Beijing: Despite the echoes of a huge corruption scandal and Didier Drogba’s short-lived stay, a sense of cautious optimism pervades long-suffering Chinese football as the new season starts this week.
Following last year’s failed experiments with Drogba and Nicolas Anelka, blockbuster signings have given way to the more sustainable model of focusing on existing stars and emerging talent.
And pundits say the Chinese Super League (CSL), which gets under way on Friday, looks set finally to make its mark on the international stage and end China’s 23-year wait for a continental title.
Ivory Coast international Drogba and former France striker Anelka raised hopes that cash-rich Chinese football was about to hit the big time when they arrived last season. However, both left Shanghai Shenhua in January.
Last year’s hype reached its apex when David Beckham was seriously tipped for the CSL. Beckham will appear this year — but only as a paid “ambassador” for the league, a move which received a mixed reaction from fans.
Domestic sides have been noticeably more cautious in the transfer market in the run-up to this season, quietly building their teams around established top names or young Chinese talent.
Many believe the conservative approach, coupled with a renewed attempt to draw a line under the wide-ranging match-fixing probe, whose final punishments were handed out in February, is reason for optimism.
“While Drogba and Anelka leaving is bad, there are many reasons to be positive about the new season,” Yan Qiang, vice-president of Titan Media, one of China’s leading sports publishers, told reporters.
“It is important not to forget that Shanghai Shenhua is just one club in China.”
Shenhua will start the season on minus six points, and stripped of their 2003 league title, as punishment for their part in the match-rigging affair, which left 33 players banned and senior officials in jail.
“I have told them that our goal is to avoid relegation. We have to fight each game as a fateful match because we don’t have any leeway,” said Zhu Jun, Shenhua’s colourful owner, according to the China Daily.
Deep-pocketed Guangzhou Evergrande, managed by World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi and staffed by a bevy of foreign stars, will aim to cement their reputation as one of Asia’s top sides with their third straight Chinese title.
Last season’s double-winners already look in impressive form after they swept aside Urawa Red Diamonds 3-0 in their first AFC Champions League game last week.
Brazilian forward Muriqui and Paraguayan striker Lucas Barrios played starring roles against the J-League side, with Guangzhou hotly tipped to become China’s first Asian champions since Liaoning in 1990.
Jiangsu Sainty, also in the Champions League, have based their success on home-grown talent, and Serbian coach Dragan Okuka is continuing to develop the club’s youth strategy as he attempts to build on last year’s second place.
Third placed Beijing Guoan signed former Dalian Aerbin coach Aleksandar Stanojevic in hope that he can get the best out of under-performing former Premier League striker Freddie Kanoute and Ecuadorian Joffre Guerron.
In contrast with last season’s headline-grabbing deals, Dalian Aerbin made the most high-profile signing in the Chinese top tier, with the addition of French international striker Guillaume Hoarau, 29, from Paris Saint-Germain.
Shenhua, after last year’s experiences with Drogba and Anelka, have opted for a different strategy entirely by signing the likes of 40-year-old defender Rolando Schiavi and fellow Argentine Patricio Toranzo, who plays in midfield.