Chinese Super League returns with a new look (and with fans)

Society & Culture

The teams and players to watch in China's top domestic soccer league.

The opening of the CSL season on April 20, between Guangzhou FC and Guangzhou City, in front of fans.

The Chinese Super League (CSL) kicked off last week looking much different than in years past. In a drive for sustainability, the Chinese Football Association has introduced a raft of changes, including a significant neutral names rule, which has forced almost all the clubs in the league to drop their corporate monikers. No more Hebei China Fortune (now simply Hebei) or Shijiazhuang Ever Bright F.C. (who also moved to Cangzhou and are now the Mighty Lions).

In addition, the league has introduced a strict salary cap and financial controls. Teams are restricted to a total annual wage bill of 600 million RMB ($92.5 million) for domestic players, plus a separate cap of $12 million for foreign players. There is an individual cap of 5 million RMB ($770,000) for domestic players and $3.6 million for international players. This new measure is good for Chinese soccer’s financial sustainability, but has resulted in a decline in international star power. Brazilian forward Hulk from Shanghai Port (formerly SIPG) and Italian striker Graziano Pellè from Shandong are perhaps the two biggest stars to abandon the league.

But we don’t want to bury the lead here. A cloud undoubtedly looms due to the absence of Jiangsu Suning — last year’s champions — after the club was dissolved by owners Suning due to financial troubles.

Jiangsu FC and the troubled state of Chinese soccer

Still, the games are going on. In front of 30,000 fans at Tianhe Stadium in Guangzhou on April 20, the “home team,” Guangzhou FC (formerly Evergrande), labored to a 2-2 draw against crosstown rivals Guangzhou City (formerly R&F).

Like last season, the league will be split into two groups across two cities, Guangzhou and Suzhou. The top four teams from each eight-team group will move on to play in an eight-team playoffs. Who will reign at the end? We have our thoughts.

The new champion will be…

As usual, Guangzhou FC starts the season as the favorites. The CSL’s most successful side boasts the strongest squad in the league, with six naturalized players; Guangzhou has not yet registered any foreign players. Its foreign duo, midfield fulcrum Paulinho and forward Talisca, are stuck outside the country, but they might not be needed, as Guangzhou boasts the best domestic players.

As if Guangzhou needed any more advantages, the club will be playing all of their games at home, in front of fans.

Closest challengers?

Beijing Guoan — one of two teams, along with Shanghai Shenhua, that was allowed to keep its name — will begin the season with a renewed sense of optimism under new head coach Salven Bilic. After hitman Cedric Bakambu found his scoring boots last season, Beijing will feel that another good season from the Congolese forward, combined with some astute signings under Bilic, will give them a real opportunity to win the league. However, with Renato Augusto stuck outside the country, Beijing could just as easily slip down the table.

Shanghai Port may have lost star forward Hulk, but the club was smart enough to sign Oscar to a long-term contract. Of all the clubs in the league, Port feels like the most stable off the field, and with the smart signing of Croatian defender Ante Majstorović, it looks as though Shanghai has prioritized building a stable side on the field too.

Don’t count out…

Fellaini’s 93rd-minute header gave Shandong a 1-0 victory over Guangzhou FC on Tuesday.

As ever, predicting the fate of Shanghai Shenhua is nearly impossible. The historic club has been floundering in mid-table for too long now. Yet the club has managed to bring in a raft of new faces, including veteran China national team midfielder Wú Xī 吴曦 (from the now-folded Jiangsu) and defender Matej Jonjic from Cerezo Osaka. If Shenhua can get these signings singing from the same hymn sheet, a late surge at the business end of the season could propel them into the playoffs.

Wu Xi

Shandong, on the other hand, has been a total mess off the field. Kicked out of the Asia Champions League over unpaid wages, the club has somehow managed to keep the show on the road. International midfielder Son Jun-ho joins from Korean giants Jeonbuk, while the club has also managed to keep hold of star attacker Marouane Fellaini. While their squad is perhaps not the strongest, Shandong sits in the Jiangsu position from last season as the best of the rest in Group A — and it recently defeated Guangzhou to move to 2-0.

Top scorer

Arnautovic

With the departure of Guangzhou City’s prolific Eran Zahavi, an Israeli attacking midfielder, this looks like a two-horse race between Austrian national team forward Marko Arnautovic of Shanghai Port and Cedric Bakambu of Beijing Guoan.

Bakambu, who finished as the top goal scorer last season, with 14, will be without creative dynamo Augusto behind him for the early part of the season. Meanwhile, Arnautovic is likely to become an even more critical component of the attacking efforts of Shanghai Port following the departure of Hulk. With Port keeping hold of Oscar, Arnautovic is likely to be well supplied throughout the season.

Chinese player to watch

Wei Shihao

Guangzhou FC’s Wéi Shìháo 韦世豪 had a superb season in 2020. Despite being restricted to just 10 appearances by head coach Fabio Cannavaro, the Chinese left winger netted six goals, often at crucial times. The 26-year-old will be looking to nail down a starting spot, since foreign stars Paulinho and Talisca are stuck outside the country. Cannavaro was quick to temper expectations, but Wei is primed to make a jump.

Look at this goal

Check out this goal from Croatian Dejan Radonjić of Qingdao in the team’s recent 2-1 victory over Cangzhou: