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Corporate-free club names to become a reality in the CSL

Back in 2015 the Chinese football reform plan called for teams to use “neutral” naming conventions in order to cultivate football culture, in other words sponsor or parent company names would be removed from CSL team nomenclature. At the time few paid much attention to this development and it seemed like wishful thinking, but a new ruling says such a move must be made within the next three seasons. WEF’s Zhao Xiaoou takes a look at which CSL clubs’s names and logos may soon need an overhaul.

The name of a team, of course, does not only determine the pronunciation of the team. It also carries a history. And various changes in clubs’ ownership have stirred controversies. The most prominent example was Greenland group’s attempt to drop the historical name when they took over Shenhua in 2014. The episode caused an uproar among Shenhua fans and ended in a humiliating capitulation by the management. However, it appears that Shenhua fans have done everyone a favour – what they did back in 2014 the CFA is now making every club do. So how “corporate” are the names of each club as they stand?

Beijing Guo’an

Depending on whether you take the team’s middle name on board, how corporate their title is could either ‘somewhat’ or ‘very much’. As the last team among the founding members of the professional Chinese football league to change its majority owner, as Sinobo group took over from CITIC Guo’an, the boys in green can be quite proud of their heritage and continuation as well as of their success in youth training and cultivating a sizeable fan base and fan culture. The name ‘Guo’an’ has been less of an advertisement or statement of ownership but a symbol for something else. As we understand it, the Chinese FA might well to allow Guo’an, a company name nevertheless, to stay.

Danger level: 2.5/5

Beijing Renhe

Ironically, the first time that Beijing will have a second team in the top division of Chinese football has been achieved by a team that has its origins as Shanghai Pudong Football Club. Since 1995, the club has been based in four cities and used no fewer than thirteen names. But Renhe, the supermarket chain listed in Hong Kong, has held a tight grip on the team since 2011. And as the supermarkets have a name that sounds like a local shop rather than an international corporation, the second Beijing team might just be able to muddle on, as it has done so many times.

Danger level: 3/5

Changchun Yatai

Like Renhe, Yatai also enjoys the advantage of having been owned by a company with a down-to-earth name. The only northeastern team to avoid relegation last year, Yatai will also benefit from the fact that it remains in Changchun, and it has been called Yatai since its foundation in 1996. The team’s management also largely avoided the more glaring controversies that plagued other teams in its naming, as its relationship with the FA remains solid.

Danger level:1.5/5

Chongqing Lifan

Chongqing Lifan is one of the more interesting cases. The team’s middle name can cause some problems for the team’s finances as the new joint-owner might be discouraged by the fact that their name will be erased from the most visible and most mentioned part of the team. But this is an issue for a number of teams which include already mentioned Guo’an. The Lifan name, however, has been the team name for the fifteen of the last seventeen years. The only occasions when the team tried to win sponsorship was 2003 and 2009. The carmaker is also a local Chongqing business through and through. Chinese FA would have to make a bold decision indeed to ask it to change to just Chongqing FC.

Danger level: 2/5

Dalian Yifang

A first a seemingly blatant example of the rampant commercialism that the Chinese FA is so keen to rein in. Yifang also suffers from the fact that the name just came into existence two and a half years ago. However, like Lifan, Yifang might argue their case on the grounds that Yifang is a top-to-bottom local company. Its association with dissolved side Dalian Shide, the erstwhile top dog of Chinese football is also nostalgia-inducing. Fans might perceive any attempt to change the name as hostile to Dalian football. That might make the FA think again.

(As we speak, Dalian Yifang was forced by local FA to change its coach from Caro to the malleable Ma Lin, withdrawal by Yifang Group seems imminent.)

Danger level: 3/5

Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao

The standard bearers of Chinese football in the last seven years, Evergrande represent the avant-garde of commercialism in Chinese football. A crazy takeover and funding spree in 2010 paid massive dividends for Evergrande Group when Alibaba decided it needed to diversify into the sports business. Now as on many other fronts, Evergrande becomes a victim of its own (enormous) success. But they still have cards to play: the influence of its owners, the failure of its predecessor, Guangzhou Pharma, in footballing, commercial, and name-neutrality stakes, and its relatively long existence should all play in its favour. Its goal to get an all-Chinese squad before 2020 should also curry favour with the FA. But if the FA wants to make a big example of anyone, Evergrande are the perfect target.

Danger level: 4.5/5

Guangzhou R&F

Like Guo’an and Renhe, R&F is lucky in having an owner whose name which might sound more like an aspiration rather than a statement of ownership or advertisement. Supporters certainly would not mind their team is ‘Rich’ or full of ‘Force’ and that line of argument will certainly come out if FA, in the end, decide to enforce the rules they promulgated a long time ago. But if even the day comes that R&F must change its name, Guangzhou Wanderers (Renhe, meanwhile, can be Beijing Wanderers) might just do, having travelled all the way from Shenyang. But that is before we consider the possibility a foreign-sounding name might upset the Chinese FA nevertheless….

