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Clubs struggling to find the right balance in China

Not all foreign imports a success

icon guangzhou13 November ~ Year One of the Chinese Super League's "galácticos" era was predictably eventful but not all of it was positive. Last season, Guangzhou Evergrande used the limitless wealth of their billionaire real estate owners to acquire young South American talent and proven Chinese players. The same thing happened this time around as Guangzhou also brought in Marcello Lippi to help the most expensive team in Chinese football history retain their title. Whereas Guangzhou were always heavily fancied, second-place Jiangsu Sainty were a surprise main challenger.

Sainty kept chase with Guangzhou until the final couple of games and its young core – personified by Chinese international Liu Jianye – should be a block to build around. Yet Jiangsu's rise came at the expense of other teams who spent heavily on overseas imports that didn't work out. Beijing Guoan, one of the league's traditional powerhouses, spent a fortune on foreign forwards, including a 35-year-old Frédéric Kanouté, only for all four of the new recruits to combine for just nine goals. The team from the capital will still get Asian Champions League football in 2013 having finished third in the league but only after their midfield chipped in with critical goals in key games.

One team who won't be playing in Asia's biggest club tournament next year is Shanghai Shenhua. The much-hyped team imploded in spectacular fashion, finishing in the bottom half of the table with fans displaying banners asking "where is the championship you promised?" One of the main architects of the chaos has been Nicolas Anelka, whose three goals in 22 games and questionable effort have angered supporters, some of whom saw a 150 per cent increase in their season ticket after his arrival. Having played a sizeable part in the player revolt that forced the sacking of Jean Tigana after five games – the first of Shenhua's four managers in 2012 – there are rumours that Anelka will also walk out on his contract in the off season.

Whether the far more popular Didier Drogba follows him out the door remains to be seen. The club's owner, Zhu Jun, has reportedly been locked in a protected boardroom dispute with other investors and has recently withheld his funding, thus stopping the club from paying players. As a result, Drogba and Anelka have missed games due to "injuries" while the entire team refused to train recently in protest at the ongoing instability. Their highly regarded winger Feng Renliang has already left for Guangzhou and a mass exodus of Shenhua's star players remains a possibility.

Though the petty squabbling of the League's da laoban (big bosses) won't change in the near future, what hopefully will is the process in which Chinese clubs select the players they bring into their football teams. Lippi, whose appointment at Guangzhou was as much about his ability to command a dressing room as his tactical acumen, has already turned on the South American bloc of players he was initially expected to bring under control. Several of these players clashed with club officials during the season and those that did may now be sold on. Meanwhile new arrivals such as Feng represent less outspoken but almost-as-talented Chinese replacements.

There will still be foreign superstars at Guangzhou but such players will be more likely to do as they are told and not embarrass the club with displays of public defiance. The big name migration to China will continue because their star power has made a big difference in the league. Attendances and TV viewership were both up this year and while Anelka blotted his copybook, others such as Drogba have endeared themselves and might be the inspiration for more Chinese children taking up football.

Regardless of the winners and losers, 2012 has demonstrated the pros and cons of foreign players in China. Guangzhou invested heavily in overseas recruits but still had to stick to the rules of at least seven Chinese players on the pitch at all times. They won because those Chinese players were the best money could buy and other teams with weak native players were exposed. With any luck, other teams will realise this and start investing in a strong core of local players, or else the Guangzhou championship era will be a long one indeed. Andrew Crawford


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