China will attempt to move on from the collapse of champions Jiangsu FC when the new Super League season kicks off with a Guangzhou derby in front of about 30,000 fans on Tuesday.
China’s ambitions to be a superpower in the world’s most popular sport are under scrutiny after Jiangsu’s financial demise, which came barely 100 days after they had won their first domestic league title.
The Chinese Football Association and local media are attempting to put a positive spin on it, calling it an opportunity for the Super League to reset and embark on a more sustainable path after the heady days of record-breaking spending in 2016 and 2017.
Jiangsu will not be there, but remain a haunting reminder of just how fragile is China’s football dream, which includes hosting and winning a World Cup.
“This is the most chaotic Super League season in 10 years,” journalist Fu Yayu wrote for Titan Sports on Monday.
“It has been messed up before the start, but a chaotic world is also a stage where heroes are born.”
The Chinese Super League (CSL) retains a degree of star power with 60-million-euro Brazilian Oscar and ageing internationals Marko Arnautovic, Marouane Fellaini, Mousa Dembele and Paulinho.
But there have again been no major signings in the transfer window, some foreigners have left and the CSL is no longer the attraction it was after the Chinese Football Association (CFA) introduced a series of measures to cool spending, culminating in a salary cap.
Another controversy in an eventful close season saw most clubs forced to rebrand to satisfy the CFA’s “neutral-name” policy.
The governing body said that clubs could no longer bear the names of owners or sponsors in an effort to instil a deeper football culture.
Fabio Cannavaro’s Guangzhou Evergrande overnight became Guangzhou FC and Oscar’s Shanghai SIPG renamed themselves Shanghai Port.
– Pressure on Cannavaro –
China has drastically wrestled down coronavirus infections but the pandemic will still have a major impact.
The 16 CSL teams have been divided between two cities, Guangzhou and Suzhou, near Shanghai. Players will be kept away from the public in hotels.
If nationwide infections remain low, teams could be allowed to play in their home stadiums later in the season.
Unlike last year, which began behind closed doors, fans will be able to attend some games from the first whistle with around 30,000 fans of the two Guangzhou clubs expected at the season curtain-raiser in the city on Tuesday.
Italian legend Cannavaro appeared to be on the brink of the sack after failing to guide Guangzhou FC to a ninth CSL crown.
But the 47-year-old is still there. “This year is my fourth year coaching Guangzhou and it is also the most difficult,” he said.
Guangzhou will try to blood players from the youth system and will start the season without key duo Paulinho and Anderson Talisca, who are still in Brazil.
“It does not mean that we are not pursuing titles, we still want good performances,” Cannavaro added.
The former Real Madrid and Juventus defender said that Shanghai Port and Beijing Guoan “are stronger than us on paper”.
Shanghai lost their veteran skipper Hulk, who has returned to Brazil, but they still have Oscar, former West Ham United forward Arnautovic and another ex-Premier League player in the Australian Aaron Mooy.
There is another Premier League connection at Beijing, where former West Bromwich Albion manager Slaven Bilic is now in charge.