Death of an institution: The Dalian Shide Story
Last week one of the most popular Dalian Shide weibo news accounts made its final ever post, bidding a final farewell to the world, following the tragic demise of the club over the close season. The disappearance of China’s most successful football club in dubious circumstances over the close season generated a large cloud of dust which is only just settling. WEF peers through the murkiness to examine the aftermath of the death of an institution.
Dalian Shide were once the undisputed kings of Chinese football, winning the top prize in the old Jia-A league and the current CSL a total of eight times. Several of China’s greatest ever players, including Sun Jihai and Li Ming, made their names at Shide. With one of the best youth set-ups in China and training facilities that were the envy of most other clubs, the Shide success story should have continued on into the future. Their passionate fanbase, the Blue Wave, was also among the largest in China.
Dalian was, and is, China’s “football town.” But since Wang Jianlin sold the club, then named Dalian Wanda, to Shide Group chairman Xu Ming n 2000, the team’s on-the-field successes have been dogged by off-the-field problems. Alarm bells went off in late 2011 after Xu, implicated in the Bo Xilai scandal, disappeared from public view. This concern peaked in April 2012 after Xu’s arrest was announced. There were doubts that the team had sufficient financial backing to make it through the season, but Shide played on, with the CFA stepping in late on in the season to ensure that the club made it through the last few games. But everyone thought that the team’s final game of the season against Guizhou Renhe would be Shide’s last ever. Fans and players alike cried when the referee blew for full time. Shide’s famous Blue Wave fan group was given one last glimmer of hope when it was announced that the Aerbin group, headed by Zhao Mingyang, had put in a bid to purchase Shide. This was soon followed by news that the CFA had blocked Zhao’s proposal to merge the two teams, and so the Shide chapter of Dalian football was closed for good. But an article recently published in financial magazine Caijing forces us to ask, was the writing on the wall all along?
Dalian Shide honours
Chinese champions:1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2005
Chinese FA Cup winners: 2001, 2005
Asian Cup Winners’ Cup: Runners-up 2001
Asian Club Championship: Runners-up 1998
Judging from Shide’s success in the early years of the Xu Ming era, during which the club won four league titles, two Super Cups, two FA cups and one Asian Cup Winners’ Cup, the presence on Xu in the club’s boardroom served to bring new glories to a club already accustomed to success, having finished outside of the top spot in the league rankings just twice between 1994 and 1999. But, after winning the CSL title in 2005, the team were never again serious contestants for silverware, despite Shide’s talent production line continuing to reel off national-teamers such as Li Xuepeng. As revealed by Caijing, it was in 2005 that Shide ceased to be the primary recipient of Xu Ming’s cash injections: from that point on, Xu was regularly making large donations to the Guanghua foundation.
The report, by Xu Qianchuan and Tan Yifei, illustrates how Xu would make donations to the Guanghua foundation, which would then make grants to a complex series of funds associated with the Chongqing Public Security Bureau. These funds would then channel money into projects earmarked by Wang Lijun, commander of the Chongqing PSB and lieutenant to Bo Xilai, in particular his pet project – the Chongqing PSB hospital. Poorly funded and unpopular among Chongqing bureaucrats, the hospital project was on the verge of being cancelled until a miraculous donation was pledged by Guanghua, to the tune of 900 million RMB.
According to Caijing, the entirety of this donation can all be traced back to Xu Ming. But, before the donation could be processed, the Bo Xilai story broke, followed shortly after by an investigation by the China Securities Regulatory Commssion. Disappearing from public view, Xu’s pledge went unfulfilled. A Chongqing city government official said to Caijing journalists, “This project has been cancelled before it could even break ground.” With his focus split between football in Dalian and guanxi in Chongqing from as early as 2005, it is no coincidence that Shide’s last title came in 2005.
A further aspect to the diversion of Xu Ming’s focus away from Dalian and Shide to Chongqing is that he and Wang Lijun, who, according to a December 2012 from QQ Sports, “had caught Bo Xilai’s football fever,” signed an agreement to establish a Chongqing PSB football team. Under the terms of the contract, Xu was going to invest several hundred million RMB. Aside from an enquiry asking if Shide had any players “going spare,” there was no actual contact between Shide football club and Wang. The deal between Wang and Xu was terminated after both were implicated in the Bo Xilai scandal in late 2011, but the decision by Wang to throw his resources into Chongqing football indicates that his focus was now directed solely at matters in the southwestern metropolis, the last stage in a process that had begun in 2005 with Xu’s initial donations to the Guanghua Foundation.
A new dawn for Shide almost emerged in 2009. Xu put the club up for sale at 70% of its listed value. Zhao Mingyang, current owner of Aerbin, was tempted by the asking price of 420 million RMB. In an effort to sway Zhao, Xu also offered to transfer the Shide Group’s real estate holdings to the Aerbin Group. But suddenly Xu reneged on this promise and Zhao turned his back on the deal. Soon after this, Zhao got in touch with Li Ming, China’s all-time most-capped player and recently-resigned Shide general manager. Having failed in his bid to purchase Shide, Zhao brought Li onboard and together they secured CFA permission to launch a new team in China League Two, Dalian Aerbin.
Known as a qiumi laoban, a “fan boss,” Zhao has proven to an enthusiastic supporter of Dalian football, investing 200 million RMB on football operations alone in Aerbin’s first season in the CSL. His 330 million RMB bid for Shide in November last year, after their fate looked to be all but settled, speaks volumes about his commitment to wider Dalian football, as does his promise that not one member of the Shide staff will go employed. He has even allowed the handful of former Shide players who, due to CFA regulations, have not been able to join new teams, to continue training with Aerbin. If Zhao had seen through his purchase of Shide back in 2009, the Blue Wave might still have a team to cheer for.
WEF’s Cameron Wilson and Peter Davis also contributed to this article.