It's safe to dream
Updated: 2012-03-09 07:33
By Tang Zhe (China Daily)
The 2012 Chinese Super League season kicks off on Saturday. The preseason's increased investment, eye-catching foreigh players, renewed interest from fans and returning broadcasting coverage send strong signals that the long-suffering and scandal-plagued league might finally be back on track. Provided to China Daily
China's time wandering the soccer wilderness might finally be over thanks to an influx of talent and a new television deal, Tang Zhe reports.
This could be the year. Finally. Despite soccer's global popularity, the sport has evoked negativity and disappointment in China the past few years. It looks like 2012 could be different. Unprecedented investment by Chinese Super League clubs has brought in more capable foreign players and coaches, who are expected to upgrade the level of competition in the league. City derbies will be presented in Dalian, Guangzhou and Shanghai, which are all well-known for their soccer traditions. Moreover, the country's central television will reboot its broadcasts of the league nationwide after a three-year absence.
Dozens of high-caliber players and 13 foreign coaches are crowding their way into the league this season.
According to Chinese media, 16 CSL clubs have spent more than 2.6 billion yuan ($400 million) upgrading their lineups.
League champion Guangzhou Evergrande still leads the spending list.
Backed by its 700-million yuan annual budget, the club announced its lucrative incentive plan early this month. The team will be awarded three million yuan for a domestic league victory and six million yuan for a win in the AFC Champions League.
The team will also get another two million for each one-goal difference in the Asian Champions League, the club announced before Evergrande defeated K-League Champion Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 5-1 on Wednesday.
Closely following is Shanghai Shenhua, which replaced all five of its imports. The club, which finished 11th last season, successfully lured the world's spotlight to China by signing former Chelsea forward Nicolas Anelka, who is rumored to be paid as much as $230,000 a week.
Dalian Aerbin also made several aggressive deals, both overseas and domestically. The emerging club attracted Brazilian midfielder Fabio Rochemback, who played two seasons for La Liga giant Barcelona, and domestic rising ace Yu Dabao.
At the front of the foreign coaches' class is Hangzhou Greentown's Japanese Okada Takeshi, who guided Japan to the quarterfinals at the 2010 World Cup; Shanghai Shenhua coach and former French international Jean Tigana; and Guangzhou R&F coach Brazilian Sergio Farias, who managed K-League squad Pohang Steelers to victory in the AFC Championship in 2009.
"The clubs' increasing investment will lure more fans back to the stadium by the league's better spectacularity this year," said Guangzhou Evergrande boss Xu Jiayin. "The domestic players also should be paid better, which will attract more youngsters to join the sport."
For the first time, China will have three derbies at its top level. Dalian, Guangzhou and Shanghai are expected to reignite the locals' passion by staging six derby games.
Dalian and Guangzhou, known as the cradles of soccer in the North and South, will kick off the show in the second round next weekend, with Dalian Aerbin to play Dalian Shide and Guangzhou R&F to challenge Guangzhou Evergrande. Shanghai Shenxin, formerly known as Nanchang Hengyuan, will play Shanghai Shenhua in May.
"It's good to have city derbies as it will attract local fans, as well as those from other cities," said Evergrande coach Lee Jang-soo. "The glamor of derbies has been proven in many countries, especially in the top-flight European leagues, and it will play a positive role in pushing the league forward and gaining more attention. In my opinion, cities like Beijing and Shanghai should have three or even four teams to form a better soccer atmosphere."
Li Ming, general manager of Dalian Aerbin, has spent his 12-year professional career with Dalian Shide. He said he expects the derbies will push the traditional soccer city to new heights.
"The city of Dalian has won most soccer championships in the past, and we will continue to fight for more in the future," the 41-year-old said. "Hopefully, we can bring dreams, hope and happiness to the fans.
"The city derbies are only two matches of the league, and the club and I need to track the whole league. We need victories in soccer, and we must take the challenge, I believe one day we will defeat Shide."
CCTV and Chinese soccer shared a close relationship in the mid-1990s. Benefitting from nationwide telecasts, Jia-A League (the CSL's former format) had grown into the most influential sports tournament in the country.
On the other side, CCTV's soccer-related programs received fantastic ratings. It was reported CCTV has made more than 100 million yuan in advertising for the league's broadcasts.
However, the two sides broke up at the end of 2008 due to the deteriorating environment of the league and the falling image of Chinese soccer.
National television also quit broadcasting any news related to the first- and second-tier leagues.
After a nationwide rectification of the sport's environment, CCTV agreed to work with the CFA again, a deal that will range from the broadcasting of CSL games, to the coverage of national team matches, women's games and youth programs.
According to Chinese media, CCTV prepared a broadcasting package for the league at the end of last year, including live coverage for more than 30 games and considerable news and feature reports.