Photo on top by ©iStockphoto.com/zhaojiankang
The shock wave of Chinese Super League (CSL) sent to football world has reached a new height just at this summer. Graziano Pelle, a decent striker for Southampton and Italy national team, signed for Shandong Luneng, a team currently ranked second bottom at CSL table. What is astonishing is that Shandong, who is struggling in relegation battle and making panic buys, made Graziano Pelle sixth highest paid footballer in the world, meaning Pelle gets higher salary (allegedly 250k GBP per week) in China than Cristiano Ronaldo in Madrid. The 31 years old striker will play under Shandong’s new manager- Felix Magath to try to save this long-standing big team from an embarrassing relegation for the first time in their proud history.
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) 2016年7月12日
Currently, CSL sells its TV rights in 12 other countries including Turkey, which is just unimaginable before. Only a few years ago Chinese game was even despised by their own fans, nowadays it generates massive interest outside China.
To understand the story of Chinese football, you have to go back to its history.
Before the establishment of professional football league, football in China was in an awkward state. Domestic football was only played between each province’s “specialized football team”, players are trained and paid by government like public servants.The public can hardly have any interest in the game, and in fact communist government would prefer “oriental” games such as Pingpong and badminton rather than “western entertainment” like football and basketball.
On international level, Chinese national team has been excluded from FIFA and AFC competitions for a very long period. To explain this unique situation you have to go back to Chinese civil war right after WW 2. The communist rebels waged a war to overthrow nationalist government. In 1949 the communist controlled mainland China and declare themselves People’s Republic of China (PRC), while the old government retreated to Taiwan still claim the sovereignty of China as a part of Republic of China (ROC).
For about thirty years PRC national football team is not internationally recognized as representative of China. ROC national team inherited the title and history of Chinese football (quite proud record before world war 2), and relied on Hongkong player ROC team played brilliantly at first few AFC Asian cup competitions. PRC national team would only play friendlies with a handful of fellow socialist nations like North Korea, Albania, Burma and Cambodia, official competitions closed their door to footballers from mainland China until 1980s.
1994-2003 first wave of professional league.
The opening of Jia A league (甲A联赛) is a tremendous turning point for Chinese football. As background PRC China returned to summer Olympic in 1984, and it focused its resource on sports which were likely to win medals in Olympic (Pingpong, Gymnastic etc). Football games were short-funded by governments, for it was unthinkable that China’s football team can compete for a summer Olympic medal.
The foundation of China’s football league is a great mean to raise funds by selling tickets, commercials and TV rights (almost non existent for there is no private TV channel in China). More importantly it provides Chinese audience a chance to watch their local heroes on weekly basis and footballers make income 10 times than before.
In 1990s China are facing an economic environment much harder than today, and cities were swarmed with immigrants from rural area to supply cheap labor. With low income, fast growing cities and limited choice of entertainment, football all of a sudden becomes the center of focus in big cities. Jia A league is immature and naive in its operation by any measure, for example its match rules, sponsor deals etc is laughable and full of error, but nevertheless people enjoyed and embraced the new league.
Beijing, Dalian and Shanghai has built football dynasty (in relative term) of their own, and later Shandong replaced Dalian to become a top dog. Other teams have their stories to tell as well, take Sichuan Quanxing for example, a team used to base in Chengdu, the author’s hometown. Sichuan is a “cult” team in Jia A league, whose ranking and record might not be the best, but their football is the most exciting and entertaining in this country. At their day they can beat any big guns like Dalian and Shanghai, while at their lows they often lose to the bottom sides with an attack-minded playing style. At 1996 this very much loved team found themselves in relegation battle at the last few games. National media called upon a “battle of Chengdu”(保卫成都) to rally support, and Chengdu fans responded with passion. There were estimated 60,000 people slept on streets outside stadium to ensure they cant get the tickets for final matches. The final two matches were torturing for fans, but Sichuan managed to win 3-2 and 1-0 to secure safety. The governor of Sichuan province brought his family to watch the last game, and his wife was fainted and sent to hospital for she cannot stand the tension of the match.
Jia A league, with all its merit, was amateurish. Sichuan players were always invited by local hotpot restaurants to dine. At a grand level, clubs were changing location and names with the change of owner and sponsors. For a Japanese reader, you can imagine a team called GAMBA OSAKA one year and GAMBA Tokyo next year. Fans are angered by the frequent changes and felt unable to emotionally attached to clubs with new names every year. A bigger problem looming was that state-owned enterprise like Beijing Guoan always gained unfair advantages (like being rewarded soft penalties), which provoked the question whether it is fair to use tax payers’ money to invest football.
