Expensive new entrants have marked the start of the season in China. The average attendance could surpass that of the Italian Serie A this year.
Two matches, two wins and a welcome arrival of superstars. The kick-off of their sole aim of winning the title has gone according to plan for transfer leaders Jiangsu Suning in the Chinese Super League. Their record purchases, Brazilians Alex Teixeira (50 million Euro from Shakhtar Donetsk) and Ramires (34 million Euro from Chelsea London), scored three of the five goals on the first two competitive days. The results meant first place with maximum points.
The goals from the mega-expensive samba pairing followed a doubly unsuccessful general rehearsal, accompanied with derision by numerous fans and media. Those who throw money around like a newly rich Lotto millionaire will have to endure Schadenfreude when the new Porsche has to go immediately to the car workshop. After a weak goalless draw against Vietnamese title holders Binh Duong in the Asian Champions League, the dream of again winning the national Cup event also disintegrated. The club lost 2-0 to China’s record winning champions Guangzhou Evergrande in the first round.
The failure against the top club was the overture to a season in which Jiangsu set new standards on the Chinese transfer market, and catapulted themselves into the role of favourites. The financially strong sponsor Suning, who sells more electronic devices than any other provider in the world, will not be satisfied with just the Cup victory as last year. Winning that trophy last November saved coach Dan Petrescu his job and ascertained participation in the Champions League. But as of now only their results in the League count in the provincial capital Nanjing, the home town of the club.
The road to the title will also lead via Guangzhou. The team coached by Luis Felipe Scolari won the national title five times in a row, plus the Asian Champions League twice. With the signing of Colombian Jackson Martinez for 40 million Euro from Atletico Madrid the squad was once again strengthened during the winter. Martinez immediately scored for the Southern Tigers in the first match, but the title holders suffered a surprise 2-1 defeat to Chongqing Lifan. After 25 competitive matches without a defeat the fluffed start of the season became a second successive failure for the team, as they had also suffered a 2-1 loss at Sydney FC in the Champions League a few days earlier.
With a clear win on the second competitive day of the CSL the Tigers regained calm. Their environment, spoiled by success, experienced a mixed start to the season last year also. But with just two points from three matches in the Champions League, the title holders are threatened by elimination in the preliminary round in this prestigious continental competition. The departure of Brazilian goalscorer Elkeson to Shanghai SIPG hurt. Martinez must help to close the gap. If that fails and the second big goal, winning the championship title, is also missed early, the air will get thin, even for such a successful coach like Scolari.
But not only Brazil’s 2002 World Cup champion coach is feeling the pressure -- other greats of that ilk also. Sven-Göran Eriksson hopes to finally lead Shanghai SIPG to the title in his third season. The national runners-up new signing of Elkeson followed SIPG contracting Ghana’s record scorer Asamoah Gyan and Argentine Dario Conca last year. According to Forbes, Gyan became the world’s eighth-best paid footballer with a yearly net income of almost 15 million Euro. One point from two matches seems to be a beggarly yield for such salaries. But at least SIPG are leading after three matches in their Champions League group.
Newly promoted Hebei China Fortune continued last year’s success with a win in the highest division. Hebei won their only match so far 2-1 at Guangzhou R&F. Newcomer Gervinho from AS Rome, who cost around 18 million Euro, repaid the first part of his transfer by scoring the winner. The other mega transfer, Ezequiel Lavezzi, who came for more than 30 million Euro from Paris St. Germain, sat on the substitute bench for 70 minutes before making his debut. Former Chelsea star Demba Ba also scored a goal for Shanghai Shenhua during the 1-1 draw with Yanbian Funde. But experts doubt whether Shenhua will be able to keep up with the bigger clubs.
The club from the capital, Beijing Guo'an, are also traditionally ambitious. They loathe their snobbish rivals from Shanghai. However, the money is somewhere else. Renato Augusto, who decided against Schalke 04, was their top transfer for just ten million Euro. The management is hoping that the new coach Alberto Zaccheroni can perform magic and produce a title contender from the comparatively modest squad. In the season’s opener Beijing managed only a goalless draw in Tianjin.
But not just individual clubs have to deal with heightened expectations. The entire League is in the spotlight, naturally in China but increasingly also abroad. The average attendance increased by 16.7 percent to 21,800 spectators last year, and thus is below the Italian Serie A and the French Ligue 1 by just a few hundred fans. If big scandals, as often happened in the past, can be avoided the trend should continue and the CSL will attract the most fans worldwide behind England, Germany and Spain.