It’s 38 degrees inside the Shanghai Stadium and Luiz ‘Big Phil’ Scolari is wearing jeans. The way he waddles uncomfortably across the running track to bellow instructions to his players hints that he knows it was a mistake. It is difficult to fathom how anyone can play football in these conditions, but the game is fiercely contested at a reasonable tempo. It is, after all, a clash between the top two teams in the Chinese Super League, with Guangzhou Evergrande currently leading Shanghai SIPG by a single point in the table.
Victory here would have provided some vindication for SIPG manager Andre Villas-Boas, the other half of the Chelsea coaching alumni on the sidelines. The former Tottenham boss has found himself at the centre of several controversies this season and has only recently returned from a two-match suspension for a social media post criticising an eight-game ban for Oscar. Bureaucracy has been a running theme throughout the campaign.
An entertaining 2-2 draw ensured the status quo at the CSL summit is maintained with 12 games of the season remaining. Guangzhou, in pursuit of their seventh successive title and backed by club motto ‘Be The Best Forever’, controlled much of the game but saw their advantage twice cancelled out by SIPG’s domestic star Wu Lei. It is somewhat symbolic that Wu, the national team’s greatest talent, stole the headlines at a time of introspection for the CSL.
While the biggest transfers continue to occur in Europe this summer, business has been quiet in China. The revised foreign player quota on the eve of the season initiated a change in focus regarding recruitment, while in June a 100 per cent tax on foreign signings was introduced. Now, if a club spends more than €6 million on an overseas player, they must contribute the same amount to the country’s football development fund.
The upshot of the new regulations has silenced talk of multi-million moves for the likes of Borussia Dortmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The striker was in Guangzhou last week for his team’s International Champions Cup tie against AC Milan, but it is the Italian side, acquired by a Chinese investment group earlier this year, who are most likely to pursue his signature.
In the CSL, Anthony Modeste’s switch from Cologne to Tianjin Quanjian – on a long-term loan that circumvents the new tax rules – is the biggest transfer so far. If Barcelona follow up their interest in Paulinho it will be the first time the ‘outgoings’ column has held more intrigue than high-priced arrivals.
The turning point marks an uncertain future for the CSL and in particular the foreign stars already plying their trade in the league. Saturday’s game was akin to a Mineirazo Anonymous meeting, featuring three members of Brazil’s 7-1 horror show against Germany – Scolari, Paulinho and Hulk – with Oscar, a fourth, watching from the stands. Having moved to China to rebuild their careers in relative obscurity and opulence, there is now a sense that the Brazilian contingent are not included in the long-term plans for the CSL’s future.
The influences from abroad are still obvious. There are no Polish players in China at present, but the ‘Poznan’ has still travelled 5,000 miles to the Shanghai Stadium. The home fans turned their backs to celebrate Wu’s first strike against Guangzhou, before facing the pitch again to wave banners emblazoned with messages in English and sing chants inspired by European football anthems.
It would be wrong to surmise that the CSL has turned its own back on foreign football. Cristiano Ronaldo was the biggest name to attend Saturday’s top-two clash as he stopped by to top up his global brand, while China has also hosted tours for clubs such as Arsenal, Chelsea and Bayern Munich over the past fortnight, aligning its interests with European sides looking to cultivate the huge audience in this part of the world.
It suggests that China can simultaneously offer a significant market to European brands, be it team or individual, while adopting a domestic focus in the CSL. The perceived balance of power may have tipped back in Europe’s favour in the transfer window, but China remains in pursuit of global dominance. They are simply looking for more Wus Lei, and fewer Diego Costas, to lead the charge.