Chinese football in doldrums as clubs struggle and World Cup dream fades

It did not go unnoticed in China that on Saturday Rafael Benítez led Everton to a point at Manchester United and a day later Bruno Génésio’s Rennes defeated Paris Saint-Germain. In January, they were working in the Chinese Super League but given all that has happened in the country this year, it already seems like a lifetime ago.

It would be surprising if either European coach regretted their departure as these are troubled times for football in China. When Antonio Conte called the country’s rise dangerous for football as Chelsea prepared to sell Oscar to Shanghai for £50m in December 2016 – one of many deals that meant the league spent more than £300m in that winter window and become one of the most-talked about competitions in the world – he was right but just not in the way he meant.

Oscar is still there but almost all the other stars and big-name coaches have gone. Authorities, alarmed at the money leaving the country, introduced ‘transfer taxes’ and increasingly tight salary caps. It was not enough to save some clubs. Jiangsu FC won a first championship last November but were out of business three months later with their owner, Suning, which also owns Internazionale, pulling the plug. Last year, Tianjin Tianhai ceased to exist.

Even more seriously, there is trouble at Guangzhou FC, winners of eight championships in the past decade and the club that started all the big spending a decade ago. The majority owner Evergrande, a giant property developer, has debts of £225bn, an astonishing number that would also be spelled out fully in brackets on the BBC’s old videprinter. Last week, the coach, Fabio Cannavaro, left, and if the champions can go bust and the biggest club in China, and arguably Asia, can teeter on the edge then any can. There is an expectation things are going to get worse before they get better.

There is not much respite on the international stage with the national team and the Chinese Football Association’s obsession with returning to the World Cup for the first time since a debut appearance in 2002 making things worse. Fans in Europe who complain about international breaks getting into the way of the club game should spare a thought for counterparts in east Asia. The Chinese Super League has been suspended from August to December to give the national team the best possible chance, or so the thinking goes, to qualify for the 2022 World Cup.

With no games, revenue or media coverage, the league is in limbo and if China were looking like qualifying for the World Cup then fans maybe would not mind so much, but that is not the case.

The final round of qualification started in September. Twelve teams are split into two groups of six with the top two from each getting automatic berths in Qatar. With two games gone, China have zero points and zero goals. Defeats against Vietnam on Thursday and Saudi Arabia five days later would effectively confirm the inevitable. Automatic qualification is already almost out of the question.

China are not good enough to finish above Japan or overturn the six-point deficit to Saudi Arabia or Australia. Even finishing third and going through two play-offs, first in Asia and then against a team from another confederation, usually Concacaf, is a long shot.

It is a familiar and depressing story for China fans but this time was supposed to be a little different. With investments in youth development not expected to pay dividends until at least the end of the decade, short-term methods have been employed. Three of the current squad were born in Brazil. Elkeson, now known as Ai Kesen, Alan Carvalho and Aloísio were given passports and drafted in to make a difference in positions where China have traditionally struggled: scoring and creating (that clubs have traditionally filled these positions with foreigners may be part of the problem). They have yet to do so.

Those naturalised players and a fourth, the former Everton defender Tyias Browning, who has Chinese heritage, are at Guangzhou (when the club, with all their foreign stars, said a few years ago that they wanted an all-Chinese squad by 2020, few took it seriously but here it is).

Evergrande’s involvement in football was always a political project and, among other things, the club bankrolled Marcello Lippi’s tenure as China coach from 2016 to 2019. Another former Everton man, Li Tie, has the national team reins now. Li has made some progress in trying to create a club-like mentality but his comments after September’s defeat by Japan could have been uttered by any China coach in recent years.

“We now have a clearer understanding of the position of our team in Asia,” he said. “I hope the Team China players can treat each of these World Cup qualifiers like the final match of their career. And they should have the same mentality when they play against Vietnam.

“The gap between us and the top Asian teams, especially in terms of pace and speed, is clear and we are now more focused on the areas where we need to improve.”

There are many of those. A win against Vietnam would be a much-needed boost but there is much to do in Chinese football.

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