Liaoning wins first CBA championship, while Iniesta’s China saga drags on

The China Sports Column is a SupChina weekly feature in which China Sports Insider Mark Dreyer looks at the week that was in the China sports world.

The latest never-ending transfer saga involving a high-profile foreign player and the Chinese Super League will, unfortunately, now drag on into the summer. When news first filtered out of Spain that Barcelona legend Andrés Iniesta — still, at 33, one of the best midfielders on the planet — was leaving the club at the end of the current season to head to “an unknown Chinese Super League club,” it sounded for all the world as if this was yet another ruse from a lazy tabloid reporter with a deadline to make.

But when details then emerged that Chongqing Lifan was interested and that the club was reportedly set to help distribute two million bottles of wine from Iniesta’s family vineyard — not to mention the connection with Chongqing chairman Jiang Lizhang, who has existing ties to Iniesta through the sports agency he founded, Desports — the tale started to sound a little bit more believable.

Iniesta was set to reveal his future after the Copa del Rey final last weekend — in which he scored this exquisite goal — then the news was set to be announced this week. However, when news leaked on Thursday that the club was not actually prepared to pay the Spaniard quite as much as he thought, it looked like the deal might be off, or at least delayed. At a press conference on Friday afternoon, Iniesta confirmed he was leaving Barcelona at the end of this season — but didn’t say where he was going. He did, though, rule out another European club, leaving the China option still very much on the table. In other words, it’s the worst possible scenario: we’re left with no clarification on his future, but enough fuel to keep the transfer fires burning for months to come.

Ding Junhui

It’s that time of year when sports fans in China once again start speculating about whether Ding Junhui 丁俊晖 can finally land a World Championship title. Ding is 31, but has been a known force on the world scene for over a decade since winning his first ranking tournament — the China Open — just days after his 18th birthday.

The World Championship kicked off this week in Ding’s adopted hometown of Sheffield, England, and the Chinese star has been in good form. One shot he made in his comfortable 10-3 opening round victory over fellow Chinese Xiao Guodong 肖国栋 had legendary snooker commentator John Virgo raving, “That was as good a split as you will see.”

Virgo is not alone. While Chinese fans and commentators are always prone to show bias toward their countrymen, another BBC commentator — Scotland’s Alan McManus and a three-time semifinalist at the World Championship — has predicted Ding will win it this year.

Ding has lost marathon battles to world No. 1 and reigning world champion Mark Selby in each of the last two years in Sheffield, but a shock defeat for Selby this week in his opening match has stacked the cards in Ding’s favor.

In McManus’s words, “If [Ding] finds 85 percent of his game, he will take a lot of stopping. He is the right age and I think he desperately wants to win this. He has all the t-shirts apart from this one.”

The Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) is now well and truly in the Yao Ming era, but it’s also trying to recover from the loss of two-time NBA All-Star Stephon Marbury, who retired earlier this year after his Beijing Fly Dragons failed to make the postseason. Marbury says he plans to stay in China to work on basketball-related projects, while also saying it would be “a pleasure” to help Yao in his quest to transform Chinese basketball, should he need him.

He’s also the owner of the China Arena Football League’s Beijing Lions, whose next season is set to kick off in fall 2019, but still found time to cheer on CSL side Beijing Guoan on a rainy night in the capital as his team scored two late goals to tie 2-2 with reigning champions Guangzhou Evergrande. Additionally, he now appears to have his hands full as chairman of the “sports blockchain” division of the Sun Seven Stars Investment Group (run by Bruno Wu and TV anchor Yang), though exactly what that entails is anyone’s guess.

Leston Hudson

In the meantime, Lester Hudson is the man tasked with trying to fill Marbury’s shoes as the league’s most recognized foreign player after the former NBA journeyman led the Liaoning Flying Leopards to a 4-0 sweep of the Zhejiang Lions in the CBA Finals, with Hudson winning MVP honors.

Hudson averaged 30.5 points in the finals to bring Liaoning its first championship since joining the CBA as a founding member 22 years ago. The northeastern province has long been considered a powerhouse in Chinese sports, and provides roughly a quarter of all the domestic players registered in the CBA. During the latter stages of the playoffs, the team moved to a larger home venue, becoming just the fourth CBA team to host games in an arena of 10,000 or more.

From a domestic perspective, though, the team’s star is young national team guard — and coach’s nephew — Guo Ailun 郭艾伦. He recently signed a shoe contract with Jordan and is one of just two domestic players (with former NBA player Yi Jianlian 易建联) who has a special permit not to wear Li-Ning sneakers due to draconian league-wide sponsorship rules. Yi previously had to wear Li-Nings despite the fact that he had a contract with Nike — and was patently better than the vast majority of foreign imports, who could wear whatever they chose — though things came to a head when he stormed off mid-game, leaving his Li-Ning shoes on the court.

At 24, Guo doesn’t have the upside of Houston Rockets rookie Zhou Qi 周琦 — who is two years younger and 10 inches taller — but is an established member of the national team and made the headlines this week when he was overcome with emotion, finally winning a championship after losing in both the 2015 and 2016 CBA Finals.

Guo Ailun

Also this week:

  • 17 people drowned last weekend after two dragon boats — practicing ahead of this year’s festival in June – capsized in Guilin. Footage showed 57 people — none of whom were wearing lifejackets — falling into the river. It appears that some many have been sucked underneath by a nearby dam, though many in China are unable to swim, possibly contributing to the cause of death.
  • In this fascinating — if morbid — account, Beijing-based historian Jeremiah Jenne unearths a golf driving range in the north of the capital that was built directly on top on a cemetery containing the bodies of Albazinians, descendants of Russian Cossacks captured by Qing forces in the 17th century.
  • China’s quadrennial crackdown on fake World Cup balls is underway after customs police in Hangzhou confiscated 300 balls due to be shipped to Lebanon. The customs form said they were “brandless” soccer balls, but pictures show they are clearly copies of the Adidas Telstar 18 ball that will be used in Russia this summer. Curiously, the fake balls had color sections, as opposed to the black and white official ones, but officials said it was the “poor packaging” that tipped them off.

The China Sports Column runs every Friday on SupChina. Follow Mark Dreyer @DreyerChina