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”.


Photo: PA


Scolari’s Chinese medicine

IN 2014, Luiz Felipe Scolari’s reputation was, to some extent, in tatters. Brazil’s humiliation in its own backyard looked to have brought the curtain down on a distinguished career, at the same time signaling the decline of Brazil as the benchmark for international football.

Scolari is about to appear on the world stage again, albeit in the bastard child of FIFA, the Club World Cup. Scolari’s team, Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao, has just won the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League and the Chinese Super League.

There is a certain irony about Scolari turning up in China. In 2002, before he led Brazil to World Cup triumph in the Japan/South Korea hosted tournament, he handed each of his players photocopied chapters of Sun Zu’s corporate bible (!) The Art of War, a seventh century guide to going into battle. One hopes he is still not using this cliché to inform his team’s strategy.

Scolari has referenced Sun Zu in the past

There is a certain durability about Scolari, though, and with Chinese renminbi attracting overseas players to the Chinese game, the ubiquitous Brazilians are to be found plying their trade in the Super League. In fact, Scolari has six of his compatriots in the playing squad at Guangzhou, including English Premier League flops Paulinho and Robinho, and half of his backroom staff are also Brazilian.

Scolari’s team lost just once in the Chinese Super League and attracted an average gate of 46,000 to their home games. The Super League saw gates rise by some 16% in 2015, averaging over 22,000. While this is an impressive figure, it should also be remembered that the population of the Guangzhou metropolitan area is 24 million.

China, perhaps inevitably given global economic trends, is becoming a magnet for big football names. There was audacious talk of attracting Wayne Rooney, something that would doubtless earn the Manchester United star a king’s ransom – but whenever Rooney is unhappy, stories filter out about someone showing an interest in the Liverpudlian.

Money seems to be no object at the moment. Chinese clubs are limited to five overseas players, but coaches are also being imported. Just look at the other names that have been lured east: Fabio Cannavaro, Sven-Goran Erikson, Dan Petrescu, Dragan Stojkovic and Francis Gillot.

One reason that Chinese football has a new-found confidence is the new TV deal for the league that was announced at the end of October. China Sports Media Ltd has bought the rights for the next five years for RMB 8bn – that’s the equivalent of USD 1.26bn. That’s enormous when you consider that the rights cost just RMB 60m for the 2015 season.

What’s more, Chinese President Xi Jinping is an avid football fan and wants to see China back in the World Cup and also to improve the image of the domestic game.

Unfortunately, the AFC Champions League final did not do much for the reputation of Guangzhou, who seem to have upset their sponsors, Nissan. The team took the field wearing the name of Evergrande Real Estate Group’s insurance arm instead of Nissan Venucia. Dongfeng Nissan paid more than USD 16m for the season-long rights to the club’s kit. Nissan said it was “extremely shocked” and added: “The club took the liberty of unilaterally changing and replacing the chest advertisement without our company’s consent.”

This controversy took some of the gloss off the club’s AFC Champions League triumph, which was secured 1-0 on aggregate against the United Arab Emirates’ Al-Ahli. The two teams had drawn the first leg 0-0 in Dubai.

On the way to the final, Guangzhou beat an assortment of South Korean and Japanese teams, including Gamba Osaka and  FC Seoul, as well as Western Sydney Wanderers.

The Southern China Tigers (the sort of nickname the Cardiff City owner would kill for), qualified for the Champions League after winning the 2014 Chinese Super League for the fourth consecutive year, with Italian Marcello Lippi in charge. Lippi “retired” in November 2014 and was replaced by Fabio Cannavaro, but in June 2015, the club suddenly announced that the Italy World Cup winning skipper was no longer coach and that Scolari was now in charge. It seems that, already, China has picked up the habits of the west!

The coach acted as water carrier for thirsty players

However, some news reports suggest  that Guangzhou’s players may have been unhappy under their old boss. Full-back Zhang Linping, in Eric Cantona “sardines” style,  told Reuters:  “Scolari is a great coach. When he arrived it was like our team was in the middle of the desert and Scolari brought us all the water we needed.”

He also brought along acolytes like Paulinho, paying Tottenham Hotspur £ 9.9m for his services, and Robinho. But it was less celebrated Brazilians that have been more key for Guangzhou, such as Ricardo Goulert, who netted 27 goals in the 2015 campaign, and Elkeson, who scored 7 goals in 16 Super League games. Elkeson scored the winning goal in the Champions League final to give Guangzhou their second AFC title.

It is an important goal, too, for Guangzhou will now participate in the FIFA Club World Cup, being held in Japan (Osaka and Yokohama) December 10-20. Scolari is intent of making an impact in the competition as he continues to rebuild his reputation. “My next target is the Club World Cup,” he said. “And why not? I have such a great team, great players and a great club, and so of course, we can realise that dream.”

Scolari seems confident, and you sense that the horrors of Belo Horizonte are behind him. But there may be one or two barriers in his way. Guangzhou play Mexico’s America in the quarter-final on December 13. If they win that one, they will face UEFA Champions League holders Barcelona in Yokohama four days later. He may need The Art of War, after all…
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