all the major urban hubs have large populations, which means attendances have been excellent in the past few seasons.
Beijing Guoan have some of the most passionate and fervent fans in Asia and games against any Shanghai team are always tense and tetchy affairs as the teams battle it out for regional pride. Furthermore, corruption and “black” whistles – bent referees – are apparently a thing of the past, though, of course, this does not mean it will ever disappear. The CSL has such appeal that billionaires like Jack Ma – the founder of Alibaba, the group of highly successful internet-based businesses and the largest initial public offering in Wall Street history – has also invested in teams like Guangzhou Evergrande.
For someone like Ma to pour finances into Chinese football, when he could easily go abroad and invest in an overseas team, is a serious statement of intent. By purchasing a 50 per cent stake in Evergrande, the club’s lofty ambitions of becoming one of the biggest teams in the world in the near future is not that unrealistic.
Chinese billionaires are, of course, also casting an eye overseas. Earlier this year, the Wanda Group, the Chinese conglomerate, announced an investment of 45 million euros to acquire a 20 per cent equity stake in Atletico Madrid.
Aside from boosting Atletico, this would also allow the further expansion of “China’s Future Star Program” in Spain, with Chinese players going to the European country to enhance their development.
As always, results are a good indication of how things are going.
Chinese teams have done very well in the Asian Champions League recently, with Evergrande winning the 2013 title under the watchful eye of Italian coach Marcello Lippi.
They also did a reasonable job against eventual winners Bayern Munich in the 2013 Club World Cup semi-finals, when they lost 3-0. As for the national team, a strong run at the last Asian Cup has boosted interest in the side not seen since China qualified for the 2002 World Cup.
The Chinese fans are keen to support a strong team and the “Dragon” seems to have finally awoken from its eternal slumber under the guidance of head coach Alain Perrin. Some well-established stars such as Zhang Linpeng and Gao Lin are leading and guiding the team.
The CSL boardrooms can still be quite ruthless environments and have more control and wield more power than some coaches would like. Managers live and die by their results – as seen by the sacking of the popular Fabio Cannavaro, after only a few months in charge of Evergrande, due to perceived defensive failings. The Italian was quickly replaced by Luiz Felipe Scolari. Cannavaro’s love affair with Evergrande was short and sweet but the fans took to his energy and love of the game.
At Shanghai Shenua, an overly keen boardroom has also wielded more influence than their manager Francis Gillot would like. Star-studded Shenua have struggled and this was compounded when their fierce rivals Shanghai SIPG thrashed them 5-0 earlier this season. In terms of overseas teams visiting China, the 2014 Trophee des Champions – the French Super Cup – was played in Beijing as have been several Supercoppa Italiana finals, which have been played in the famous Beijing “Bird’s Nest” Stadium.
As recently as last year, Brazil took on Argentina in Beijing as well. The lure of establishing business, social and economic relations with China is proving to be an immense pull for many teams. The CSL is in a balanced state … by no means perfect but definitely in a better place than it was a few years ago. And it will improve slowly.
Will big player signings boost the profile of the sport?
Yes, I think so. It can only benefit the league and the level of play. Football has always been popular in China.
A few years, when Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets was at the height of his powers, the NBA became the hottest trend in China as football struggled with scandal after scandal. Parity has been restored and football is emerging again from its dark years; star names, stability and a stronger national team has drawn the fans back.
Several years ago, the CSL signalled its intent with the signings of players like Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba and this was a sign of things to come. The pair, ultimately, were flamboyant yet unsuccessful but these ambitious signings proved to be an early indicator of the amount of finances that now abounds in Chinese football.
The J-League went through the same cycle as early big-name arrivals like Zico (Kashima Antlers), Salvatore “Toto” Schillaci (Jubilo Iwata) and Gary Lineker (Nagoya Grampus Eight) definitely brought the league global exposure.
The star players soon gave way to lesser-known professionals … but whom were equally effective. Clubs in China have become more cautious in their transfer policies as they realised that having a star name would not be a guarantee of anything or could simply be more trouble than they were worth.
There then came an influx of seemingly high-profile but steady players whom would not only add some flair but would fit into a team or system. Players who were by no means global superstars but were driven to excel and win and not simply chase huge pay cheques and look to end their careers in a far-flung nation. Evergrande had reliable players like Dario Conca, from Argentina, Elkeson and Muriqui, both from Brazil, and the fans took to them.
They were truly passionate for the cause and blended in well with their Chinese team-mates such as Zhang Linpeng, who excels as defender who loves to get forward to cause havoc. The zenith for that Evergrande generation was winning the Asian Champions League final under the stewardship of Lippi.