In Jia A era, Chinese football league were opened to overseas managers and players. Players from Latin America and East Europe were welcomed for they are cheap to buy and represented good value for money. Football coaches came to China were mainly from neighboring Korea (Lee Jang-su stays for almost 20 years), and former socialist country Yugoslavia. Bora Milutinovic, the Serbian coach who managed 5 different countries into world cup made the historic breakthrough with Chinese national team in Japan and Korea 2002 world cup.With little international attention and commercial success, Jia A was disbanded in 2003 and newly branded CSL was subsequently launched.
2004- 2008 new league, same old problem
The launch of Chinese Super League was ambitious, but very soon it hit the rock bottom low. To imitate the branding of old English division 1 to EPL, CSL tried to achieve commercial success, but income and attendance fell significantly after the sensation of 2002 world cup.
Old problems kept Chinese fans away from their teams. Sichuan for example, had been sold to Dalian and quit football altogether in 2004, many cities lost their home teams due to financial liquidation or change of owners. Meanwhile a even more severe problem awaits, and it would soon conquered Chinese league like cancer.
The name of cancer is called gambling and match fixing, it took years of hard work from journalists and investigators to finally reveal the full scale of the corruption it shocked all fans. The Chinese football was rotten in the core, betting company and even underground society (think of Yakuza gangs) controlled the results and even the timing of goals in league games. All clubs were involved in match fixing, while nearly all high ranking officials committed crimes.
When Argentina and Brazil played in 2008 Beijing Olympic football final, Chinese fans were calling then FA president Xie Yalong to resign, their shout were mistaken by foreign journalists as cheering for both teams, making it an international laughing stock. At the same year Police started investigate in Chinese football, and all high officials were jailed for taking bribe. Many clubs were relegated the same way as Juventus were punished in Serie A. Big cities like Chengdu and Wuhan lost their top tier clubs in the aftermath, while the CSL lost more than half of audience as a whole.
Post 2008 era- here Xi comes
Japanese (and all foreign readers for that matter) should not forget a simple fact when they watch Chinese football from outside, that China is an authoritarian country (威权国家) that political leaders hugely controlled the policy in every aspect. Luckily for football professionals in China, new leader Xi Jinping loves football in his own leisure time. His personal taste would change the landscape of Chinese football forever.
Xijinping’s love affair with football is well known.Even before he officially became the leader, he asked to try Gaelic football during a state visit in Ireland to negotiate trade deal. When Xi first took office he made his ambition for China’s football very clear: to improve national team’s play, to hosta world cup and ultimately win it by 2050.
This plan was of course been taken seriously by his government officials and businessmen who try to build good relationship with him to gain political favours. Previously bankrupted CSL now receives 8 billion RMB (roughly 9000 million GBP) for TV rights from state owned CCTV channel, let alone billions of investment come from private sector to build competitive teams. Chinese government published a very ambitious plan for football, money were assigned to build hundreds of new grounds and football schools will open in big number. Football also become compulsory in school curriculum and a part of national exam.
With unprecedented inflow of money, big names came to Chinese league.At first decent players like Kanuote from Seville and Jacob from Everton came at retirement age, then in 2012 something bigger happens. Shanghai Shenhua, brought Didier Drogba and Anelka to Shanghai straight after they quit Chelsea, making the world know that football money in China means business. Although that transfer ended in disaster, with Drogba suing Shenhua for unpaid salary and Anelka overthrown the coaches and step up to become a player/coach himself.
The most significant new player is Guangzhou evergrande. Guangzhou is a place with their own football tradition, they played a distinct attacking style relying on speed not power (Cantonese players are shorter than Northern Chinese) . Evergrande Group bought the struggling Guangzhou team when they were in tier 2 division. This new club- Guangzhou Evergrande won the championship at their first ask when coming back to top tier, and they keep on winning it 5 in a row, while triumphed at Asian champions league at 2013. They brought the competition to a new level, having Lippi and Scolari as their manager, the players come in to a point that even good players in Europe found themselves no place in Guangzhou team. Barrios from BVB Dortmund for example were surprised at the level in Guangzhou team and failed to win a spot in team.
