Coming into May, Chinese league football has witnessed a first in history. Over the long holiday weekend at the turn of the month, all four tiers of the men’s league – The Super League, League One, League Two, and the semi-professional Chinese Football Association Member Association Champions League (CMCL) all arranged fixtures. In addition, both tiers of the Women’s League also played.
Combined with a rebound in tourism and general spending, a sense of recovery – prospering even – seems to be brimming. Indeed, with the base so low the comparison with the last three Covid control-ridden years was stark indeed. But men’s top flight has had its trials and tribulations at the start of this year. The Football Association had to sacrifice the size of the league to ensure the quality of the game and a semblance of rules being enforced. They did so by cutting the number of teams participating from 18 to 16. Even then, the inclusion of Shenzhen stirred much controversy. But with seven rounds save one game played, Shenzhen is not quite where people expected it to be. In the last game, the team whose name was reduced just to ‘Shenzhen’ beat Dalian Pro, the team very much the most attacking, entertaining, and inspiring, by two goals to one. Frank Acheampong, the CSL veteran, having played in the league since 2017, scored in injury time in both halves. For the rest of the game, the team also showed a great deal of resilience. So with no further ado, here are them and the other 15 teams that will continue to entertain while causing further disrepute for the league and Chinese football as a whole (In the order of last season’s finishes).
1 Wuhan Three Towns
The defending Champions will be the team that paid the most attention both by fans and opponents alike. They achieved not only the Kaiserslautern-esque feat of winning the top flight in the first year they are promoted, but also winning both lower leagues in the years that preceded it. They made it possible by starting the preparations for the leagues both the earliest and months ahead of any other team. They signed most of their new players in the 2022 season at the end of 2021 and started the winter training camp in mid-January, with little holiday given for the Chinese New Year. Their early games in the season often saw them scoring around half a dozen to humiliate the opponent. Even as competitors with more experience and deeper pockets caught up, the early lead proved insurmountable. And in a single stroke, broken hearts in Wuhan, which were deeply wounded by Wuhan Guanggu’s surprise withdrawal from the league, were healed.
This year Three Towns sold Marcao, the League’s top scorer with 27 goals and in the last year of his contract, to Saudi Arabia for 5 million dollars. They replaced him with Abdul-Aziz Yakubu, who scored 7 goals in 17 Liga Portugal 1 appearances. The move won praise from many sides as commercially astute and showed the club’s commitment to sustainable operations amidst spendthrift clubs falling to the ground all over them.
Talking of spendthrift clubs, Three Towns also took advantage of them falling to the ground. They signed winger Wei Shihao, CB Li Yang, and versatile midfielder Yan Dinghao from Guangzhou Evergrande, having already built the team around ex-Evergrande players with box-to-box midfielder He Chao, Right Wingback Deng Hanwen, and left defender Gao Zhunyi as regular starters in last year’s championship campaign. They suffered quite a lot from injuries in the early stages of this season. But no team will be foolish enough to let their guard down against such formidable opponents.
2 Shandong Taishan
Shandong’s start of the 2023 season was disastrous and is getting more so by the day. At last year’s FA Cup final a woman claimed to be the (former) mistress of Wu Xinghan, the team’s energetic winger, made a scene and opened a whole cupboard of worms by accusing several members of the team of taking part in gambling related to their own game.
Investigations ensued and Son Jun-ho, the World Cup-going South Korean defensive midfielder is the latest culprit caught. Before him, both Wu, Jin Jingdao, Shandong’s ethnically Korean winger, and head coach Hao Wei all have been confirmed arrested. Another South Korean coach, Choi Kang-hee, with vast experience in China, is expected to take over.
But that is not as bad as it sounds. Hao Wei’s reputation had long sunk to the point of no return. Many fans pin the blame for failing to capitalise on Three Town’s mistakes late last season on him. With a star-dubbed squad, his go-to tactics seemed to remain to cross the ball for a tall player’s header. For creative destruction, the part of destruction seems to be mostly done.
One still feels the urge to call them ‘Greentowns’ but the name was forced to drop after the ill-thought neutral name policy was implemented. Also a promoted team, Zhejiang took all advantage of other teams’ chaotic finances and booked them a spot in the playoff round of the Champions League. They could use an upgrade to the tournament proper after a surprising victory over Shanghai Port in the semi-final of the FA Cup. However, they faltered against a determined Shandong Taishan, who were playing without their target man Cryzan.
Having been arguably a bigger outperformer than the eventual winners last season, Zhejiang is undisputably the most disappointing team in the new season. Failing to manage a win a single game in the first five and lying flat at the bottom of the league table, the team is starting to change its regular starting lineup. Ji Shengpan, king of League One, and Gao Di, another ex-Shandong striker, are now in favour at the expense of Nyasha Mushekwi, the Zimbabwean heavyweight who has visibly aged, and Ulrich Donovan Ewolo, the Cameroonian winger who also seemed to have lost his mojo. Li Tixiang, the artist-looking midfield cornerstone, has replaced mix-blooded Alexander N’Doumbou at the midfield.
Having lost Gu Chao, last season’s starting goalkeeper, to Wu Xinghan-induced match-fixing investigations, Zhejiang had their headline signing Jean Evrard Kouassi also watching from the sidelines, unable to provide much-needed firepower. But Gao Di scored a brace in the sixth round to help the team beat Nantong Zhiyun 2-1 away from home. That should give the team much-needed three points and a slimmer of hope
4 Shanghai Port
Having escaped the neutral virtually unscathed (it used to be called Shanghai SIPG, or Shanghai International Port Group), Port continued to make a mockery of official rules. They re-signed with Oscar just before the salary cap was announced and the Brazilian’s services have some other level in the league.
But the chairman of the football association is no longer the team’s parent company’s ex-chair and that should leave the team out of the more mundane accusations of nepotism. But the team’s chemistry still leaves something to be desired. Plus, Oscar’s contract is expiring, and if anything a return to Europe beckons. The team, whose backbone is still made of the finest academy products by Xu Genbao, Shanghai football’s godfather, will have to finish their champions league campaign without the best player they ever had. But he will still be there for the end of the league.