After losing in the semi-final to Urawa Red Diamonds, Guangzhou Evergrande ended their campaign in the AFC Champions League this year. Although Evergrande did not win the competition for the third time, it is still one of the most successful teams in AFC Champions League history. Introduced in 2002, there are 12 teams with a singular title the past 16 years. Evergrande, along with Al Ittihad Jeddah SA from Saudi Arabia, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC from South Korea, and Urawa Red Diamonds from Japan, are all tied for the most titles with two each.
Before Evergrande won its first title in 2013, the best performance of Chinese clubs in the Champions League was a semi-final appearance, which both Dalian Shide and Shenzhen FC managed in 2003 and 2005 respectively. Chinese football has since entered a dark period. Apart from Beijing Guoan and Tianjin Teda each reaching the round of 16 once, all other Chinese teams were knocked out in the group stage until Evergrande made it to the quarter-final in 2012.
Many people might not know that the predecessor of Evergrande, the Guangzhou football team, was also the first professional football team that was co-owned by the government and a private company. Before being purchased by Evergrande Real Estate Group, the club was embroiled in a match-fixing scandal and was punished with relegation to the second division. The group pumped significant funds into the club. Also, Alibaba Group, owner of the leading e-commerce platform in China, Taobao, followed the steps of Evergrande and became the second-largest shareholder of the club. Through paying historic transfer fees, wages and bonus costs, the team recruited around twenty former or current members of the national team and concurrently invited the head coach of the 2006 World Cup winning Italy team, Marcello Lippi, as the manager. All of these investments not only enabled the promoted team to win the Chinese Super League, but also propelled the club to become the champions of Asia.
In an effort to emulate the success of Evergrande, many Chinese enterprises started to invest in football clubs and spend significant resources attracting top level athletes and managers to China. From former superstars like Javier Mascherano who came to China to spend their last few years as professional footballers, to Oscar, Stephan El Shaarawy, and Yannick Carrasco who were or are still at their heyday, many well-known players chose China as their next destination, which improves the overall level of Chinese Super League. As Sandro Wagner, the former Bayern Munich striker who now plays for Tianjin Teda, wrote, “Although there is a lot of space to improve, the Chinese Super League is now at a very high standard in general.” Since 2012, Chinese clubs have consistently entered the knockout stages of the AFC Champions league.
Although Chinese clubs have made great progress in the continental cup, criticism remained. With unstoppable investments from sponsors, Chinese football clubs are known for their generosity that provide salaries up to three times higher than what those players could earn in Europe. However, Axel Witsel’s transfer from Tianjin Quanjian revealed the fact that money sometimes cannot surpass the attraction from Europe’s top leagues. Although Witsel was criticized that he lacked basic respect for his supporters in China, his contract with Tianjin allowed Dortmund to pay 2,000 euros to take him back. Yannick Carrasco, another Belgian professional footballer who is currently playing for Dalian Yifang, also expressed his willingness to go back to Europe on different occasions. Additionally, reliant on the strong financial support from monopolistic energy consortiums, many west Asian clubs also provide competitive benefits to attract players. How long Chinese clubs can keep on with their crazy financial investment is left unknown.
Secondly, many people believe that the Evergrande model, in which money is king, will harm Chinese football in the long-term because Evergrande is “robbing” all the best resources, destroying the ecosystem of the whole league. As mentioned before, Evergrande once accumulated over 20 former or current Chinese internationals, and many of them are capable of being star players in other clubs. From the players perspective, due to the highly competitive squad, some players had to waste most of their time as a substitute, harming their professional careers. From the club’s perspective, other clubs were forced to sell their key players, or they had to become a part of this extremely inflated market.
What’s more, many people say that the current system blocks opportunities for young players to play abroad. Attracted by the high salary in China, many young Chinese footballers don’t have significant desire play abroad. Chinese fans are probably worrying whether Wu Lei can sustain his starting position at RCD Espanyol and lamenting where the next Wu Lei is. Meanwhile, our neighbors Japan and Korea are expecting to produce world-class players who can play key roles in top clubs, and there are youth athletes from those two countries who are already at top clubs, including Real Madrid and Valencia. Compared to crazily high salaries of Chinese Super League that can be over ten million yuan for local players, the salary cap of J1, the top division of the Japan Professional Football League, is only one third of the CSL’s. Under this condition, the most talented Japanese young players are more willing to look for opportunities abroad. At the same time, with huge investments in players, it is also harder to persuade Chinese clubs to allow players to go abroad if the club does not receive a sufficient transfer fee. However, restricted to the overall reputation of the league, Chinese clubs rarely receive prices that match their expectations.
Certainly, no one denied Xu Jiayin, the chairman of Evergrande Group, is determined to develop Chinese football, although many of his decisions are controversial. For example, the club set up a series of rules that award and punish players for their performance in the Chinese national team. Those rules were initiated by Xu Jiayin directly and Feng Xiaoting, Wei Shihao, and some other footballers have received corresponding punishments for their unsatisfactory performance on the field for their country. Last week, Evergrande announced that Fabio Cannavaro, the current manager of Evergrande, would take classes in corporate culture studies. Zheng Zhi, the current captain, will take the coach role temporarily, and the decision is rumored to have been decided by Xu Jiayin directly.
The day after Evergrande lost the semi-final, FIFA announced that China will host the Club World Cup in 2021. As the first expanded edition of the Club World Cup and a preview of China’s efforts to eventually host the World Cup, the performance of Evergrande, Shanghai SIPG, or any other Chinese clubs in the game will definitely become the focus of the country. The Club World Cup will be a test to see if Chinese football can continue to compete or be left behind in the busy market.