CSL season set to resume with Chinese soccer in crisis

Society & Culture

Meanwhile: Zhao Xintong becomes third Chinese player to win a snooker Triple Crown title.

Xú Xīn 徐新 of league-leading Shandong

After a four-month hiatus, the Chinese Super League (CSL) will return this Sunday amid financial instability and the exodus of some of the league’s best players.

The league took a break back in August to allow the Chinese national team to focus on World Cup qualifiers. That team finished second-to-last in its six-team group in the third round of qualifying, playing all its games in the UAE.

That team has also returned to China without its naturalized players. All four — Ài Kèsēn 艾克森 (Elkeson), Luò Guófù 洛国富 (Aloisio), Jiǎng Guāngtài 蒋光太 (Ty Browning), and Ā Lán 阿兰 (Alan) — look likely to skip the remainder of the season with salaries unpaid, according to Xinhua. All four play for Guangzhou FC, owned by the collapsing Evergrande Group. Another naturalized player, Ricardo Goulart (高拉特 Gāo Lātè), has already quit Chinese soccer, leaving Guangzhou earlier this month. It’s unclear whether these players will ever return.

They are not the only international stars missing from the league.

Beijing Guoan’s star striker Cédric Bakambu, who plays for the DR national team, will not return to complete the season, choosing to return to Europe with an eye on Barcelona. Another high-profile star, Venezuelan national teamer Salomon Rondon, left the league during the summer, while Guangzhou City coach Giovanni van Bronckhorst quit the league to join Scottish side Rangers last month. Former Barcelona midfielder Paulinho left Guangzhou FC for Al-Ahli this summer, and is now a free agent.

The best remaining foreign footballers in China are Oscar, who plays for Shanghai Port, and Marouane Fellaini, who plays for league-leading Shandong. Oscar is currently the league’s highest-paid player, at 450,000 euro (3.2 million RMB) per week.

In the background to all of this is the league’s financial instability. Even now, at this late stage before the resumption, there remains doubts about whether all the teams will be able to restart. One report claims that 11 of the 16 clubs are in arrears with player wages. Of the 11, Qingdao, Wuhan, and Chongqing all haven’t paid staff in more than half a year, with Chongqing not paying staff for more than eight months.

Even the largest clubs in the country are not immune from the current financial turmoil. Guangzhou FC still hasn’t paid staff since September, while Shanghai Shenhua are five months behind on pay.

China League One, the division below, is said to be in an even worse position.

There’s no single reason as to why Chinese soccer is wilting. The heavy-handed regulations designed to ensure financial stability and rein in the large corporations that owned many of China’s top clubs have had the opposite effect. The removal of corporate branding from team names saw many clubs lose financial support almost overnight. Last season’s champions, Jiangsu Suning, have been the most prominent club impacted by this (they no longer exist), as Suning no longer saw the value in supporting the club.

China’s property market slump has also caused many companies to turn off the financial taps. Guangzhou FC is the most prominent example of this, but Hebei FC, owned by China Fortune Land Development, is also on the brink, despite its employees offering to work for free.

In 2014, president Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 promised to turn China into a soccer powerhouse that could rival the best leagues and teams in Europe and South America. That promise opened the floodgates to new investment from some of China’s biggest companies. Now in 2021, the league is in considerably worse position than before 2014, while the national team — despite a series of high profile international coaches and the arrival of well-compensated naturalized players — feels as hopeless as it’s ever been.

But the games will go on, for now, with the CSL entering the championship and relegation phases of the season.

The championship stage includes the top four teams from two groups (which played their games in Guangzhou and Suzhou). They are:

Group A:

Shandong, 33 points
Guangzhou FC, 30 points
Shenzhen, 24 points
Guangzhou City, 21 points

Group B:

Changchun Yatai, 28 points
Shanghai Port, 28 points
Beijing Guoan, 24 points
Hebei, 23 points

Shandong has been the stand-out so far, led by Fellaini, currently the league’s second-highest goalscorer. While competing in the weaker of the two groups, with the free-falling Qingdao and Chongqing as well as Cangzhou Mighty Lions — who would have been in League One this year if not for the collapse of Jiangsu at the start of the season — Shandong has still been able to consistently beat the opposition in front of them, including two wins over perennial powerhouse Guangzhou FC.

The bottom four teams from each group — Henan, Chongqing, Cangzhou, Qingdao, Shanghai Shenhua, Wuhan, Tianjin Jinmen Tiger, Dalian Pro — enter the relegation stage. The bottom two from the relegation stage will enter a playoff against the third- and fourth-placed finishers from China League One, with the CSL set to expand to 18 teams next year. The winners of those games will play in the CSL next season, along with the first- and second-place teams from China League One.

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The coronation of China’s new snooker star

China’s Zhào Xīntóng 赵心童 claimed his first-ever Triple Crown title after he defeated Luca Brecel 10-5 in the final of the UK Snooker Championship.

The 24-year-old, who was seeded 26, had a dream run to the final, defeating legend John Higgins as well as Jack Lisowski and Barry Hawkins. Playing in his first career final, he took down the Belgian Brecel with ease.

Following the win, Zhao told the BBC, “I am just so happy. It was an exciting night tonight and I love York.

“It was the biggest match for me and it was my first time, so I tried my best because it was Luca. I feel very, very happy now. I am very excited.

“The UK Championship is a snooker theater of dreams.”

Several snooker stars have declared Zhao the next big thing.

“If Zhao can use this as a springboard, he can really force his way into the game strongly,” xix-time world champion Steve Davis told the BBC. “He’s got the credentials to be the first Chinese world champion. Everyone thought it might be Ding but who is to say Zhao won’t be the one to do it?”

Zhao is the third Chinese player to claim a prestigious Triple Crown title (either the UK Championship, World Championships, or Masters), following Dīng Jùnhuī 丁俊晖 and Yán Bǐngtāo 颜丙涛. Ding won the same tournament in 2019, while Yan is the current Masters champion.

With the win, Zhao gains a late entry into the Masters next month. The tournament is by invite only, and usually features the top 16 players in the world. With his recent title, Zhao rose to ninth in the world rankings.

The win represents the shifting tides of world snooker as more and more young Chinese players begin to make an impact on the sport. While the best players have traditionally been British or Australian, Chinese players such as Zhao and the 21-year-old Yan are part of a new generation of players challenging the old guard.

Another Chinese youngster, 19-year-old amateur Sī Jiāhuī 斯佳辉, made a splash last week after defeating former World Champion Shaun Murphy.

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Other Stories:

Biden administration expected to announce diplomatic boycott of Beijing Olympics this week (CNN)

How do sports and entertainment entities deal with China? (Washington Post)

Do sports still need China (New York Times)

How WTA chief Steve Simon took on China over Peng Shuai (NYT)

The Chinese Super League: From unprecedented salaries to uncertain restart date, unpaid wages and deepening turmoil (The Athletic)


The China Sports Column runs every week on SupChina.