It is proving a winter to forget in Nanjing. Jiangsu looked in need of a steadying hand after Suning Group’s anticlimactic second season in charge – one spared the indignity of relegation by Fabio Capello’s pragmatism and experience.
Instead, last year’s 12th place team seems a ruckus of discontent from training ground to board room. Jiangsu’s foreign stars want out, the club has been cold on domestic transfers, and Capello has limited his tenure to the end of 2018. Supporters were bemused further by internet leaks of next season’s shirt; black-and-blue stripes à la Inter Milan, the club Suning Group holds a majority stake in.
The season ended sourly with the Chinese Football Association (CFA) criticizing the club for rescheduling a league match with Tianjin Quanjian. Suning Officials had acted in anticipation of the mayhem inevitably caused by a TFBoys concert. Although Jiangsu is hardly the only club to have been scolded by China’s football bigwhigs, the incident seemed indicative of a year in which the club couldn’t put a step right.
There are also worries of lost momentum. The 2016 acquisitions of Ramires, Alex Teixeira, and Roger Martinez showed peak-age elite footballers were willing to join the Suning project. They seemed a core group of players around which a title challenging team would be built in the coming seasons. To the contrary, the process is already unravelling.
Roger Martinez moved to Villarreal on Jan 7, Teixeira’s disinterest was evident throughout a season of lethargy, Trent Sainsbury is eying an A-League return to bolster his World Cup chances, and even captain Ramires has been trying to slip down the Suning pipe to Italy.
Jiangsu needed to offload a foreign player to comply with the CFA limiting the number allowed at each club to four. But a wholesale exodus threatens to undermine the direction of the club and, in the short-term, any chance Capello might have of building on last year’s mild successes.
The rumors of Jiangsu abandoning the lighter shades of blue in search of some Italian prestige speaks of an identity crisis. The first season, with its 2nd place finish and Chinese FA Cup Final, seemed the first step toward becoming a national powerhouse. Instead, the club plummeted towards relegation and was forced to dismiss Plan A, Choi Yong-soo, midway through the South Korean’s first season. And if Capello, as seems likely, is just a stopgap, it is difficult to know what come after these half starts?
A supposed benefit of controlling an institution with the footballing pedigree of Inter Milan is the open tap access to insider knowhow. So far, it has been an unused resource. While the hiring of Capello and his coterie of Italian coaches was no coincidence, in terms developing a footballing identity and a strategy, the partnership has much room to grow.
With senior Chinese players underperforming, a domestic transfer policy continuing to prove ineffective, and a manager who seems miffed with life inside Chinese football, Jiangsu has a busy month ahead if it’s to avoid 2018 becoming a consecutive disappointment.
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