CSL emerges on world stage
Updated: 2012-12-27 00:02
Big-spending local clubs starting to draw top names to Chinese league, writes Tang Zhe
Chinese clubs gained international recognition as they launched ambitious bids for foreign stars in 2012. However, the Chinese Super League, despite the generous contracts and enthusiastic fans, is yet to become a cozy destination for big-name imports.
Shanghai Shenhua was the most active club in the CSL throughout the year. It stole the limelight from the equally lavish Guangzhou Evergrande at the beginning of the year by signing former Chelsea striker Nicolas Anelka. In the summer it again placed itself on center stage by bringing Cote d'Ivoire forward Didier Drogba, a teammate of Anelka in London, to China.
However, instead of a steady rise in the standings, Shenhua was embroiled in a long-term pay row and only managed to finish ninth in the league.
Zhu Jun, the biggest shareholder and the man who persuaded Drogba and Anelka to join Shenhua, threatened to withhold player wages and even leave the club, claiming the other five shareholders had reneged on an agreement to give him a majority stake in the club.
According to a Chinese website, if the dispute remains unresolved at the end of the year, Shenhua will give up all its big signings, including Anelka and Drogba, replace Argentine coach Sergio Batista with a local one and move its base from Shanghai for the 2013 season.
In December, Chinese coach Shen Xiangfu was named head of the club's Chinese coaching team to assist head coach Batista in the coming season. The 55-year-old moved into Anelka's room at Shenhua's training base after his arrival.
Meanwhile, it has been reported that Frenchman Anelka has reached an agreement with the club which will allow him to terminate his contract. Drogba, who applied for permission in November to leave Shanghai on loan before the January transfer window ― but was refused by FIFA, has also been linked with a move back to Europe.
CSL champion Evergrande faces similar problems as several of its foreign players want to terminate their contracts before they expire. Argentine midfielder Dario Conca, who broke the Chinese league's transfer record, appears the most anxious and Brazilian media said he threatened the club with retirement if he was not allowed to leave.
The potential loss of Conca would not be a huge blow to the defending champion's ambitions.
Evergrande has just sealed a partnership involving youth training and business development with Serie A powerhouse AC Milan, thanks to the efforts of Italian coach Marcello Lippi, who was hired by the Chinese side in May. The club is also reported to have provided $80 million to the Chinese Football Association for its bid to host the 2015 and 2016 FIFA Club World Cup.
Following closely behind Evergrande and Shenhua, Guangzhou R&F brought in Nigerian Yakubu Aiyegbeni from British club Blackburn, while Dalian Aerbin inked a free transfer with former Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita.
Spanish striker Raul Gonzalez was close to a deal with Beijing Guo'an, but according to Gao Chao, the club's general manager, the transfer was blocked by Jaime Pacheco, head coach of the team at the time. British midfielder Frank Lampard and Brazilian Kaka were also frequently linked with the league.
Overall, 2012 was a prosperous one for the CSL with the average attendance increasing from 2011's 17,600 per game to 18,800. The duel between champion Evergrande and runner-up Jiangsu Sainty at the Nanjing Olympic Center Stadium in the 28th round attracted 65,769 fans ― a league record.
In the AFC Champions League, Evergrande reached the quarterfinals in its debut year, a result not achieved by a Chinese team since 2007. Chinese sides also reclaimed four spots in the tournament, with Evergrande, Guo'an, Sainty and Guizhou Renhe to take part next year. Evergrande has already set its target in the tournament ― qualify for the semifinals and then fight for the title.
Wilting national team
While the CSL thrived in 2012, the Chinese national team wilted. After being knocked out of World Cup 2014 qualifying early in 2011, the national squad played a dead rubber against Jordan in February and several friendly games throughout the year, including a humiliating 8-0 loss to Brazil.
Head coach Jose Antonio Camacho, who took the post in August of 2011, will get the chance to stamp his influence on the team when it starts its 2015 Asian Cup qualifiers next year.
China plays Saudi Arabia away on Feb 6, followed by a home match against Iraq in March, and home-and-away games against Indonesia in October and November.
Camacho, who is expected to leave the post if his lineup fails to qualify for the Asian Cup, said his fate was in the CFA's hands in an interview this month.
"I have a contract with the CFA, I know the starting date and when it finishes, of course the final decision will come from the CFA, but apart from the game results, they should know how I am working and my working attitude," said the 57-year-old.
"I have wanted to win every match since I was a player, and I give myself the same requirements as a coach," he said. "I have no complaints about the CFA. I signed a three-year contract, half has passed, and what I am doing now is the same as what I did on the first day.
"For sure I understand in the world of soccer you have to speak through your results, but the coach is not able to control everything and it's normal in some parts of the world for the coach to lose his job even when he wins," Camacho said.