— GZ Evergrande FC (@GZEvergrandeFC) 2016年4月30日
Looking forward- how the furture lies
Chinese national football team (men team) is a source of pain and humiliation for Chinese people, even for those non-football fans. Everyone knows China put on huge effort in Olympics to win gold medal- and respect from the rest of world. But as long as football- the most popular sports in China remained a failure, people would feel their national pride hurt deeply.
Chinese football team comprises a myth for world’s sports spectators. A nation with 1.4 billion population, with a huge football loving supporters, ranked only higher than the Faroe Islands (population 49,500), even at a point lower than Antigua and Barbuda (population 90,000). Chinese people take pride in their belief that China invented football back in 250 BC, while modern football is only “re-invented” by England. This brutal fact is a long standing problem, and governing body tried everything to tackle it.
In 1990s, there was a theory that height of tall strikers would be the advantage for Chinese in Asian game, since Chinese players are generally physically bigger than Korean and Japanese. To encourage the use of Andy Caroll style striker, Chinese league once made a header worth two goals in a game. This ridiculous rule made some hilarious outcome- players in front of empty goal would lie down and touch the ball with head to make the goal count double. Similar stupid rules lead to many occasions like this, in one case Chongqing found that the only way to stay away from relegation was to lose their last game- due to very complicated ranking rule.
Another criticism is that Chinese league will often stop for several months to make way for national team and even Olympic team, which suggests the “professional ” league lacked independence from FA. All those tricks to improve national team has never worked, and unlikely to work in future.
Chinese fans were once optimistic by Guangzhou Evergrande’s performance. This team assembled half of national team, and Chinese players seems playing better alongside international stars. Zheng Zhi (郑智) who played in Chalton Athletic, Westbrom Albion and Celtic, gained his second career peak in Guangzhou and won the player of Asia in 2013 at old age. But soon enough fans found out that Chinese players’ good form didn’t translate into success for national team. These same players were good supporting players for their club, but foreign players take crucial positions and Chinese players have no chance to play as a core centre striker or playmaker midfield.
The plight of Chinese national team can be attributed to many things. Football in China became a spectacle sports, people love to watch football games but rarely played it (they play pingpong and basketball instead).
Fans and even sociologists blame China’s one-child policy and extremely competitive education exam system to prevent parents from encouraging kids to participate football other than study for exams.Also for a country with a booming housing market, lands with grass suitable for football is very scarce and most people cannot afford such luxury.
As for the domestic league, with billions of Chinese Yuan invested, it brought global attention and quality players, but also exposed its unbelievable lack of professionalism to the world. The quality of the pitch is astonishingly bad, it is irony to bring world class players to China then let them play in awful pitches. At July Manchester derby was set to play at Birds nest- the national stadium built for the grand Beijing Olympic games in 2008. United and City officials were shocked by the bad conditions of the pitch and the game was called off minutes before kick off, making China’s national pride a laughable scandal.
Also Chinese players sometimes stuck with old bad habits and play dangerously. During the latest Shanghai derby, Demba Ba broke his leg for a very reckless tackle from his Chinese opponent Sun Xiang, in which time the medical support at match day is amateur and crude, they are not helpful but to make injury worse for poor Ba. Such events happened repeatedly, making Chinese fans fully realized the dark side of the game did not go away because of inflow of investment.
On the bright side, money do bring in interest from foreigners. Cameron Wilson, a Scotsman came from Dunfermlin, lived in Shanghai for 8 years. He did not only marry a Chinese girl and settle, he also become a member of “the Blues”- diehard Shanghai Shenhua fan group. He runs a English website Wild East Football, helping western fans to enjoy the Chinese game. There are other foreign fans now watched Chinese game in increasing numbers, including a Japanese elder fan who support Beijing Guoan faithfully. As a late comer in gold rush to China, Sven Eriksson the former England manager talked about his satisfaction of his new job at SIPG, “I enjoy the life in Shanghai so much, in fact I could not tell which city has richer life, Shanghai or London, I sometimes think Shanghai night life is even better than London.”
Via Wild East Football / http://wildeastfootball.net/
Most Chinese fans would agree with me on this- money are bringing fantastic players (the latest one is Hulk from Zenit to SIPG Shanghai) and coaches, making Chinese teams competitive in Asia, but in terms of improved performance in world cup, money cannot buy you instant success. It will take many years hard work to lay foundation on which the Chinese might eventually see the success of their cursed national team.
Zhi Zheng : A Celtic fan who travelled 37 football grounds in UK, also watch lower league and amatuer football in Scotland. I also follow Hibs, Queen’s park and Partick thistle, and support Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) and Scotland in national competitions.