Chinese Super League makes an impressive UK debut, but it’s already so last season. You’ve probably never heard of the new best league

Just as the CSL makes ground in the UK with the introduction of British broadcaster Sky Sports’ live coverage, the hipsters’ choice is the next league down

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 August, 2016, 5:33pm
UPDATED : Monday, 01 August, 2016, 5:34pm

If I needed proof that the Chinese Super League really has become international then I got it the most unlikely of places: US immigration. Talk with the agent turned towards football and his interest in the CSL became apparent – as a Seattle Sounders fan he took an interest in their former striker Obafemi Martins and his fortunes at Shanghai Shenhua – but he seemed to have more than a passing knowledge of the game.

There must be many more like him and not just in the US. Now that Sky Sports have started broadcasting the CSL in the UK, games now come with English commentary and the league has a chance to truly enter the mainstream.

This weekend saw the first games to be broadcast on Sky Sports. The first was the game between Shanghai Shenhua and Jiangsu Suning, which ended in a 3-2 comeback win for the Blue Devils. Those who tuned in saw a late winner from Freddy Guarin and Martins score his fifth of the season. They also saw Guarin convert a penalty that the Nigerian had won and a brace from his compatriot, Suning’s Colombian Roger Martinez.

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In Sky’s other game, Shenhua’s rivals visited Guangzhou to meet R&F. They went one better, sharing six goals in a dramatic draw that was notable for a pair of late penalties – one for each side – and Shanghai SIPG’s Chinese international winger netting a hat-trick to move into joint third on the goalscoring chart, just two behind the injured Demba Ba, cementing his place as the top Chinese scorer.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Alan Tyers wrote of the CSL’s British TV debut that, “Basically, it’s the Premier League, and Chinese football is probably here to stay.” They also referred to Shanghai SIPG as SPIG, though.

As exciting as the games are – there hasn’t been more than one 0-0 draw in a round of CSL matches since week nine – the league itself appears to be almost wrapped up already. Guangzhou Evergrande are ten points clear at the top as they close in on their sixth league title in a row. They also have a game in hand.

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The same can’t be said at the top of China League One. As every football fan knows the Championship is more exciting than the Premier League – and the same is true for their Chinese equivalents.

Sure, there is excitement in the top tier thanks to the race for the places in the AFC Champions League. But that’s nothing on the race for the CSL happening in League One.

Only two teams go up to the top tier but right now that could still be any two of the top half of the division.

Whoever comes up stands a great chance of doing some real damage in the top flight. Evergrande won the league their first year back (and every season since), SIPG quickly became title challengers in their second season and Hebei China Fortune FC are thriving in their debut season.

Meanwhile, at the wrong end of the table, bottom side Hunan Xiangtao are well adrift with just 10 points from 20 games but Shanghai Shenxin, the current occupants of the other relegation spot, are just a point away from safety and a win from being 12th on the 16 team table.

Shanghai Shenxin manager Gary White, who took over earlier this season, is one of many interesting characters throughout the league. The Englishman was previously manager of the Guam national team following stints as boss of both the Bahamas and the British Virgin Islands.

Further up the table his counterparts in the dugout are some much bigger names. Shenzhen recently hired ex-AC Milan coach Clarence Seedorf and he has taken the club to fourth in the table in his brief time. He’s joined by another couple of Serie A stalwarts.

Former Juventus defender Ciro Ferrara is the new coach of midtable Wuhan Zall, while Fabio Cannavaro, once of Guangzhou Evergrande, is currently masterminding Tianjin Quanjian’s title tilt.

There are further European links. Since Barcelona’s football school, FCBEscola, opened in Qingdao last year and since then Qingdao Haunghai have employed former Barcelona B coach Jordi Vinyals. They have also changed their kits to match the red and blue of the Blaugrana.

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China League One has everything that the Chinese Super League has and then some. It’s just as goal-laden, for starters. There’s also a similar amount of money flowing around – Tianjin Quanjian made Zhang Lu the most expensive Chinese keeper ever in the preseason window.

Now that the CSL has hit the mainstream, China League One is the thinking fan’s way of proving their credentials and impressing the football hipsters. Seeing as the top flight has a week off what better time to start?