Kawasaki Frontale’s pursuit of Asian success

JAPANESE football is currently being dominated by a team from Greater Tokyo that seems to have hit on a formula for consistent success. Kawasaki Frontale won the J-League for the fourth time in five years in December and have won six trophies in that period, also securing the Emperor’s Cup and J-League Cup.

The one major trophy that has eluded them is the AFC Champions League, a competition in which they have never gone beyond the last eight. In 2021, a year that saw them lose just twice in the J-League, they reached the round of 16, going out to South Korea’s Ulsan Hyundai on penalties.

The 2021 campaign saw them win the title by a margin of 13 points with Yokohama Marinos in second place, five less than the 18 that separated them from Gamba Osaka in 2020. Pundits are calling them the J-League’s greatest ever team, and with 54 wins out of a possible 72 over two seasons and five defeats, it is hard to disagree.

Kawasaki’s rise really gathered momentum when coach Toru Oniki was appointed in 2017. Since he took over, they have won four J-League titles, playing an attacking brand of football. Oniki is an advocate of producing attractive football that pleases both the fans and the players. While this has resulted in over 80 goals in each of the past two campaigns, Oniki has also made Kawasaki’s defence more robust.

Oniki is a Kawasaki man through and through. He played for the club, coached at youth level and then became assistant manager. Given his youth connection, it is no surprise Kawasaki have become very proficient at bringing on young players and introducing them into the first team. One of the club’s recent exports was Kaoru Mitoma, who joined Brighton in August 2021 and is currently on loan to Belgium’s Union Saint-Gilloise. Celtic signed Reo Hatate from Kawasaki at the end of December 2021 and he has since made his Scottish Premiership debut for the club. Hatate has impressed since arriving in Scotland, which can only enhance the reputation of the club as a producer of talent.

Although the Kawasaki squad is a blend of youth and experience and is overwhelmingly Japanese, they do have four Brazilians and the most experienced of the quartet, Leandro Damião, was their top scorer in 2021 with 31 goals in all competitions. Such was the club’s domination of the J-League in 2021 that seven of their team made the Best XI for the season: Miki Yamane; Jesiel, Shogo Taniguchi, Akihiro Ienaga, Yasuto Wakizaka, Damião (the league’s most valuable player) and Hatate.

The next stage for Kawasaki, aside from expanding their Todoroki stadium beyond its 26,000 capacity, is to make their name and develop their brand across Asia. Outside of Japan, they are a relatively unknown quantity and they know that AFC Champions League success will broaden their profile. The most recent Japanese clubs to win the competition were Urawa Reds in 2017 and Kashima Antlers a year later. The draw for 2022 is taking shape and Kawasaki already know two of their three group opponents, China’s Guangzhou and Johor Darul Ta’zim of Malaysia.

Success in the Champions League is a challenge, especially as the competition has a group of clubs that know excactly how to negotiate their way through to the latter stages, such as holder Al-Hilal of Saudi Arabia, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Ulsan Hyundai of South Korea and Iran’s Persepolis. The bid to become an Asian powerhouse is a priority for the Kawasaki Frontale. If they succeed, more people will be aware of the Fujitsu-owned club from south of Tokyo.

Soccer City: Shanghai – in the eye of the storm

CHINESE football is in suspension at the moment and the future looks very uncertain as the Coronavirus grips the world. Indeed, China as a whole, along with its trade and international reputation, is certainly all under threat.

Shanghai is China’s economic behemoth, a description more in keeping with its modern-day status than twee tags such as “the pearl of the Orient” or the “Paris of the east”. Shanghai is China’s wealthiest city and will be one of the host locations when the country stages the FIFA Club World Cup in 2021.

Given the city has a population of 24 million, making it the third biggest “megacity” across the globe, it is no surprise that Shanghai has two major clubs in China’s footballing economy: Shanghai SIPG and Shanghai Greenland Shenhua.

Aspirations

China’s ambitions in world football are well documented and the Chinese Super League (CSL) has grown significantly over the past decade. Average attendances, for the time being, may have plateaued and with the Coronavirus likely to impact on crowds going forward, when the CSL eventually comes out of quarantine it will be very interesting to see what the Chinese public’s appetite is like.

The average gate in the CSL was 24,000 in 2019, a figure that has remained more or less constant over the past five years. Shanghai SIPG and Shanghai Greenland Shenhua both averaged 21,000 in 2019, but SIPG have moved to the 16,000-capacity Yuanshen Sports Centre for the 2020 campaign while a new stadium is being built for the club in Pudong.

