The Manchester United of China

Mats Fredrix

With the Chinese Super League to get underway on the first weekend of March, big-spenders Shanghai SIPG FC are up in our preview series as they lead the pack of challengers for Guangzhou’s title. The East China side kicked off their new season qualifying for the AFC Champions League group stages last week with £60m Oscar immediately getting off the mark on his competitive debut.

Andre Villas-Boas took over a Shanghai squad already bulkier than ever with Portuguese speaking talent. Earlier this month the former Chelsea manager strengthened it even further by attracting Portuguese veteran Ricardo Carvalho on a free transfer.

Unfortunately, the change of rules dictated something different in our usage of him — less time. It is a pity for Chinese football that we won’t see such an experienced player play more often.


The new foreign players’ rules limit clubs from having more than three non-Chinese players on the pitch at one time. Previously the rule was “4+1” – four foreigners of any nationality plus one Asian player. Additionally, teams must now select a minimum of two under-23 players in their matchday squads, with one in the starting eleven.

These quotas, which were only supposed to be implemented in 2018, have thrown Shanghai, with seven non-Chinese players on their books, somewhat in disarray. However, Andre Villas-Boas has been busily rearranging his pieces for an attack on Scolari’s title monopoly.

I’ve promised our president that at the end of the season he would sleep with one trophy. I hope that the players and I can give this special night to him at the end of the season.


Most Chinese clubs follow a trial-proof recipe for a rapid climb to the top of the pyramid. Get a big-money company sponsor, attract high-profile foreign managers and rely on Brazilians to produce a little bit of magic. Shanghai SIPG did all of that, and yet they are a little different.

Not your usual success recipe

The founding father, the legendary Xu Genbao, is the club’s general manager, chairman and breathing spirit. He is a former Chinese international and founded the club over ten years ago to give graduates from his academy match experience in professional football.

Support in the early stages of the club’s history did not come from the private sector, but from the Shanghai government. After promoting to the second tier, Xu agreed to represent Shanghai with his team in the 2009 China National Games, the premier national sports event held every four years, in return for financial aid.

The academy talent reaping success gave them the nickname ‘Manchester United of China’. However, the club needed more financial help to make it to the top-flight level. Shanghai International Port Group, owners of the biggest port in the world, started their involvement in 2012 and fully took over the club two years later, immediately attracting Sven-Goran Eriksson as the new head coach.

On his debuting season and still without the help of any big foreign players Eriksson achieved the club’s highest honour yet, CSL-runners-up. Last season he lost a spot and criticism on his willingness to give chances to young players eventually cost him his job. His successor, Villas-Boas, was announced as “a leading young manager in European football with a huge amount of passion and coaching experience”.

We are convinced his arrival will unearth the potential of our young talents and guide our club to scale new heights.

Shanghai SIPG

On the hunt

If you ever have to talk about Chinese football talent, there is one man who stands out above the rest. Wu Lei is a graduate from the Genbao Academy and a true Shanghai SIPG product. He made his debut for the club in 2006 at the age of 14 and 287 days, making him the youngest player ever to play professional Chinese football.

Still only 25, Wu is the club’s all-time top scorer with 114 goals. He is, by a distance, the most valuable Chinese player estimated at around £1.3m. This season Xu’s prime pupil will feature in a stellar Brazilian attacking line.

Hulk moved from Zenit Saint Petersburg in the summer but fell out injured on his debut missing most of the remaining 2016 season. He joined fellow Brazilian Elkeson, a familiar face in the CSL and one of the stand-out performers at Guangzhou Evergrande, clinching the golden boot in 2013 and 2014.

Before splashing big on Oscar, Villas-Boas had already made a more low-profile foreign signing for his midfield. He landed the three-times Uzbekistan Footballer of the Year Odil Ahmedov from Russian side FC Krasnodar.

Shanghai’s title bid has never been bigger, but whether all that attacking prowess will be enough to dethrone the legendary champions is still to be proven.

Next week we will look at Shanghai SIPG’s city rivals, Shanghai Shenhua, the club that pays Carlos Tevez a pound-per-second. 

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