So, a truly global superstar lands once again in Shanghai – his one-man rout of the China national side in the Asian Cup ensuring any fans not previously familiar with the name sure are now. Tim Cahill represents a massive coup for the CSL as a whole, which has in recent times been losing out to MLS and even the Australian A-League when it comes to being the retirement home of choice for stars seeking that last payday.
Cahill, however, is no retiree in waiting – his dominating performances in said tournament being testament to that. His choice appears to reflect a desire to keep influencing things – both on the field and off, as a man who’s made an impact wherever he’s gone across a career now spanning four continents. We’ve been here before, of course – the equally high-profile capture of Didier Drogba raising the bar for half a season, before ending in contract disputes and a sharp exit back to Europe. There’s an argument that Drogba arrived too early, his significant contributions to Champions League football immediately before and after his time in Shanghai perhaps a sign that he had put himself out to pasture prematurely. Cahill arrives after 2.5 years in MLS and accordingly lower expectations of the opposition he’ll face – and having clocked up a major international honour in the shape of the Asian Cup that will serve as an epitaph bigger than any club accolade. Not that such things should be taken as a diminishing of ambition, however – a man with undoubtedly easier options on the table arrives to take on a challenge that, in China, extends far beyond the golf ball divot-ed grass it’s played on.
One thing that rises above any inquisition of intention, though, is the sheer joy to be had from the presence of true A-list talent. In the overstuffed world of football journalism, there’s a trend away from highlighting the impact of an individual – seen as somewhat simplistic, perhaps; lost amidst the systems, the possession stats and anything that comes out of Brendan Rodgers’ mouth. Much of the pre-match attention lavished on a Sweden vs Portugal World Cup playoff was painstakingly highlighting how the teams were so much more than the sum of their great leaders – which must have made the subsequent Zlatan 2 – 3 Cristiano match reports all the more galling for those that wrote them. Individuals that occupy a different tier of football are few and far between, identified by a body language that shapes time and space around them – and Cahill most certainly belongs in that bracket. He will be a cut above all around him, and leagues like the CSL are all the more enjoyable for it; the differing levels of ability within one side, let alone the whole league, giving rise to mismatched duels not seen in more established competitions.
It appears, then, that the man is ready for the club – but are the club ready for the man? Shenhua have been a declining force for some time now, and if local rumours are to be believed have only been galvanised into serious transfer activity by the spending of their upstart neighbours. For the first time in their history Shenhua start the season as Shanghai’s distinctly second-best side; the well-funded rise of SIPG now being overseen by Sven Goran Eriksson and spearheaded by ex-Guangzhou superstar Dario Conca.
Spurred on by such embarrassment, Shenhua surprisingly seem to have recruited well: their spine now encompassing Zambian centre-back Stoppila Sunzu, the enigmatic Gio Moreno wandering where he pleases, Paulo Henrique running around a lot and now Tim scrapping away up top. They all bring very different qualities to the table and should prove an interesting combination. The one black spot would be the lack of supply lines one would usually associate with getting the best out of Cahill – zero width, and the set-piece specialist Xu Liang having just retired – so alternate arrangements will be needed to direct the ball onto that wonderful forehead. The club have at least signed two wide men in the close season, Shandong’s Lv Zheng and Henan’s Zhang Lu, but both are right-sided, continuing a time-honoured tradition of ignoring balance when squad building.
Should the supply lines be passable, Cahill will have the goals and the impact he desires – though whether that resonates beyond the few thousand Hongkou faithful is yet to be seen. Bigger players than him have arrived with the intention of jolting the league into wider consciousness, a tipping point that still feels some distance away. Certainly, expectations have been tempered by recent history – while Drogba arrived to the media fanfare of an (unrealistic) title bid over two years ago, most are not expecting Shenhua to trouble the top five this season, even with such strong recruitment.
One thing that certainly has changed since the Ivorian’s days is the club’s ownership – Greenland may indeed be reluctant custodians, but can hardly plumb the depths of amateurishness reached during the Zhu Jun era – which culminated in FIFA arbitration over Drogba’s breached contract and unpaid wages. The season ahead will doubtless show Greenland what they’re in for: a new found taste for football, or the nightmare of a thankless money sink? Shanghai Shenhua have a habit of keeping things interesting, and Tim Cahill is unlikely to go bored.
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