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Wilson: An intriguing 2015 beckons for Chinese football

Just over a month into the new season, a refreshing light breeze of change is blowing through the dusty pantheon of Chinese football, with the new season barely a month old.

The wind began blowing from a southerly direction – Australia, to be precise. Optimism, that most dangerous of temptations for the always-emotionally-fragile Chinese football fan, flashed its frilly national flag panties in the Asian Cup in January. There, a Chinese squad which qualified for the 16-team tournament through the narrowest margin imaginable, was expected to crash out at the first hurdle. However, a resurgent China, led by former Portsmouth boss Alain Perrin, won all three of their group games for the first time, before bowing out to a Tim Cahill-inspired Australia in the quarter final. This unexpectedly respectable outcome did wonders for morale and set a very positive mood as we went into this season.

Despite a slow start, we have to say Guangzhou Evergrande are once against favourites for the title. The Cantonese side strengthened over the winter, picking up Brazilian Ricardo Goulart for a Chinese record fee of around 11 million pounds. More positivity – it excited the local media that a 23-year-old, already capped by Brazil, would come to China with his best years clearly ahead. Conversely, the papers seemed somewhat blase however about the prospect of Evergrande’s new head coach, a replacement for Marcello Lippi,  facing a 10-month jail sentence for tax evasion in Italy. Cannavaro, brought in to replace Marcello Lippi, currently is appealing the ruling, but major figures from the world of Chinese football ending up behind bars is really anything new, hence a lack of media uproar.

The nearest challengers are more than likely to be Beijing Guoan. The capital side have really continued from where they left off last season, remaining unbeaten so far, and topping the table whilst also poised to qualify for the knock out stages of the CSL. There are some suggesting Guoan may even win the CSL. Such suggestions are not wide of the mark, just rather optimistic.

The battle for the best of the rest looks more interesting this year though. Shandong Luneng are looking strong, even if doubts persist over Brazilian coach Cuca. And Guangzhou R&F look interesting – even if they have not yet done enough so far to suggest they can keep momentum following the departure of Sven Goran-Erikson.

Speaking of momentum, it is the rebirth of Shanghai Football that is a hot topic on the Chinese sports back pages. The city’s two major teams, SIPG FC (formerly ShanghaI East Asia) and Shanghai Shenhua both set the early season pace by winning their first three games. Both clubs are said to be operating on budgets of around 50 million UK pounds this year following changes of ownership over the past 12 months. SIPG splashed  the cash to tempt head coach Sven G away from R&F over the winter, and shocked everyone by bringing back former Guangzhou Evergrande legend, the mercurial Argentine playmaker Dario Conca, back to China.

The 31-year-old has shown in the opening matches he’s still got it, and his acquisition catapulted SIPG into title contender bracket. In the north of the city, Shanghai Shenhua showed they were not to be outdone by snapping up former Everton man Tim Cahill on a free from New York RB. Alongside an array of other new signings, including the aptly named Zambian defender Stoppila Sunzu, once a target of Arsenal, Shenhua have laid the ghosts of Drogba, Anelka to rest. With the team’s name and badge now fully restored after last year’s eye-opening fan protests, the once-proud Chinese powerhouse club look to be on the rise again.

Indeed, the forthcoming Shanghai derby on May 9 looks like being one of the most eagerly-awaited fixtures in China for quite some time – not a week goes by without local journalists salivating over the prospect of having something genuinely juicy to write about after a barren decade for football in the city. Shanghai saw the country’s first-ever intra-city derby back in the early 2000s, when Inter Shanghai and Shanghai Shenhua locked horns at the top of the table, before Inter faded and moved to Xian in 2005, over a thousand miles inland. But the heady days of 35,000 sell-out derby crowds at the purists’ dream venue, Shenhua’s Hongkou Football Stadium, have not faded in local memory.

SIPG are attracting back thousands of fans who were either Inter supporters, simply don’t like Shenhua, or are part of the new generation of cool kids getting into local football for the first time. Shanghai’s football derby culture – well established in Chinese terms – is drawing even more in. With SIPG playing at the 80,000 capacity Shanghai Stadium in the south of the city, a 50,000 plus crowd is expected.

Guangzhou Evergrande may be winners of the CSL again come November, but a good title race with Beijing will keep things interesting this year. Together with the drama guaranteed in Shanghai, and China starting its World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign in June on a positive footing (if we may gloss over two friendly draws the other week against Haiti and Tunisa), there’s plenty to look forward to this year.

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.

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