What do Shanghai Greenland Shenhua, Venus Williams and Pogba have in common?

Mats Fredrix

The Chinese Super League finally takes off this weekend and not all favourites seem as ready. Shanghai Greenland Shenhua, the last of our three sides tipped to win the league, started the new season on a horribly false note. Earlier this month Gus Poyet and Carlos Tevez crashed out of the Asian Champions League before it even got underway. In fact, it might be more accurate to say they messed up the whole opening sonata of this year’s much-anticipated symphony. 

But what does a Chinese Super League team have to do with a seven-time Grand Slam winner and a Guinean-French left back?

They are not the alphas in the family. Apart from the fact that Venus has serious competition from the F1 circuit, Google searches will show their younger sibling first. That exactly is the story of Shanghai Greenland Shenhua.

At the source

Unlike their younger city rivals Shanghai SIPG, a success story and rapid climber, Shanghai Greenland Shenhua are one of the founding members of Chinese professional football.

The club became one of the first to enter into the new era in 1994 after acquiring sponsorship from a local company called Shenhua, literally ‘the Flower of Shanghai’. The man to lead the way was Xu Genbao, who later put his heart and soul into Shanghai SIPG.

Shenhua have never been relegated since, not from the Jia-A League, the first professional league which ran until 2003, or the re-branded Chinese Super League. However, for all those years at the pinnacle of Chinese football, they have barely anything to show for it.

Since the beginning of the professional era, Shenhua have won the league only once, in 1995. They won the last season of the Jia-A league in 2003, too, but that title was taken away from them ten years later after the Chinese FA uncovered match-fixing practices at the club.

If Xu Genbao is one of the heroes in the Super League, then Zhu Jung, a businessman who owned Shenhua for over six years, is definitely a villain. Jun had singlehandedly managed to almost drive the club into the ground. In 2014 real-estate developers Greenland Group took over the club in complete disarray.

Jun had reportedly not only often failed to pay wages, he also regularly forced the management staff to bend his way. For a pre-season friendly against Liverpool in 2007, for example, he even succeeded in getting himself in the starting line-up. As a striker he played ten awkward minutes before being subbed off with screeching lungs.

A big fish

So why are are we including them when they have not won the league in over 20 years and were in such a bad state only a couple of years ago? The old club is still one of the bigger fish in the pond, and they are up to prove it.

Before the league was as trending Shenhua had the Chinese pick of the European litter. They were the ones who started what you could call the blitz import of high-profile European players.

Nicolas Anelka was one of the first big European players to grace the CSL with his presence on his round trip around the footballing world. It didn’t work out for the Frenchman and in his footsteps, many ageing stars followed with short CSL stints.

Six months after Anelka, Didier Drogba linked up with his former teammate at Shenhua but was already halfway around the world in Galatasaray after another half-year. Zhu Jung again, appeared to be the villain behind the curtain as he reportedly failed to pay the Ivorian’s wages.

Whether Tevez sees the league simply as a loaded piñata, we cannot yet tell, but much will depend on the team’s performances. And although there is no triumphant history, there is a new wind blowing at the old club.

A new page

Losing 2-0 to Australian Brisbane Roar in the ACL qualifying round was a big, unexpected blow for Poyet and his men. However, as with Chelsea in the Premier League this season, it gives the former Sunderland manager a chance to focus exclusively on winning Shenhua the CSL for the very first time.

Many international coaches have made their way in and out the club over the last 15 years, and almost none stayed around for more than a season. Howard Wilkinson, still the last English manager to win the title and former Fulham manager Jean Tigana were two of many to give it a go in East China.

Managerially not too much seems to have changed. Poyet took over from Gregorio Manzano after only one season, even though the Spaniard managed to finish fourth and within the ACL play-off spots.

Spear pointed by the former Argentinian international, Poyet, however, will look at nothing less than the title.

The squad

After Demba Ba’s return to Besiktas on loan in January, Poyet still has four non-Asian foreign players at his disposal, with just three allowed on the pitch.

Former Newcastle and Internazionale striker Obafemi Martins joined Shenhua at the start of last season and has occupied the top spot almost exclusively. As the Brisbane game is an indicator, he will hold that role as Tevez will be allowed to move freely around him.

The other two foreigners fighting for a spot are two Colombians, Giovanni Moreno and Fredy Guarin. Moreno is the captain and part of Shenhua’s foundation. He mostly plays as an attacking midfielder, scoring a decent average of around seven goals a season.

Guarin is a better-known name in Europe. He joined last season after a four-year spell at Internazionale and was a regular figure in Shenhua’s central midfield. Guarin played for his country at the last World Cup and has won three Primeira Liga Championships and one Europa League during his four seasons at Porto prior to his move to Italy.

The only Chinese player who really stands out is Yundin Cao. The left-winger is the only Shenhua player currently in the Chinese selection. He is especially skilled in the delivery with 11 assists last season.

It does feel like every detail needs to go their way if they were to snatch the title from under their neighbour’s noses and from the unbeatable Guangzhou Evergrande. But with their attention solely fixed on the Super League they definitely stand a chance.

As Premier League players begin to flock to China, we’ve earmarked the next batch to head for the Chinese Super League

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