A new ball game

wsc302Andrew Crawford believes that an influx of money, famous players and foreign managers could help football become China’s most popular sport

The Chinese Super League (CSL) season gets underway on March 15. Most of the country’s big clubs receive substantial funding from various wealthy business tycoons or state-owned enterprises, and several teams have recruited expensive foreign reinforcements. Shanghai Shenhua started things off last December in spectacular fashion by snapping up Chelsea’s Nicolas Anelka for £190,000 a week. Since then, Beijing Guoan have spent around £1.9 million to secure strikers Andrija Kaludjerovic and Reinaldo, while Shandong Luneng have paid a reported £830,000 for their own Brazilian forward, Gilberto Macena.

The signing of Anelka and subsequent appointment of Jean Tigana as manager surprised the Shenhua fanbase and put the club in the sports pages around the world – an impressive achievement for a side that finished 11th in last season’s CSL. The club’s new-found wealth, courtesy of some mysterious funding by a government-owned company, has helped spark a frenzy of transfer stories. Shenhua’s egotistical chairman, Zhu Jun, has stoked the fires to ensure both he and the club stay in the limelight.
For all the grandiose talk of a Galácticos project involving players like Didier Drogba, Michael Ballack or Guti, the club have had to settle for former Australia international Joel Griffiths, the Serbian Mario Bozic and the journeyman Brazilian defender Moises. Clubs can sign five non-Chinese players, so Shenhua could still bring in one more ageing big name. But no one knows how much money is left and how much of the recent transfer talk is just Zhu’s bluster.

Things have been just as chaotic for Shenhua when dealing with Anelka. He was pointedly late to the team’s pre-season training camp in Spain and has complained that new side were spending too much time talking about other teams’ players and not enough on their own (ie him). Having soothed Anelka’s ego and safely transported him to China, Shenhua will be hoping their marquee name can link up with promising midfielder Cao Yunding and help his new team mount a title challenge.

Anyone looking to win the league will first have to finish ahead of reigning champions Guangzhou Evergrande, who won the league in their first season back in the top flight after being relegated in 2010 for their part in a match-fixing scandal. The team’s Argentinian playmaker, Dario Conca, whose contract is worth £6.6m a year, is arguably the best player in the league. Until the rest of the CSL works out how to stop him, there is little chance of Guangzhou’s sudden dominance coming to an end.

Beijing Guoan, last season’s runners-up, have endured a frenetic pre-season. They were forced to spend big when their star striker, Griffiths, was bought by Shanghai. The defection of the fiery ex-Leeds squad player to their biggest rivals will have infuriated the Beijing Guoan fans.

Having replenished their attacking options, the club remain among the teams best placed to challenge Guangzhou.
The influx of money is not just being lavished on players. A number of Chinese clubs will have foreign managers sitting on their benches this season. Tigana is the most obvious example but Henk ten Cate, the former Ajax manager, will be in charge of Shandong; Takeshi Okada, who managed the Japan national team, is at Hangzhou Greentown; and Jaime Pacheco, a Portuguese title-winner with Boavista, has been with Beijing Guoan since 2010.

Big names, on and off the pitch, are good for business. Hopefully they will provide long-term success for a league that has been blighted by corruption, maverick owners, an unpredictable governing body and bizarre refereeing. Games are shown live on the country’s state-run media channels and crowds have been increasingly steadily for the last few years. Guangzhou regularly play to crowds of 50,000, while Beijing attract around 40,000.

For almost a decade, China has been obsessed with basketball and the exploits of the recently retired NBA icon Yao Ming. The CSL, with its potent mix of money, intrigue and star power, is now ideally placed to fill the void left by Yao and make inroads into a sports market traditionally dominated by the NBA. Imported players like Anelka and Conca might only care about silverware and their bank balances, but if this year’s CSL justifies the hype, they could also cement the popularity of football in China for years to come.

From WSC 302 April 2012