In the periods of relative calm between transfer windows, it might be easy for English football fans to forget about the Chinese Super League. Without a stream of preposterous transfer rumours involving the likes of Wayne Rooney and Diego Costa, and without marginally-less-preposterous transfers such as Changchun Yatai’s £20 million capture of Odion Ighalo, the CSL looms less prominently as a mysterious, cash-splashing menace in the minds of Premier League fans.
However, Sky’s announcement last summer that they had secured the rights to broadcast Chinese Super League games meant that British fans would now be able to watch the likes of Papiss Cisse, Paulinho and Alex Teixeira strut their collective stuff in the previously unknowable Middle Kingdom. And already Sky’s TV coverage hasn’t gone unnoticed in China, with overseas broadcasts a key factor in the recent six month ban for Shanghai Shenhua’s Qin Sheng and stamp on Tianjian Quanjian’s Alex Witsel.
The winter additions of Chelsea’s Brazilian duo Oscar and Ramires, too, along with Belgian international Axel Witsel, should make the 2017 CSL season even more attractive to a British audience. Despite this array of talent within the league, Sky’s coverage of Tianjin TEDA versus Guangzhou Evergrande this Sunday suggests that the corporation doesn’t yet regard the CSL as a priority.
While Sky’s English Premier League coverage sets a gold standard for football entertainment, and broadcasts of the Scottish and Spanish leagues are similarly well-packaged, there seems to be little effort made in the presentation of CSL games. Lacking a studio or even a summariser to back him up, a lone commentator was left to describe the action as visitors Guangzhou cruised to a 3-0 victory. At half-time, he simply described extended highlights of the first 45 minutes.
Despite a few errors in pronunciation, Sky’s overworked host did at least appear well-informed about the league, and contextualised the match nicely – particularly in reference to Evergrande’s domestic dominance over the last six years.
There was even an explanation of the farcical first-half substitutions of under-23 players Lang Hiyu and Wang Jingbin for Tianjin and Evergrande respectively, once their inclusion in their sides’ starting line-ups had assured compliance with the Chinese FA’s crude new ruling to force the integration of young Chinese players.
Indeed, it is hard to criticise Sky’s no-frills presentation of the CSL when bureaucratic peculiarities such as under-23 quotas and January’s abrupt cut in permitted foreign players leave the league looking inept before a ball is kicked.
Evergrande did at least add some sparkle to Sunday’s proceedings, with Ricardo Goulart scoring a first-half penalty and a well-taken volley in the 72nd minute, before playing in Yu Hanchao for a late third. Paulinho was a busy presence in midfield too, snapping into challenges and recycling the ball cleverly, while Zhang Linpeng was typically authoritative at right back.
Playing a long-ball game that made for drab viewing, Tianjin briefly threatened to get back into the game after half time, with Mirahmetjan Muzepper providing good energy and pace down the left flank, but rarely forced their opponents to get out of third gear. Former Ajax midfielder Nemanja Gudelj was particularly disappointing, showing a fine touch but also an appalling lack of running to support his less gifted colleagues in midfield. The 25-year-old Serbian did at least provide some comedy in the game’s dying moments, squabbling with team-mate Mbaye Diagne over who got to take a free-kick.
While better teams than Tianjin TEDA will grace the corporation’s broadcasts this season, the biggest flaw in the experience of watching the CSL on Sky was the scheduling, which was unclear to the point of abstraction. With Sunday’s CSL clash advertised to be live on Sky Sports 3 at 12:30 in the afternoon, your reviewer tuned in to find Rugby Sevens playing live from Singapore. A recording of the match eventually surfaced on Sky Sports 5 at 6 in the evening. Naturally.
Along with their Spartan presentation of the on-pitch action, this last-minute amendment to the advertised schedule shows the regard in which Sky currently holds the CSL. While greater international exposure for the league is positive, there is clearly a long way to go before the CSL becomes more than a frivolous footballing curio in the eyes of the British media.