There’s a lot going on this weekend in China’s top flight, but this weekend also sees the China League, China’s second division, kick off across the country. We’ve talked a lot about how important a year it is for the Chinese Super League, but the China League is poised to have its own unique and special season this year. A number of foreign managers, including two big names (Troussier in Shenzhen, Arie Haan in Shenyang and Lawrie McKinna in Chongqing), once again some quality players going down to the lower levels (like Emil Martinez and Dong Fangzhuo), teams in interesting locations (Haerbin, Hohhot, Fuzhou), and yet another season for the university side, Beijing Institute of Technology.
Beijing Institute of Technology
Fujian Smart Hero
Guangzhou Sunray Cave
Okay, if you aren’t into the Chinese Super League, this is going to be an impossible sell. Even for those Chinese Super League fans, its still not an easy sell, admittedly I myself don’t make it to many China League matches, but if you’re a football lover, there are far worse ways to spend a sunny weekend afternoon or early evening. Some of these guys are really good and will soon be starring for a Chinese Super League club and/or the national team and its a chance to watch players (and potentially teams) “before they were famous.” You think foreigners stand out at a Chinese Super League match, you’ll be even more obvious at a China League game, so get ready to make lots of Chinese friends. Plus, at least in Beijing, BIT matches are free (with your passport for identification) and Baxy matches are only RMB20, include a free shuttle from the Tuanjiehu subway station, and a free Baxy ice cream. Again, not bad.
The problem of relocations is one that has come to the China League, with Shenyang Shenbei and Shenyang Dongjin both competing for local fans (after Shenbei only recently moved to that city), Dongjin has decided to take its talents to…Hohhot! Yes, that’s right, we’ll see a professional team in the Inner Mongolian capital for the first time in many years and they’ll be a heartbeat (or 30 matches) from the top flight. We’re expecting a great home field advantage for the club, as the locals are sure to come out for their team. Don’t just think it’s all fun and games, this side has enough to potentially surprise a few teams and has an outside shot at making its way into the Chinese Super League.
Yanbian is the team of the special Korean autonomous region in Changchun province, many of the players are ethnic Korean and grew up watching the teams of the late 90s that starred in the top flight. Since then, they’ve fallen hard, but they are starting to fight back, with respectable performances over the past few seasons and they should once again fall somewhere in the middle of the table. And at all their matches, especially in the northern part of the country, there is sure to be a good contingent of ethnic Koreans who come out to support them.
Beijing Institute of Technology is a college side, made up entirely of students (though think NCAA basketball “students” instead of true “scholar athletes”). The club plays at a tiny stadium on campus and many students watch the matches from their dorm rooms. If that’s not enough, everyone gets in for free with a Chinese ID card or passport.
Hunan Billows are the real upstarts this year, spending some money in the offseason and bringing in Dong Fangzhuo, long ago of Manchester United, and Emil Martinez, a former Chinese Super League Player of the Year. The club is doing a good job to represent local football and was a response to Changsha Ginde, a club that quit the city after dropping down from the top flight. While it’s been hard to draw other top talent to Changsha, the club has a solid team and should be in contention for promotion to the top flight.
Guangzhou Sunray Cave was in contention last year before falling back in the last few months as big spending Guangzhou Fuli came on strong. This season, they are sure to be an early favorite for promotion to the Chinese Super League. Hunan Billows is also a side many are looking at along with Shenzhen Ruby, who still have Troussier in charge and looking to redeem himself. However, my money is on Chongqing FC, who will be well coached under McKenna and have a strong roster that includes Chris Killen and Walter Martinez, two players who should excel in the lower division. For those who are looking for a longshot, I think Beijing Baxy and Shenyang Shenbei are worth a look, but I don’t think either side has enough to stay in the race all season long.