Holding out for China’s heroes

Football’s new stars need to be larger than life

Simon Chadwick

PHOTO: AP / Zhang hong

Trade and industry, Arts, culture & society | Asia, East Asia

1 March 2017

China’s Super League needs big stars and global engagement to back up its massive investment and the country’s sports policy ambition, Simon Chadwick writes.

President Xi Jinping’s love of football is well-known. But how does he feel about big-haired and raspy-voiced 1980s Welsh songstress Bonnie Tyler? Because he and his senior football officials would do well to heed the words of her greatest hit. The 1984 smash ‘Holding out for a hero’ would appear to be an appropriate anthem for Chinese football as the 2017 Super League (CSL) gets ready to kick-off.

Looking ahead to the coming season, there are several things that football in China needs although a hero is definitely one of them. The arrival of Brazilian international Oscar at Shanghai SIPG (from English Premier League club Chelsea) for £60 million was attention grabbing, while Carlos Tevez’s move from Argentina’s Boca Juniors to Shanghai Shenhua drew exasperated headlines (the striker reportedly having agreed an eye-watering £615,000 (US $763,000) per week deal).

However, it is Zhang Chendong who could become the hero that Xi and China needs, after the defender moved to Hebei Fortune from Spain’s Rayo Vallecano for €20 million (US $21 million) which is a record transfer fee for a Chinese player. The return of Zhang this season to the CSL is potentially important for a couple of reasons.

Chinese football needs home-grown heroes and icons if it is to engage fans and start building a sustainable fan culture. The likes of Oscar and Tevez may sprinkle some international stardust on the league and get backsides on seats in stadia, but it is players such as Zhang who must be in the vanguard of instilling some belief among China’s current (and its prospective) fans. At the same time, Zhang and some of his peers must become much more prominent this season, as they can become a tangible sign that their country’s grand football plans and significant investments are finally starting pay dividends.

While the CSL does need a hero or two, it should not come in the shape of Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney who hopefully will not be joining Carlos Tevez in China anytime soon. Two ‘thirty somethings’, who have seen better days and are now in the twilight of their careers, are the last thing Chinese football needs, especially as the country is still struggling to shake off the label of being a retirement home for ageing professionals.

It will be interesting to see how the Argentinian former Juventus and Manchester City player fares in China, with rumours already spreading that he is unhappy there. This could be an increasingly prevalent occupational hazard for overseas players seduced by big fees and salaries. Even so, Carlos Tevez seems to have been something of a tipping point for China – a player at the confluence of concerns about currency outflows, inflationary pressures in the transfer market, and the role of avaricious intermediaries.

This seemingly led to the CSL introducing its new 3+1 rule limiting the amount of foreign players clubs can field, which is believed to have been prompted by the concerns of state authorities. For the Chinese government, being seen to be making tangible progress towards its football goals, specifically with regards to developing domestic talent is laudable. However, the next thing China needs this coming season is for the government and the football authorities to hold their nerves.

While the move from a 4+1 rule for overseas players to another set of controls had been discussed, the eventual imposition of the 3+1 rule was unexpected. Such unpredictability is unhelpful to football’s decision-makers and may ultimately prove to be counterproductive to China’s longer-term goals. Alongside this need, China’s state apparatus needs to ensure that football does not turn inward.

Throughout China’s history as a nation, turning inward has been one of its characteristics. However, at this point in its football’s development, particularly as the country pushes to become part of the global football community and harbours hopes to host a World Cup, China needs to remain open and engaged. As such, whilst the importance of cultivating domestic talent and retaining national identity are acknowledged, remaining engaged with the world of football is vital. Younger overseas players like Oscar, as well as managers such as Andre Villas-Boas (the Portuguese who has taken over at Shanghai SIPG), are just as important to Chinese football’s competence development and skill acquisition as domestic players and managers.

In competition, China needs a team other than Guangzhou Evergrande to win the CSL, the club having won the last six titles. Uncertainty of outcome (not knowing which team is going to win a competitive contest) is central to the attractiveness of any sport, and is a feature of football that helps engage fans. This uncertainty is borne of competitive balance; that is, by the authorities ensuring that as many teams as possible have a chance of winning a league.

For too long, the CSL has been a one-team league. During 2017 it needs teams such as Jiangsu Suning and Beijing Guoan to pose a much bigger threat to the Guangdong province team. This would not only give Chinese football fans something to get excited about, it would also raise the overseas profile of Chinese football, as well as contributing to an improvement in the overall standard of the game across the Middle Kingdom.

If Guangzhou Evergrande are going to win a trophy this year, then China needs them to win the Asian Champions League trophy. The club has done this twice in the last four years, even progressing from their victory in 2015 to a place in the semi-finals at the FIFA World Club Championship (where they lost to eventual winners FC Barcelona). Jiangsu Suning and Shanghai SIPG will be playing alongside Guangzhou in the competition, although Shanghai Shenhua have already crashed out of the competition.

An all-Chinese club Asian Champions League final, or even two teams in the last four, would be stark confirmation that the country’s football is truly making progress. However, with Guangzhou still on the cusp of becoming Asia’s first super-club, China needs it to make better progress than last year when the team failed to make it out of the early, group-phase of the competition. This not only undermined Chinese football’s reputation, it also took some of the shine off its commercial aspirations too.

And one final thing the CSL needs? Do not start the season with an opening game of Guizhou Zhicheng versus Liaoning Whowin. Many readers will be asking, ‘who?’ Building profile and becoming a global football powerhouse also requires teams that people know, as well as fixture schedulers who know how to create a spectacle. Roll-on 2017, it’ll be interesting to see if the CSL can be strong, fast, and fresh from the fight!

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