With the 2014 season less than two weeks away, looks at the prospects of some of the more interesting sides in the CSL this year, starting with newcomers Harbin Yiteng. The club won promotion to the top league last season to bring professional football to the northeast’s Heilongjiang Province for the first time and displace Changchun as the CSL’s most northerly club. But as our correspondent Liang Dapeng reveals, the team from “Ice City” may find the top tier as challenging and harsh as its own winter weather.
The manager: Local coach Duan Xin has been with Harbin Yiteng for about 4 years. Most of the players call him “father”, and he manages everything in and off the pitch. Training young players is his favourite job, reflecting the clubs youth-orientated history. The club was in the 3-rd tier China League 2 side as recently as 2011, but thanks to Duan Xin’s tireless efforts, Yiteng did something which seems impossible and are now in the CSL.
The history: The club began life in Dalian and was still officially registered in that city until last year. This is despite Yiteng changing its location three times – they have played in Dalian, Harbin and Yantai, Shandong province at various times. In 2011, the club returned to Harbin, and immediately won the CL2 title. Promotion to the CSL followed last year on a limited budget.
Until now, Yiteng have been lower league side in China, but have one of the best youth systems: prominent CSL stars Feng Xiaoting, Wang Dalei, Zhao Xuri, Yu Hanchao and Dai Lin are all graduates from it’s football academy.
The team: If the CSL didn’t allow foreign players to take part, Yiteng might have a brighter future in 2014. It might a historical season for Yiteng in its 26 years since its formation as an amateur club, but with zero experience in the top league, we can only say they are not ready. The club has been busy since securing promotion last November dealing with issues related to its decision to stay in the city of Harbin (in part due to a fan protest); trying to improve the standard of their stadium before the deadline of February and trying to find a Heilongjiang province sponsor, something the club has yet to secure. The new season hasn’t ‘t kicked-off yet, but the dongbei side is struggling now.
The stadium: Harbin Sporting City is the only stadium suitable for CSL games in “Ice City” and has a capacity of 50,000. Right now the pitch is covered with snow, and the club will play their first seven games on the road due to the harsh north-east climate. The CFA has also requested the club renovate their media and dressing rooms to bring them up to standard before the first home game kicks off.
The changes: Former captain Li Gen left the club for League 1 club Wuhan Zall, and it is the single change in this club so far. Harbin Yiteng’s squad remains unchanged except this. We could say this stability is good for the club, but the quality of the squad is much weaker than the other 15 clubs in CSL. There are still two unused foreign player spots.
The foreigners: All three foreign players with the club last season have resigned for another year. They played quite well in League 1 in 2013, but in the CSL, they look a little like lightweight boxers. Former Internacional attacker Rodrigo Paulista is the star of the team, and together with Colombian Ricardo Steer, scored 25 goals last season. Austrialian defensive midfielder Adam Hughes played bravely and provided much protection for the back four.
The club also signed a Hong Kong international Fofo, who is not classed as a foreign player according the league rules. Interestingly, the centre back was born in Ghana and is a naturalized HK citizen. He may be a useful pickup for the new season.
The star: Left winger Bu Xin, 27 years old, is the fans’ favourite player over the last two seasons. Skillful and fast, he is reminiscent of Shangdong Luneng’s Zhang Wenzhao. In 2012 and 2013 seasons, he scored 10 and 13 goals for Yiteng respectively. If you see him playing for a top Chinese top club in the future, you should not be surprised.
The youngster: None, all players in starting lineup were all born before 1990.
The X factor: Money. Harbin will face a tough season in 2014, we only hope they will fight as long as possible and avoid sinking without trace like last year’s newly-promoted team, Wuhan. According the recent reports, the club has a modest budget of just 6-7 million RMB this year. This would not appear to be enough to keep the team in CSL, and the club may face great difficulty, especially in the second half of the season.
The prediction: The CSL is all about money, experience and some connections. Frankly speaking, Harbin lack all of these. So they will likely only be a fleeting visitor to the top league this season.