Messi and Ronaldinho long gone but legacy of Beijing 2008 lives on in the Chinese Super League’s best title race in years

Olympic Games footballers still going strong a decade on from Argentina pipping Nigeria and Brazil to the gold medal at the Bird’s Nest

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 August, 2018, 1:40pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 August, 2018, 3:52pm

A decade ago things were very different in the Chinese Super League. For starters, the league was won by a team other than Guangzhou Evergrande with Shandong Luneng crowned champions in China’s Olympic year.

The big name foreigners were not exactly the biggest names, either. Poland striker Emmanuel Olisadebe, 29, and Hamilton Ricard, 34, the first Colombian to play in China, were the star draws but they were being outscored by footballing journeymen.

Brazilian Eber of Tianjin Teda was the league’s golden boot in 2008 followed by Angola’s Johnson Macaba of Shenzhen Xiangxue and Honduran striker Luis Ramirez of Guangzhou GPC.

Of the teams of the three top scorers only Tianjin Teda are still going under the same name

– Shenzhen Xiangxue are now simply Shenzhen FC in League One and Guangzhou GPC have done all right since since taking the name of a local property developer.

The domestic game was a stark contrast to the Olympic football tournament which took place around China throughout August.

The under-23 competition featured some young footballers that would go on to be among the best to have ever played the game.

Argentina’s Leo Messi is undoubtedly the biggest but Brazil’s Ronaldinho had his moments too.

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Messi picked up gold in the final against Nigeria at the Bird’s Nest thanks to a solitary Angel Di Maria strike and many of that team, such as Sergio Aguero and the overage inclusion Juan Roman Riquelme, went on to play for the full national team over the past decade.

Brazil picked up bronze beating a Belgium side containing Mousa Dembele and Marouane Fellaini in Shanghai.

Many of this generation are still going strong and featured in the World Cup in Russia which finished just a month back. It’s the same for those Beijing 2008 alumni who find themselves playing in the CSL.

More of them have passed through China to play than anyone could have predicted a decade back with Stephane M’Bia, Jo and Victor Anichebe among those to have been and moved on, while Gervinho and Ramires are expected to join that exodus soon enough.

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But many of those still here are having an effect on the best title race in years.

The Team China players are the obvious candidates. Gao Lin and Zheng Zhi have been champions with Evergrande for the last seven seasons and they are clearly not done yet.

Gao bagged twice in the champions’ 5-0 win over Henan Jianye and 37-year-old Zheng played the full match, while their Olympic teammate Feng Xiaoting lined up behind them.

The win keeps Evergrande in fourth place with a game in hand. Shandong Luneng are in second and they have the strongest Beijing 2008 contingent in their squad.

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Zhou Haibin, Hao Junmin, Cui Peng and Liu Zhenli are all looking to bring the title back to Jinan for the first time in a decade and all but Liu featured in a 3-1 win over Hebei China Fortune kept them in touch with leaders Beijing Guoan. Jiang Ning came on for Hebei, who also played Argentine gold medal pair Ezequiel Lavezzi and Javier Mascherano.

Lower down the league Zhao Xuri was on the bench for Tianjin Quanjian in the scoreless Tianjin derby while Wan Houliang was on the wrong end of a 3-1 scoreline when Beijing Renhe lost at Changchun Yatai (Han Peng is yet to feature this season).

Dalian Yifang’s Zhu Ting might yet have the biggest say on the title race, though. The right back played in the opening day loss to Shanghai SIPG and the 8-0 scoreline could prove decisive if it goes down to goal difference. He helped even things up by losing 5-2 to Beijing Guoan on Wednesday.

There are also three China players – Yuan Weiwei, Chen Tao and Shen Longyuan – playing in China League Two.

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Of the 18-man squad all of those who were under-23 are still playing but for the biggest name at the time, and the scorer of China’s only goal at the Olympics, Dong Fangzhou. The former Manchester United man knocked it all on the head at 29, four years ago.

His last public action was appearing on Chinese TV a couple of years ago to get plastic surgery, with everyone reporting it was to hide from questions about his career failings.

The CSL has also had a facelift. The likes of Hulk, Oscar and Cedric Bakambu have arrived for big money and they are delivering.

The Brazilians both set Wu Lei up for goals in a 3-1 win over Guangzhou R&F to keep them three points behind the leaders with a game in hand. Bakambu scored twice again to keep high-flying Guoan on for a first title since 2009 and are on course to smash their record for goals scored in a season.

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Interestingly, Beijing Guoan and Shanghai SIPG feature no Beijing 2008 Olympic players but they do play in the stadiums that hosted the games.

While they have not been updated to any great extent since 2008, what is happening out on the pitch is unrecognisable from a decade ago.