SIPG is the acronym for Shanghai International Port Group, a conglomerate that also owns two Chinese banks. They took over in 2015 and Shanghai SIPG became one of the more aggressive Chinese Super League clubs over the next couple of years in the market, signing Oscar from Chelsea for £ 60 million and Hulk from Zenit St. Petersburg for £ 45 million.

In 2018, Shanghai SIPG won the CSL with Oscar and Hulk playing key roles. While Chinese striker Wu Lei was top scorer with 27 goals, the Brazilian duo provided 19 and 12 assists respectively.

The club’s penchant for Brazilians has continued this year with the signing of Ricardo Lopes, who has joined from South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. Lopes described Shanghai as a “charming international metropolis” and said he was “full of motivation and desire to fight for the honour of the team”.

But the Chinese transfer market has virtually collapsed due to the virus as well as a number of measures introduced by the Chinese Football Association to encourage clubs to develop their own talent. These include a 100% tax on foreign signings of more than 45 million yuan, the equivalent of € 6 million, and a salary cap that restricts players from earning more than € 3 million after tax. Fortunately for Shanghai SIPG, these rulings do not apply to existing contracts. Oscar, for example, is reputed to be earning € 26 million per year.

Shanghai Greenland Shenhua play at the 33,000-capacity Hongkou stadium, the first football ground to be built in China. The club itself is from Kangqiao, a suburb of Shanghai. In 2012, the club’s then-owner, Zhu Jun became very ambitious and signed players like Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka and Giovanni Moreno in a bid to make them into title contenders. This era ended in 2014 when Greenland Holding Company bought the club and changed its name, a move that did not please many of the supporters. The last time that Shenhua finished top of the table was in 2003, but the title was taken away due to match-fixing.

Shanghai Greenland Shenhua won the Chinese FA Cup in 2019 for the second time in three years, beating Shandong Luneng Taishen in the two-legged final and qualifying for the AFC Champions League 2020. The current squad includes Moreno and Italian winger Stephan El Shaarawy. Nigerian forward Odion Ighalo has recently gone on loan to Manchester United.

Shanghai SIPG finished third in the CSL in 2019 and also gained entry to the AFC Champions League. Chinese clubs have only been AFC winners three times and no team from Shanghai has reached the final. The competition has also been put on hold and neither SIPG or Shenhua have started their group stage games yet.

Problems

With both Shanghai clubs in the CSL enjoying strong backing, it is unlikely they will be under the sort of pressure other Chinese clubs are currently experiencing. Tianjin Quanjian, which has now changed its name to Tianjin Tianhai, is currently being managed by its local Football Association after the arrest of the club’s leader in 2018. The club avoided relegation in 2019 but its finances are in a bad way and, almost in desperation, Tianjin Tianhai is now available to be taken over free of charge. The Coronavirus, coupled with China’s economic slowdown, has placed a number of other clubs in a precarious position.

That includes Shanghai Shenxin, who have quit the Chinese Football Association’s professional league after failing to pay their players. The club has appeared in the CSL but was relegated in 2015. China’s lower division clubs have been paying far too much in players’ wages, leaving little flexibility in the event of an economic downturn. With football now in limbo, they have become even more vulnerable.

As for the CSL clubs, the government is insisting that players must undertake “spring military training” while football waits to resume. Nothing, it seems, must get in the way of President Xi Jinping’s dream of making the country a footballing power. Teams must undergo 16 hours military training every week and players must not allow their body fat percentage to go above 11%.

Should the crisis prove to be very extensive, Chinese football will not be the only league that comes under pressure. There are lessons to be learned, mostly about provisioning for bad times as well as good and not to allow club finances to become over-exposed to short-termism. When the dust eventually settles, Shanghai, with its financial clout and influence will surely remain among China’s top football cities. The question is, how much damage will be done elsewhere?

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA

Another title, now Ghangzhou look ahead to the opportunity of 2021

THERE’S LITTLE doubt that China’s most high-profile and successful club is Ghangzhou Evergrande Taobao, who lifted their eighth Chinese Super League title at the start of December 2019. Ghangzhou are not only China’s most celebrated club, they are arguably the noisiest across the Asia Pacific region.

The 16th Chinese Super League championship race was a tense, problematical affair, probably the hardest title win Ghangzhou have endured among their triumphs. It was not until the final game of the season they clinched the top prize, finishing two points ahead of Beijing Guoan.

