In 2012, Chinese football made headlines when Shanghai Shenhua signed Nicolas Anelka from Chelsea.
A few months later, Didier Drogba, fresh from helping the Blues win the Champions League, walked out into the Saturday morning sunshine. Greeted by hundreds of fans in the Chinese port city, it was a new dawn for the beautiful game in the world’s most populous country… except that it wasn’t.
By the end of the year, both strikers headed out amid tales of late payments and a story that did Chinese football no favours. Shanghai, and its maverick owner Zhu Jun, soon sank back into the shadows. But further south, Guangzhou Evergrande were spending plenty and by the end of the year were rewarded with three titles and the Asian Champions League crown –the first Chinese team to be continental champions since 1990.
Good players didn’t want to come to China because they thought that the level of the league was not so high. Things have changed now.
The Cantonese club turned to South America for their imports. They had the 2006 World Cup winning coach Marcello Lippi and under him was much of the Chinese national team. It was a strategy that worked. Guangzhou’s success has laid the foundations for their domestic competitors to adopt a new strategy.
It’s the Year of the Horse but it going to be, in football terms, a time when Chinese clubs looked to Asia, especially Japan and South Korea, to fill its ranks of foreign players.
The triumph of Guangzhou has raised the reputation of the Chinese Super League to the extent that, combined with the money that some teams can now offer, stars in neighbouring countries are more open to the idea that a move to China can also be good for their career.
Players have left Korea for China before, but this time it is different, according to China’s leading football writer Ma Dexing.
“In the past, those who came from Korea were not big names or if they were, they were ageing stars,” Ma told Al Jazeera.
“Good players didn’t want to come to China because they thought that the level of the league was not so high.
“Things have changed now. Many big foreign names have joined Chinese clubs and have had success. And these clubs also pay really good money which means that good players at the peak of their careers come to China.”
The likes of Ha Dae-Sung and Dejan Damjanovic were two of the best performers in the K-League last year and helped take Seoul to the final of the Asian Champions League. Damjanovic scored 141 goals in 230 games in Korea, not an easy place for strikers, over seven seasons. He was K-league’s top scorer for the last three seasons.
The Montenegrin international then joined Jaingsu Sainty for $4m. Seoul captain and Korean international Ha Dae-Sung was picked up by Beijing Guoan for $4.8m while teammates Sergio Escudero and Mauricio Molina have been the subject of enquiries.
Jeonbuk Motors, one of the most successful clubs in Asia, has seen defender Lim Yoo-Hwan depart for Shanghai Shenxin and Belgian striker Kevin Oris is also set to join a Chinese club. Guangzhou R&F, managed by Sven Goran-Erikssen, signed Korean international Jang Hyun-Soo from FC Tokyo last week and Cho Byung-Kuk is about to leave Jubilo Iwata for the Middle Kingdom.
Making up ground
It is good news for Chinese fans, desperate to match the exploits of its East Asian neighbours. While Japan and Korea are generally recognised to have the best leagues on the continent, China is making up ground.
In 2012, attendance at the Chinese Super League exceeded that at the J League is now the most popular in Asia. Its infrastructure and facilities are excellent, corporate activity is growing, the financial strength is unrivalled. The quality of foreign imports and foreign coaches is now the best on the continent.
What is lacking, at the moment, is a nationwide and systematic youth development program that can consistently produce the standard of player that Korea and Japan have been churning out for years.
“That is the real question,” said Ma. “Look at the Asian Champions League and meetings between Chinese and Korean clubs. The losers are always Chinese. There is a long way to go.”
The path to greatness is long but football in the Middle Kingdom is on the march and if the present pace of progress continues over the next few years, then it won’t only be Guangzhou fighting it out for continental titles.
Others are determined to make their mark and are happy to keep recruiting the best talent that Asia has to offer in order to make it happen.
John Duerden – He writes about Asian football for The Guardian, ESPN, World Soccer, Daily Telegraph, Associated Press, One World Sports and various Asian media. He tweets @johnnyduerden