Only Elkeson remains at Evergrande. Conca went back to South America but has since returned to Shanghai SIPG, where Sven – yes, that Sven! – is in charge. Evergrande may have lost some players but they brought in Alberto Gilardino and Alessandro Diamanti, who proved to be seasoned professionals and gave their all. Now Paulinho has joined and Evergrande can boast quite an incredible squad, with the Brazilian now looking to rebuild his career after a torrid time in England with Tottenham Hotspur.
Rumours also abound that Robinho will also join the squad. Beijing Guoan have the cult hero Darko Matic in their ranks and his fluency in Mandarin and loyalty to Beijing has seen him become incredibly loved in the capital and across the nation, with him having amassed over one million followers on “Weibo”.
His team-mate Dejan Damjanovic is equally established and beloved. There is an unique lure to the grandeur of Beijing as even former NBA star Stephon Marbury came to China’s capital to play basketball for the Beijing Ducks and loves it so much that he may stay on.
He even has a statue and a postage stamp of himself. I don’t think that Matic has a statue or stamps yet but if Beijing win a title soon, then he will have … and more!
Tim Cahill is at Shanghai Shenua and this was seen as huge coup for the CSL to entice the Australia striker who, ironically, knocked China out of the 2015 Asian Cup finals. His two goals, including a sensational bicycle kick, gave the Aussies a 2-0 win in their last-eight clash in Brisbane.
Cahill has adapted quite well to his new surroundings and has proved to be immensely popular with the Shenua fans due to his down-to-earth and approachable nature. Demba Ba and now Mohamed Sissoko will join Cahill at Shenua, alongside their Colombian club captain, Giovanni Moreno. The aforementioned new signings will be keen to impress. The fans at a very below-par Shenua will demand no less than the best effort. Another seasoned and well-known name is the Icelander Eidur Gudjohnsen, who will join Shijiazhuang Ever Bright.
What is the overall aim of the Chinese FA?
Qualify for another World Cup finals and to win the Asian Cup. China is a football-mad nation but, until recently, their national team had flattered to deceive and often disappointed their legions of fans. The last Asian Cup and China’s fantastic run in that competition has again sparked encouragement.
The overall aim is to qualify for the World Cup finals again and if they do, then not to crash out immediately as in 2002. Qualifying is always difficult as Japan, South Korea, Australia, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran are always going to be major contenders.
The Chinese FA will also focus on the women’s team, which used to be a powerhouse at the turn of the century. After a decade in the wilderness, they are back on track, with a strong showing at the recent Women’s World Cup finals in Canada, in which they lost 1-0 to old rivals the United States, the eventual winners, in the quarter-finals. The Chinese FA, in line with the government, announced that football would become a part of the school curriculum across the nation.
It aims to have up to 20,000 schools having football as a mandatory part of their physical education plans. In turn, that should be able to develop the standards of play for the current youth generation. The Chinese FA will still keep an eye on corruption and those who may fall prey to it.
As clubs’ financing has increased so has wages for the players, which off-balances the need to seek other means to make a living. There also needs to be a finer balance between nurturing promising footballers and then simply “producing” them.Hopefully, some truly skilled and creative players are not overwhelmed in the processes involved in the long road to becoming professional athletes.
The Chinese FA will also try to change the mentality of some segments of Chinese society who do not see sports or football as a viable career. China is going through one of the greatest societal changes and upheavals it has seen. For those looking to move up the social and economic ladder, from poverty into the emerging middle class, then sport, as a career, may simply not cut it as a stable profession and would also be seen as purely a recreational pursuit. Academic achievement is still more highly valued. Why risk a potentially short career? Other professions can last long into the future and offer a steady income in a world that offers no reassurances or fall backs.
The hopes and dreams of entire families can rest on the shoulders of their offspring and the national college entrance exam for university – the “Gaokao” – is where many youths concentrate their time and energy. Passing or failing it can determine an entire person’s life, so there is no time to do sports. A change in mentality towards professional sports and the livelihood that it can bring is probably going to be the greatest challenge for the Chinese FA.
Where do you see the league in five to ten years?
I expect there to be a greater interest in the CSL on a global basis as the league slowly evolves and becomes even more professional, in line with global standards of advertising, sponsorship and financial transparency. I expect more star names to arrive in China and boost the profile of the league even higher. All leagues go through cycles and I believe the CSL is on the up. If the amount of money pumped in continues unabated, with greater accountability, then the good times can carry on.
I expect Chinese teams to continue to do well in the Asian Champions leagues and this, hopefully, will also benefit the national team. In turn, this will see fans grow in numbers in terms of attendance and for Chinese fan culture to further evolve, develop and become truly ingrained in every-day Chinese society.
Basically, all positive. But with a cautious optimism!