Sulky strikers, bizarre bans and a managerial merry-go-round – just another season in the Chinese Super League
Carlos Tevez, Andre Villas-Boas and Big Phil Scolari all had their own part to play in a season that was packed with incident on and off the pitch
The dust has settled on another Chinese Super League campaign and it’s time for an end of season review – if only just to break up this silly season of baseless transfer rumours linking players moves to some nameless club or other.
Here’s a look back at the winners, losers and some great goals from a season that generally showed more growth than a certain South American striker’s waistline.
First up the winners.
The now seven times champions of China were a shoo-in for the title before the season began and they did not disappoint. They did not win it in as much style or by as big a distance as in seasons past but still, seven-in-a-row is a remarkable achievement.
They might not have it all their own from now on, though. Manager Luiz Felipe Scolari has walked away and Big Phil leaves big shoes to fill after delivering the last three titles and the 2015 AFC Champions League trophy.
The Brazilian could not guide his charges to another continental success, falling in the quarter-finals over a truly bizarre two legs against Shanghai SIPG. It finished 5-5 on aggregate and the Shanghai side progressed on away goals, while they also got the better of the champs in the FA Cup.
A new manager coming in to handle an ageing squad – and one that has stated its aim to be foreigner free by 2020 – poses questions as to whether Evergrande have peaked. Suddenly, the motto of “Be the best forever” on their club crest is beginning to look like hubris.
The man coming in to replace Big Phil is Fabio Cannavaro, the league’s manager of the year, who returns to the club charged with winning a record-equalling eighth domestic crown and regaining their place as the best in Asia. The Italian, who won the Ballon d’Or in 2006, was previously in charge at Evergrande when he replaced Marcello Lippi in 2014 only to be fired midway into the season and replaced by Scolari,
Cannavaro has earned his second chance. He guided Tianjin Quanjian to the 2016 second-tier title and then a third-place finish and a place in the Champions League playoffs in their debut CSL season, including victory over the champions in the final game of the season.
The new boss’s second stint begins with him challenged to deliver silverware. Can he deliver a record-equalling eighth title to match Dalian Shide?
Both MVP and CSL topscorer, the Israeli striker was nothing short of sensational in his first full season as he netted 27 goals in 30 games, just one strike short of Elkeson’s record. That the Brazilian did so as part of a league winning Guangzhou Evergrande side while Zahavi plays for the rather less glamorous Guangzhou R&F puts the feat in some perspective. Zahavi scored some stunners as he guided his team to fifth, just missing out on a Champions League spot, and he even scored four in a single game against
Yanbian Funde. The 30-year-old’s profile has increased in his time in Guangzhou and the club could well cash in on the man they signed for US$8 million but he is surely worth more to the side than whatever money they can recoup. The only other player to come close to Zahavi was Ezequiel Lavezzi who had a fine season for Hebei China Fortune. The Argentine hit 20 goals and laid on 15 more in his 27 appearances, with only SIPG’s Hulk reaching double figures in both goals and assists.
Everyone who watched Evergrande saw Paulinho as a class apart from the figure of fun that made his mark so indelibly at White Hart Lane. The Paulinho who had driven his side to silverware and become a mainstay in the Brazil team. Those fans knew that Paulinho going to Barcelona – even if he might have had to pay his own way – would not disappoint, so everyone was a bit worried when his press conference keepy-uppy went virally awry. But he has performed for the Catalan club, contributing match-winning goals, and there seems to be no more comment about the player. He even made the AFC Champions League team of the season despite departing for Spain midway through the competition. Paulinho’s performances and those of another Brazilian who has since left the CSL, former Jiangsu Suning striker Jo was the top scorer in the Brazilian league, have done much to quiet those who see the CSL as a) a retirement league and b) a place where your career cannot come back from. Both could be lining up for the Selecao in Russia next summer.
And so to the losers.
