The CSL made a sudden return to the big-name arena today with the unexpected capture of Tim Cahill, who joined a rejuvenated Shanghai Shenhua on a one year contract.
The Australian, whose two goals knocked China out of the Asian Cup, was linked with a host of clubs after doubts surfaced about his future with MLS side New York Red Bulls.
However, despite Shenhua being heavily linked with Cahill’s fellow Australian international forwards Nathan Burns and Tomi Juric, there was relatively little international speculation about the Asian Cup winner joining Shanghai and the move came as a surprise to some.
Local media reported that Cahill had demanded a multi-year contract, but Shenhua insisted on a one-year deal only and won the day. The former Everton and Millwall man will soon join his new team-mates for pre-season training in Spain, according to reports.
“The biggest Asian player in the history of the CSL joins Shanghai Shenhua” was the headline on Sina Sports today, as Shenhua fans were whipped into a state of excitement not seen since the days of Anelka and Drogba a couple of years back.
Indeed, the international media were quick to draw parallels with the former Chelsea star duo’s brief CSL stint in 2012. However, much has changed at the club since that time, not least of which new ownership which makes the prospect of a financial meltdown which led to Anelka and Drogba’s premature exit very unlikely.
Unlike Shenhua’s previous owner, the attention-seeking eccentric local tycoon Zhu Jun, Greenland are a fortune 500 company of global repute. And although little concrete has been said in reports about Cahill’s salary, it’s unlikely to be anything like the 250,000 UK pounds a week Drogba was reputed to be on.
Last year Zhu Jun’s scorched earth policy saw Shenhua squad shorn of its best players, and new owners Greenland with no time to patch thing up before the season started.
This year, Cahill joins a club which is functioning with renewed vigor and purpose. This season Shenhua have acted extremely swiftly and with clear intent in the transfer market, racing out of the blocks ahead of all their rivals and using up almost all of their quota of five foreign players and five domestic players, before some rival outfits have even signed one player.
Shenhua have added Zambian international defender Stoppila Sunzu who like Cahill received not inconsiderable critcism in his home country for choosing to come to China. Australian-born Greek international Avraam Papadopoulos, a defender / defensive midfielder has also joined, from Turkish side Trabzonspor.
The newly-arrived trio complete a strong spine alongside existing foreigners, the mercurial Columbian number 10 Giovanni Moreno, and robust forward Henrique of Brazil. Much speculation has surrounded Gio Moreno of late, however the club stated today that the signing of Cahill “concludes our foreign player line-up for 2015” so it appears Gio is going nowhere.
However, where Shenhua have disappointed in some quarters is in the quality of domestic players signed – purchases described as “mediocre” by some sections of the support. Indeed, none of the quartet of Chinese newcomers are internationals, first team regulars at top CSL clubs, or even younger promising players.
Best of the lot is former Guangzhou Evergrande central defender Liu Jiabin who returns to Shenhua after being onloan at the club in 2013. Shandong Luneng right winger and bench-warmer Lv Zheng joins, alongside Henan Jianye right-midfelder Zhang Lu, and Shanghai Shenxin playmaker Wang Yun who is past his prime at 32.
The signing of only one dedicated domestic defender has alarmed many considering the team frequently played as many as three midfielders in defence last season due to chronic lack of cover.
Most positive of all however for Cahill is new coach Francis Gilliot. The Frenchman takes over from Sergio Batista, who was heavily criticised for not blooding enough young players least season even although squad depth was at paddling pool levels.
He was also thought to be mixed up in club politics and allowing non-footballing decisions to dictate team selection – a common issue in the CSL to this day. Francis Gilliot so far has suggested he will accept none of this by going against the Shenhua’ boardroom’s desire to sign midfielder Qin Sheng, released Guangzhou Evergrande.
Gilliot believes that Qin is “four months away from being back in top condition” having spent last season on loan to a China League 2 team in Guangdong, and has delayed a decision on who Shenhua’s fifth and final domestic player signing of 2015 will be.
Local media also reported the Frenchman was not in favour of signing Cahill due to his age. However, with Shenhua short of firepower, and needing to sign an AFC confederation player to meet the requirements of the 3 foreign players +1 Asian player rule, the club’s choices were limited.
With Tomi Juric turning down a contract from Shenhua, and the club refusing to pay over the odds to A-League outfit Wellington Phoenix for Nathan Burns, efforts had to be focused elsewhere.
And when Shenhua admitted to city media that the signing of former Evergrande hero Dario Conca by local rivals Shanghai SIPG (formerly East Asia) “put huge pressure” on the Hongkou club to play catch up in the local face-stakes, Cahill suddenly became Shenhua’s trump card over their very own noisy neighbours.
After last year’s painful transitory year which saw the club try to change its name, before submitting to fan protest and reverting, Cahill unwittingly brings one more benefit the Shenhua faithful will thank him for.
The abrupt depature of the Drogba and Anelka led to a predictable cooling of interest from the international media for a couple of years, and the “Shanghai Greenland” affair largely passed the outside world by.
But suddenly, thanks to the star power of Cahill, the name “Shanghai Shenhua” is back with avengence in the global sports press.
Ground: Hongkou Football Stadium, Hongkou District, Shanghai
Capacity: 35,000 (26,000 for football)
Honours: Chinese top-tier league champions: 1995
Chinese top-tier league runners-up: 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2006, 2008
Chinese FA Cup winners: 1998
Chinese FA Cup runners up: 1995, 1997, 2015