Chinese Super League – a new start or a false dawn?


Ethan Meade assesses the state of the Chinese Super League…

It was supposed to be the transfer that heralded the start of a new era for football in the Far East. Didier Drogba arrived in Shanghai in July last year on a two and a half year deal, earning a reported £270,000 a week, greeted by a packed airport of fans all clamouring for a glimpse of a genuine worldwide football superstar. He joined a team who already boasted the services of Champions League winner and long-time France international Nicolas Anelka on their books. And yet, within 6 months, both Drogba and Anelka had left Shanghai Shenhua. So after all the fanfare, where did things go wrong for the pair? And where does it leave the ailing Chinese Super League?

Firstly, it must be said that there is nothing unusual in foreign players staying in China for a year or so, and then leaving. The combination of high wages available to foreign marquee signings, and the relatively poor standard of the league, means that China can often be a stop off for players seeking a pay day. But despite this, there was an air of revolution about football in China last year. In what seemed like a late reaction to the economic boom and globalisation experienced by China in the previous decade, the Super League was all of a sudden attracting bigger names than ever.

Alongside Drogba and Anelka, Champions League winner Seydou Keita, former African player of the year Freddie Kanouté and Bundesliga winner Lucas Barrios all emigrated to China in 2012. They were joined by household names Yakubu and Fabio Rochemback, as well as Argentine playmaker Dario Conca, who became one of the world’s highest paid players (earning a reported $12.5 million per year), when he joined Guangzhou Evergrande in 2011. Former Darlington, Port Vale and Sheffield Wednesday legend Akpo Sodje even became the first English player in the CSL, joining Tianjin Teda in March 2012. All things considered, the league was certainly on the way up.

Joining midway through the season, Drogba was unable to fire his new team any higher than 9th in the league, despite an impressive tally of 8 goals in 11 games. Anelka’s record was altogether less impressive, scoring just 3 times in 24 appearances. So why, after just months, were Anelka and Drogba heading back to Europe? Firstly, Shanghai Shenhua have clearly been run far from professionally. Both players complained of their wages either being paid late, or not at all.

On the pitch, the organisation was little better. Manager Jean Tigana turned up to a match before being told his services were no longer required. Consequently, Anelka had a disastrous spell as player-coach. This lack of organisation appears to be a problem across the league. Chris Killen, who played there for 2 years, said that “There was a lot of money but not a lot of organisation and it kind of showed on the football field. It was free-flowing football but there was no structure.” He cited the fact that players are only told training times the night before their sessions as an example of the lack of professionalism.

Bordeaux coach Jean Tigana attends their French Ligue 1 soccer match against Lille at Lille Metropole Stadium

An altogether more worrying issue however, is the match fixing scandal which has rocked the league in recent years. In 2009, Chinese authorities launched a campaign to reform the sport, leading to the arrest of dozens of referees, players, officials and coaches. This week, 33 players and officials were jailed for life as a result of these investigations. Shanghai Shenhua and Tianjin Teda have been docked 6 points, whilst Shenhua’s 2003 title win was stripped. A total of 12 clubs were hit with some sort of penalty – a sign of how widespread the problem was. At times, this problem was blatant – one infamous match ended with a team clearly seen trying to score an own goal.

A former Chinese professional has even claimed that prior to the anti-corruption drive, 30% of Chinese football matches were rigged. Some have blamed low salaries for the problem. Whilst the likes of Anelka and Drogba were picking up millions, some Chinese players had been picking up as little as £200 a month, making lucrative fees for throwing a game difficult to resist. Thankfully salaries for domestic players are improving. However, whether Chinese football can clear up its act remains to be seen. For the league to have any kind of credibility, serious steps have to be taken, the first of which have hopefully been taken this week.

But despite the dark cloud hanging over the league as the season beckons in March, the game remains awash with money, and with the potential for expansion. In January, France international and PSG striker Guillaume Hourau joined Dalian Aerbin, proving that a financial allure to the league remains. Whilst the financial boom appears to be dying down, there remain a number of businessmen prepared to throw money at clubs in an effort to bring over big-name foreign players.

The primary motivation for this appears to be in an effort to impress the incoming government, at a time when competition within business in China is as fierce as ever. Businessmen will feel that by bringing in big names, they can curry favour with the government, and promote their company. A motivation for the government to promote football in China could also be their desire to host the 2026 World Cup.

A number of soundbites have been heard in recent months about the country’s desire to host the World Cup, and with FIFA’s recent history of awarding the hosting rights to countries with economic potential inverse to their football culture, China surely look a shoe in, should they decide to bid for the tournament. With a concerted effort to clean up the game, and increase the league’s exposure, they surely must be a motivation.

It’s clear that for those looking for the Chinese League to accelerate into a global competition, the swift departures of Drogba and Anelka has been a disappointment. However, despite highlighting the faults of the league, it has largely had a positive effect. Where previously, few hadn’t even given the league a second thought, it is now on the map. The two players have paved the way for others to follow – namely the path of astronomical wages – and have given the league new prestige. There are completely severe issues of professionalism to address, but it appears as though steps are being taken. So don’t expect Drogba and Anelka to be the last former Premier League stars to head over to the Far East.

@ethanmeade; @The_False_Nine

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