He might be richer than Croesus but he has had a poor season, summed up by being left out of the Shanghai Shenhua squad for the cup final. Sulky rather than silky, Tevez scored just four times for Shenhua and when he wasn’t missing the net he was just missing – either jetting to Argentina to recover from injury or skipping watching his teammates play for a day out at Shanghai Disneyland. Even when he was deemed fit, he was fat, which was some feat considering his reported problems with the food in China. The cuisine was just one of the things Tevez struggled with and it will be no surprise if he pops up at his beloved Boca Juniors rather than Shanghai next season. It’s a shame that it didn’t work out as Tevez’s trademark tenacity is exactly the type of thing that sees foreign players succeed in the CSL. Instead he is become the butt of a joke and shorthand for those that consider the CSL to be a Mickey Mouse league.
As with most football associations, indeed most bodies involved in the administration of the beautiful game, the CFA did not help themselves last season.
Their two big changes to the domestic game were introducing a rule to ensure that teams played under-23s and a transfer tax that was brought in part way through the transfer window. The tax has worked in curbing spending (or at least club’s getting their money’s worth out of their accountants) but the quota for young players has been less successful.
Most teams observed the letter if not the spirit of the law and hauled off their under-23s early in the game, as the rule merely stipulated that they had to start. This was the case even in dead rubbers at the end of the season.
The other area where the CFA excelled was in dishing out draconian punishments. Qin Sheng got banned for six months for stamping on Axel Witsel’s foot awaiting a corner while Sun Shilin got two matches for giving Alex Pato a thumbs-up for missing a penalty in the same game.
Guangzhou Evergrande captain Zheng Zhi was suspended for four games for not leading his team in a post-match handshake while Beijing Guoan’s Burak Yilmaz was given five games off for shoving an opposition player.
More bizarre was the eight game ban Oscar got for initiating a melee with Guangzhou R&F, while R&F’s got seven matches for pushing the Brazilian. SIPG’s Fu Huan and R&F’s Li Tixiang were deemed guilty of behaviour worth a six-match and a five-match ban for the same set-to.
SIPG manager Andres Villas-Boas also got in on the act. He was banned for two matches for comments relating to Oscar’s ban and then an eight-match ban at the end of the season for a gesture indicating the ref had taken a bribe meant he finished his SIPG career watching from the stands.
The CSL is a tough place to call home for the men in the dugout and they tend to get less time than a character in Game of Thrones before they are inevitably axed.
Only Park Tae-ha at Yanbian Funde, Dragan Stojkovic at R&F and Manuel Pellegrini at Hebei China Fortune started the year in their jobs and are still in them, although Yanbian were relegated so Park will not be in the CSL next season.
The 13 other clubs all made at least one change in the hot seat, with some making multiple stops on the managerial merry-go-round. Cannavaro is swapping Tianjin for Guangzhou and Paulo Sousa is his replacement at Quanjian. Across town Uli Stielike is the new man at Tianjin Teda after he replaced Lee Lim-saeng, who had himself replaced Jaime Pacheco. Henan Construction also had three permanent managers with Yasen Petrov sandwiched between Jia Xiaquan and Guo Guangqi, as did Liaoning Whowin where Rene Lobello was in and out after Ma Lin resigned before the club called on former player Zhao Junzhe.
Beijing Guoan sacked Gonzalez with Roger Schmidt coming in, Fabio Capello joined Jiangsu Suning in midseason to replace Choi Yong-soo and Gregorio Manzano stepped in for Li Bing at Guizhou Hengfeng Zhicheng. Gus Poyet was replaced by Wu Jingui at Shanghai Shenhua and Changchun Yatai parted company with Lee Jang-Soo.
Since the season has ended Andre Villas Boas has left SIPG, Felix Magath has left Shandong Luneng and Chang Woe-ryong has left Chongqing Lifan, they have since been replaced by Vitor Pereira, Li Xiaopeng and Paulo Bento. It’s exhausting but it’s a trend that is likely to continue into next season and beyond.
The people who read transfer rumours
Despite the limit on foreign players decreasing and the transfer tax introduced at the start of the season, the Chinese Super League is still the destination of choice for football’s rumourmongers. To give these stories even less credence players are always linked to the league in general rather than a specific club but still they splash the backpages of tabloid and broadsheet alike and whip social media into a frenzy. Expect more to come once the year turns but expect nothing to come of the vast majority of them. Tedious.