The campaign was bizarre in places, with Guangzhou relieving coach Fabio Cannavaro, of his post in October as punishment for poor performance, only for the Italian World Cup winner to return in November. This suspension amounted to a very public reprimand, underlining that China has very particular ways of conducting business, as the recent Mesut Özil saga revealed. Cannavaro was accused of being “weak” and slow to respond to problems.

He was expected to lose his job and names like José Mourinho were being linked to the club, but he survived the wave of speculation and his somewhat humiliating punishment. Now, despite rumours that he will be looking to return to Europe and a job in Italy, he is talking about staying in China. “I hope to reduce the average age of the team, get in better replacements and continue to provide talent for the national team,” he recently said. The last part of that quote is very relevant as clubs are bound to providing talent for the China national XI. Even if they don’t mean it, they have to say it publically.

It would seem unlikely that Guangzhou will throw money around as they have in the past. Back in 2016, they created a stir when they spent € 42 milllion on Jackson Martinez and more recently, they tabled a similar amount for Paulinho and € 19 million on Talisca.

But there has been a change of stance in China, primarily because the government has issued a caution about clubs bringing too many mercenaries to the Super League. There is also a big levy on overseas signings. Furthermore, China’s economy, which has been expanding at a fast rate for the past decade, has started to slow – in the third quarter of 2019, GDP grew by 6%, the lowest since 1992.

There are also issues closer to home for the club. In 2018, Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao posted a loss of Yuan 1.8 billion, which translates to around US$ 267 million. The Chinese Football Association (CFA) has limited financial deficits at US$ 46.4 million, so Guangzhou, in 2019, will need to have reduced their expenses by 50% and deficit by 80%. If they have not achieved their objectives, they will be fined by the CFA.

Brazilian football player Paulinho of Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao F.C., right, protects the ball during the 30th round match of Chinese Football Association Super League (CSL) against Shanghai Greenland Shenhua.

This could be a hurdle given they have a big wage bill to service, Guangzhou pay their players an average of US$ 2.2 million per annum, almost twice the league’s average. In a country where the average annual salary is just US$ 6,600 , it takes a CSL player just 2.25 days to earn the annual average wage.

Elsewhere, there have been stories that players at some clubs have not been paid on time, notably in the lower leagues. Also there has been some discontent among fans – six Beijing supporters were arrested after walking to a match (!). The CFA also caused a stir when they changed the rules concerning foreign players in mid-season.

Guangzhou were pushed all the way by Beijing Guoan, who won their first 10 games and topped the table from April to mid-July. A couple of defeats in September put pressure on the South China Tigers (their nickname) and with one game to go, Guangzhou still hadn’t shaken off Beijing Guoan. A 3-0 win at the Tianhe Stadium was enough to maintain the two point margin, despite the team from the capital winning 3-2 against Shangdong.

Guangzhou’s leading scorer was Brazilian midfielder/striker Paulinho with 19 goals, 10 behind the Chinese Super League’s top marksman, Guangzhou R&F’s Israeli striker Eran Zahavi. Paulinho, the CSL player of the year, and his team-mate Yang Liyu, were named in the team of the year.

Having regained their title, Guangzhou will have one eye on the AFC Champions League, a competition they have won twice (2013 and 2015). The draw for the group stage has already been made and they will face South Korea’s Suwon Samsung Bluewings, Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim as well as the winners of Japan’s Emperor Cup, either Vissel Kobe or Kashima Antlers. Guangzhou reached the semi-finals in 2019 and the knockout stages of the AFC Champions League seven times in eight years.

But what of the longer term? There’s more adjustments ahead for Chinese football. The CFA has announced that there will be a salary cap for incoming players, with wages capped at € 3 million, while domestic Chinese players will be capped at Yuan 10 million. The market may have become less attractive for foreign players. Real Madrid president Florentino Perez’s controversial plan for a world league, which would surely involve Guangzhou, is most probably a dead duck, but it is clear that changes are afoot in world football. Such projects are not based on football common sense alone  – China is one of the most important economies, so any blueprint for a global competition, financed by broadcasting as well as very wealthy sponsors, would undoubtedly call for Chinese involvement.

And then there’s the revamped 24-team FIFA World Club Cup, which is to be staged by China in 2021. This could be Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao’s chance to make a mark on the world stage, especially as the city will be one of the host venues.

Make no mistake, this a big club from a big city (population 15 million), watched by 45,000-plus people every week and backed by an owner with estimated personal wealth of US$ 30 billion. The club’s brand is the strongest in its local market and if a Chinese club is going to break into the global super bracket, it will surely be this one. Not for nothing do they have the motto, “be the best forever”.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA