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Everyone's after Evergrande

By Shi Futian | Updated: 2018-03-01 09:14

Seven-time champion under threat as Chinese Super League returns, reports Shi Futian.

The Chinese Super League returns this weekend and promises to be one of the tightest battles in years as a number of reloaded squads bid to end Guangzhou Evergrande's seven-year stranglehold on the title.

All eyes will be on Evergrande's opener against city rival Guangzhou R&F as the league kicks off on Friday, and over the course of the weekend fans will be intrigued to see how a number of high-profile foreign players adapt to their new surroundings.

Gone are the heady days of megamoney imports, when the likes of Carlos Tevez and Oscar commanded eye-popping fees to dominate sports pages worldwide.

This winter's transfer window has been characterized by more modest, astute deals.

Hebei China Fortune, for example, signed veteran Argentine Javier Mascherano to a multiyear contract worth around $6.7 million in January.

The former Barcelona and Liverpool utility player, 33, will join his former national teammate Ezequiel Lavezzi, a striker acquired last February, on a competitive squad managed by Chilean former Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini.

Dalian Yifang's acquisition of Atletico Madrid attacking duo Yannick Carrasco, 24, and Nicolas Gaitan, 30, two days before the transfer window closed for a combined fee of around $58 million also looks like good business.

Together with recently signed former West Ham and Southampton defender Jose Fonte ($7 million), the trio gives Yifang fans hope that this season could be more than just a survival slog for the newly promoted side.

While the arrivals of Mascherano and Carrasco still represent a certain degree of risk, they are a far cry from the splurge of the 2016 window when Oscar arrived at Shanghai SIPG for an Asian-record $83 million and Tevez began pocketing $760,000 per week at Shanghai Shenhua.

Clubs have been encouraged to be more frugal by new Chinese Football Association regulations, which are also designed to give more chances to young homegrown talent.

CSL clubs must now pay a levy equivalent to foreign player transfer fees costing 45 million yuan ($7 million) or more to a youth development fund, while the number of under-23 Chinese players that teams play must at least equal the number of foreigners on the pitch.

Teams also must have at least three under-23 players in their 18-man lineup and must start at least one of them.

Fears have been raised that clubs might be able to exploit loopholes in the foreign player tax rule. However, at a meeting in Shanghai on Tuesday, the CFA warned that any club that attempts to circumvent the levy will be punished and the player's registration will be postponed for six months.

The new restrictions have been imposed with good reason. A study by an accounting firm found that 16 CSL clubs spent a total of 11.01 billion yuan in 2016 but only generated revenues of 7.08 billion yuan, running with an average loss of 245 million yuan per club.

Meanwhile, investment in youth development has paled in comparison to transfer fees. On average, clubs spent 32 million yuan on youth training in 2016-only about 7 percent of their employee costs and less than 5 percent of their total expenditure.

Eight in a row?

For the past seven years, the CSL has belonged to Guangzhou Ever-grande. The Cantonese club has won every title since 2011, however there are signs that its era of dominance could be coming to an end.

Evergrande failed to significantly bolster its squad in the transfer window, with the arrival of Serbian midfielder Nemanja Gudelj from Tianjin Teda underwhelming fans. The return of coach Fabio Cannavaro last year was considered the club's most positive news of the offseason.

Italian World Cup winner Cannavaro is under pressure to employ more adventurous tactics at Evergrande after his predecessor, Luiz Felipe Scolari, was accused of being too conservative last term.

Also, the former Tianjin Quanjian boss didn't acquire the players he wanted this winter and moreover, he admitted he is concerned some of his under-23 players are not yet ready for the cut.

Evergrande's rivals, too, look stronger than ever.

Spearheaded by Brazilian duo Hulk and Oscar, Shanghai SIPG was Evergrande's biggest threat last term, finishing six points back of the champion in second spot.

With more experience under its belt, SIPG should push Evergrande even harder this term.

Hebei China Fortune and Beijing Guo'an will also be hoping to launch strong challenges. The vast experience of two-time Champions League winner Mascherano should be invaluable to Hebei, while Guo'an has strengthened by bringing in promising Chinese players like Wei Shihao, Liu Huan and Chi Zhongguo and Congolese striker Cedric Bakambu from Villarreal.

Dizzy days for Dalian

Dalian Yifang provided a real bolt from the blue for fans on the eve of the new season.

It has been widely reported the Liaoning province club will be taken over by Wanda Group. And while there has been no official confirmation of that deal, the arrivals of Carrasco and Gaitan from Atletico, which Wanda once part-owned and still sponsors, indicates the rumors are true.

Wanda Group bankrolled the legendary Dalian Wanda, which won four league titles between 1994 and 1998 in the early years of pro soccer in China.

Dalian Wanda became Dalian Shide when the property giant sold the club in 2000, and 12 years later it quit the CSL.

After years in the doldrums, Yifang won China League One last season to win promotion back to the CSL under Spanish coach Juan Ramon Lopez Caro, who has since been replaced by Chinese coach Ma Lin.

Although avoiding relegation will be the team's top priority this season, the purchase of Carrasco, Gaitan and Fonte and the revival of the connection between fans and Dalian's glorious past bodes well for exciting times in the city.

TV twist

Another drama played out over the offseason was the change to the CSL's broadcast rights deal.

The league and China Sports Media renegotiated the terms amid concerns about how the new restrictions on foreign players might affect ratings.

CSM has extended the contract from five to 10 years, but will pay less per annum than the initial deal it signed three years ago.

CSM purchased the rights for 2016-20 at a cost of 8 billion yuan in 2015 but will now pay 11 billion yuan for the period 2016-25.

"The eight billion for five years deal was a dynamic estimation, and we want to enter a positive cycle," said Li Yidong, CSM chairman.

"Every investor needs to profit from the growing soccer market. If there's no business interest, there will not be any sustainable development."

In 2016, CSM sold exclusive two-year online broadcasting rights to technology giant LeEco for 2.7 billion yuan. LeEco then flipped the rights to PPTV for 1.35 billion yuan due to a cash crunch.

Contact the writer at shifutian@chinadaily.com.cn

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