Danger level: 2.5/5

Guizhou Hengfeng

The lastest team to change its name, having completed the process only this month. On the face of it, it is an act of confidence, and even courage to make amendments as the rumour was already swirling around. Hengfeng Real Estate’s late entry into football will certainly limit its ability to conduct an argument about its history or commitment, but it might well be a decision to leave Zhicheng Group, a gambling enterprise mainly operating in Macau, to avoid any bad connections.

Danger level: 3.5/5

Hebei CFFC

Are Hebei an Evergrande without history or the achievements? The advantage is that China Fortune is a state-owned enterprise and carries the prestige of the ability to use ‘China’ in their name. That matters. But that may not matter very much, because as we know most of the rules about money are a reaction against Hebei and Quanjian.

Danger level: 5/5

Henan Jianye

The team known as Henan Construction is remember by some outside China as the one which entered the AFC Champions League in 2010. The irony made by the contrast between the team’s name and the fact that it has the worst of the pitches in China is just too delicate to miss. But Jianye’s name may get a Guo’an or Shenhua treatment as it dates back to 1994 when the team decided to partly privatise. However, it could be argued that the name lacks a specific local connection as it is so well known allover China via it’s owners.

Danger level: 2.5/5

Jiangsu Suning

Suning is a corporation that is as international as any (Milan Suning, anyone?). But here’s the caveat: both characters come with strong local flavour: Su (苏) of course refers to Jiangsu Province and Ning (宁) is an alternative for Nanjing, the capital of the province and the team’s home. And Jiangsu may well argue its name is already local and neutral enough (if not non-corporate) long before the FA thought about it – well, at least long before other teams thought about it.

Danger level: 1.5/5

Shandong Luneng

Just as in the last case, Luneng literally means ‘Shandong Energy’, which gives the club and supporters quite some leverage in any possible negotiation with the FA. Also a state-owned company with a local power base is the last kind the Chinese FA want to touch. With a very long history and past glory to boast, Luneng should feel very safe indeed.

Danger level: 0.5/5

Shanghai SIPG

Arguments about whether two ‘Shanghai’s in the same team name aside, in theory SIPG should be better covered in this possible dispute. Even the company SIPG is international in nature, its affinity with the city is undeniable. The port and the waters of Huangpu river have been a part of Shanghai life since time immemorial, but its frosty relations with the FA, despite AVB’s departure, might eventually prove its literal downfall. Its recent performance, however disappointing for its own fans, will attract more scrutiny. And its former name, Dongya, can be said to be a perfect replacement. One can imagine the FA would support a change of the name to go back to the team’s roots. Few will think the new owner would agree without reservations.

Danger level: 3.5/5

Shanghai Greenland Shenhua

It would be a very serious understatement to say this has been an eventful year for Shenhua. From Saint Lu Xun Park to another theme park starting with D, Shenhua Entertainment Ltd. has produced stories more than a Chinese football journalist could have ever imagine. And among the management malaise that has been plaguing the team for more than ten years, owners Greenland would be happy that the controversy they stirred in 2014 might be consigned to history. When they took over, the proposal to erase ‘Shenhua’ from the club’s name was a good harbinger of what was to come. Therefore, Greenland face the prospect that they would have to settle with the old-fashioned Shanghai Shenhua as the full name, given Greenland is neither historic nor neutral. Fans will celebrate. Inside the boardroom, the mood will be quite different.

Danger level: 2.5/5

Tianjin TEDA Yili

A bit mixture of Luneng and Greenland, even though Yili is less hated by their own fans by quite some distance. The TEDA name should be able to stay and the case is exactly the same as we said about Luneng.

Danger level: 2/5

Tianjin Quanjian

The most at risk of all. If being owned by a company whose main business is to sell dodgy healthcare products is not bad enough, the association between the club and its owner will be under more scrutiny from the outside. For a company which doesn’t welcome such intrusions, this is terrible news. Despite beating Hebei to the last Champions League berth, in corporate matters Quanjian look a little like a poor man’s China Fortune – no obvious protection when chips are down.

Danger level: 7/5

In conclusion much still depends on whether, how, and how much the FA wants to enforce their rules. The FA has become more active and aggressive following Gou Zhongwen’s appointment as chairman of the Sports Administration. But Mr Gou is deeply unpopular even by Chinese football standards. A backlash against a particular policy to precipitate his downfall is not out of the question and would be welcomed by most fans.

The wider political picture is also unsettled. But if things continue on their current path, there is a good chance the rules will come into actual effect. Some will cheer this regulation against excessive hot money into football and not-all-pleasant omnivorous capitalism. But others would argue it would be a shame if it dents investment and slows growth in Chinese football.

Chinese football writer who has travelled other direction

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