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2018 CSL: Challenging year beckons(Part I)

韦侃仑     02-01 15:12     体坛+原创

Written by Cameron Wilson, the chief editor of WildEastFootball

原标题: Challenging year beckons as Chinese football tries to balance entertainment and development

导读: 离2018中超开赛还有一个月时间, WEF站长韦侃仑发表了这段时间他对中国足球的一些见解: 在第一部分,他发表了自己对于足协U-23政策的见解,并总结了几支中超强队基于去年表现与冬季签约的走势。

In this new feature for 2018 WEF founding editor Cameron Wilson gives his weekly thoughts on all the goings-on in Chinese football.

A belated happy new year, and welcome to my new column. Despite being the founder of this website I am not as prolific a writer as I could be. I’d like to put that down to a focus on quality rather than quantity. But that would be fanciful. However, to be honest since Chinese football blew up it seems I spent so much time talking to the media about it that everything I had to say was already out there. But this year I’m launching this column on Wild East to give my point of view, and more in-depth analysis right from the off. Chinese football is an endlessly fascinating subject, there will be plenty to write about so I think this column is going to be an interesting ride.

A 2017 – two steps forward, one step back

Before looking ahead to this year, we have to summarise last year. Of course the main story was the player rule changes – cutting of the foreign player quota and obliging each side to start one Chinese u23 player. How did this work out? Well, the stats show u23 players actually got less pitch time last year compared to 2016 before the new rule came in. Which is surprising, but stats of course don’t show the full picture, and it’s fair to say certain players last season got a game who would not have without the new rule. The jury is still out however. China’s group stage exit at the recent u-23 AFC cup suggests it has yet to take any effect. Of course its much to early for any effect, positive, or negative, to be seen after just one season, but that didn’t stop some voices in the Chinese media hail the u23 rule as a success after China won their first match. Such a claim, was, of course, nonsense. But it did highlight one of the reasons it’s so hard to properly understand the Chinese game – hidden agendas. In this case the voices in question were keen to trumpet the success of a controversial policy and curry favour with the powers that be. This is the problem in Chinese football. Very few have a pure desire to see the game improve for its own sake, their involvement in football is often tied to gains elsewhere, be they personal or business ones. The truth is out there as they say, but in Chinese football, don’t expect to find it on the Internet.

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In the match against Hebei CFFC, Jiangsu Suning have their U-23 player replaced just after 6 mins after kick-off

At any rate I am ambivalent to the new rule. Last year it did little to help quality on the pitch, which, let’s be honest, isn’t the greatest to begin with. Also the sight of u23 players regularly being subbed off after barely 10 minutes have elapsed was damaging for the credibility of the league and for the u23 players themselves. But on balance, I would concede the u23 rule – as it stood last season, not this year’s dog’s dinner – a necessary evil in China to counter the cultural bias towards seniority, and the power wielded in the dressing room by some senior players which enable them to gain pitch time when, frankly, they are absolutely past it.

The foreign player quota cut change was also unwise in my view. More on this later in the look at 2018.

Emerging trends

There were several trends which emerged last year. The first was the domination of the “new money” clubs. Guangzhou Evergrande, Shanghai SIPG, Hebei and Tianjin Quanjian finished in the top four – the first time none of the traditional “old guard” of Beijing, Jiangsu, Shenhua, Shandong (or other clubs who were around pre-2010) have featured in the front positions. From this we can see the inherent dysfunctional nature of older clubs. None of these clubs are primarily geared towards winning the CSL. They are instead run mostly like old state-owned enterprises – an “iron rice bowl” where a core of board members, long-standing staff and senior players exist in a network which serves their mutual interests. Everyone gets paid no matter how incompetent or bent they are, and no-one complains or speaks out because they are benefiting from it personally and that is not really the done thing culturally anyway.  It’s not that they don’t want to win anything. It’s just that they are institutionally conservative and, having failed to adopt to the winds of change, don’t realise that CSL clubs are no longer a gravy train for those on board and everyone is unwilling to give up their share of the benefits to see their team do better.

The old clubs have been surpassed by the likes Evergrande, SIPG, Quanjian and Hebei, which are newer clubs or at least have newer management who differ because they lack the entrenched and bloated old boys network which weighs down the whole operation so much that winning football games isn’t the priority. These clubs put professionalism first and are willing to spend the extra bit of money on the right players and staff to genuinely enhance their operation rather than do the bare minimum to keep the fans off their back which is the modus operandi of many of the older clubs.

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The 'nouveau riches' brought more intense competition to Chinese football and blew up the league

Last year also saw what I think we can call the end of peak Evergrande. The gap has been slowly closing the past couple of years as other clubs realised they had to play catch up, and as new monied rivals like SIPG arrived on the scene. Gone are the days when the Guangzhou giant hoovered up all the best Chinese players, now basically no team with any aspirations to finish in the top six is willing to sell anyone who is a current China international or up-and-coming talent, and Evergrande face more competition to sign such players from lower teams. Deng Hanwen’s move to Guangzhou however shows their buying power is still up there. But along with their curious “We plan to have an all Chinese team by 2020” rhetoric and the recent bizarre signing of Tianjin Teda’s Nemanja Gudelj – an acquisition so underwhelming he must have been signed for at least some reasons outside of football – this is a team which is no longer an automatic pick as championship favourites.

To read the second part, please click here.