The much-discussed, though generally uncharted, Chinese Super League will take off at around the end of February and the beginning of March.The alien league caused nothing short of a gold rush throughout the January transfer window. To many it epitomises everything going wrong in the world of football, but who are the clubs wreaking all that havoc?
For anyone trying to find their way into the CSL, there is no way around the seemingly invincible title defenders, Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao FC.
— GZ Evergrande FC (@GZEvergrandeFC) October 30, 2016
“Be the best forever”
The self-proclaimed most successful and most influential football club in Asia are six-times consecutive CSL champions and double Asian Champions League winners. They managed to dominate more than half a decennia of Chinese soccer by continuously drawing foreign know-how as well as relying on the cream of homegrown talent.
Newly promoted in 2011 they grabbed the CSL title for the first time in a Kaiserslautern-style raid. Reinvigorated by the Chinese real-estate giant Evergrande Group, they vowed to “revive Chinese football and to cultivate football stars”.
To build on their success and “be the best forever”, the club attracted Italian Marcello Lippi, now the national manager for China, and kick-started a minor brain drain of coaching intelligence to Asia, with managers such as Sven-Goran Eriksson following his lead.
As the know-how besides the pitch went, so did the talent on it. Brazilian and Argentinian idols like Muriqui, Elkeson, and Dario Conca traded the Campeonato Brasileiro Série A for the Chinese Super League.
Guangzhou remained true to their mission and appointed former FIFA player of the year Fabio Cannavaro to take over from his former national manager. However, Cannavaro’s first coaching stint was cut surprisingly short as former Brazil and Portugal manager Luiz Felipe Scolari took over the wheel mid-season 2015.
Although Cannavaro seems to have bounced back, clinching promotion to the CSL with Tianjin Quanjian last season, Scolari was an immediate hit winning both the CSL and the AFC Champions League during his first season in charge.
Scolari is still holding the reins at Guangzhou for the upcoming season and he counts on his Chinese-Brazilian dressing room to carve the club’s name even deeper into CSL history.
The dressing room
One of his most faithful is Chinese Zheng Zhi, captain for both club and country, and believed to be the best Chinese soccer player in recent years. He was part of the promoted side in 2010 after spells at Charlton Athletic and Celtic FC and makes up the beating heart of the Guangzhou side. He can play practically anywhere but in goal.
— Sina Sports (@SinasportsChina) December 28, 2016
His fellow countryman Gao Lin has also been there from the early days. He is the all-time top scorer for the club with a total of 88 goals in all competitions. For his entire career, he has had to fight for his spot with South-American rivals. Nowadays, Brazilians Ricardo Goulart and Alan Carvalho, who both joined the Tigers in 2015 for record-breaking transfer fees, are producing most of the magic up front.
Goulart won the League’s MVP award in 2015 and again in 2016 along with the Golden Boot, finding the mark 19 times. Alan joined from Red Bull Salzburg where he scored nearly 100 times, although, at Guangzhou, he has not yet been able to live up to those standards.
Although those names might still not ring too many bells, midfielder Paulinho who left White Hart Lane in 2015 and striker Jackson Martinez who joined from Atletico Madrid a year later certainly will.
No big names moved to South China during the January transfer window, although soccer A-list celebs like Arda Turan and Pepe were regularly linked. The 30-year-old striker Martinez caused the biggest transfer blip when rumours surfaced he was looking for a way out.
The Colombian failed to really make his mark during his first season in South China and things came to a head when it was reported late January that he was cut from the squad competing in the Asian Champions League later this month.
‘West Ham complete sensational deadline day deal for Jackson Martinez’
What dreams are made of.
— Iron Views (@ironviews) January 30, 2017
West Ham and Leicester City appeared interested in the Colombian international and a two-way deal with Islam Slimani was rumoured but ultimately fell through.
Looking at the club’s head-to-head encounters with the European top, only the FIFA Club World Cup can provide the faintest of ideas. Although the Club World Cup is not particularly popular in Europe, Asia has adopted the tournament as its highest honour in soccer.
The Chinese Tigers ended fourth in both Club World Cup tournaments they took part in. Bayern Munich was too strong in the 2013 semi-final and in 2015 Luis Suarez netted a hat-trick for Barcelona leaving the Chinese champions in shambles again.
The side’s total market value is estimated at £40m, about £25m short of the Premier League’s lowest market valued side, Burnley FC. It is fair to say their quality compared the European top is dubitable at the least.
See, there’s much more to the Chinese Super League than unlimited money. And we hope you now realise why Premier League stars are heading for China, just like this lot will be!
Up next week, Shanghai SIPG, the club that broke the Chinese transfer record by splashing £60m on Oscar and perhaps Guangzhou’s biggest title-challengers.