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What the Chinese Super League teaches us about China

This article can also be read at Asia Times

Forget the choreographed yawnfest wrapping up in Beijing right now. For any understanding of the Chinese model of development, one might as well behold a Beijing sunset, in all its glorious opacity, as try to make sense of the Communist Party’s smoke signals. Alternatively, one might ponder a prominent undercurrent – a meme, if you like – of Chairman Xi’s Chinese dream: football. As the 2017 Chinese Super League season draws – wheezing, limping, splint-shinned – to a close, here are some takeaways.

#1 In the grander scheme of things, the Chinese still aren’t all that interested in watching Chinese football. While the growing market in China for European football – notably the English Premier League – has put the latter’s marketing warlocks in a froth of activity, average attendances at CSL matches haven’t risen enormously in recent years, despite an ongoing whirlwind of interest from Xi and a regiment of newly-minted Chinese billionaires. In a nation of 1.4 billion, the average CSL game in 2017 drew around 24,000 spectators, which is actually respectable by European standards, but once you strip out a handful of top sides, that figure falls away significantly. An absence of quality on the pitch remains a factor, but so too does the fact that China only got a proper league going in 1994 and has now set itself the task of building a sporting imperium from the top down. The league lacks domestic heroes, folklore, a sense of history and – barring some emerging needle between Shanghai SIPG and Shanghai Shenhua – meaningful rivalries.

#2 The suspicion that there may be something pyramid-shaped about Chinese football has yet to be dispelled. Some of China’s richest men have put very large sums of money in, without the league developing any kind of sustainable revenue streams. Seemingly sold on the promise of jam tomorrow, China Sports Media Ltd (CSM) acquired broadcasting rights to the CSL in 2015, agreeing to pay 8 billion yuan (US$1.18 billion) in instalments over a five-year period. In 2016, the company farmed online broadcasting out to the tech giant LeEco in a two-year deal worth 2.7 billion yuan. Owing to a “cash crunch,” however, LeEco, in turn, sold its 2017 rights to the video streaming site PPTV for 1.35 billion yuan. Then, in July this year, CSM – after withholding its 2017 instalment – announced it is seeking to extend the period of its initial deal from five to 10 years, complaining that new regulations (see #3, below) from the Chinese Football Authority (CFA), a government supervisory body that is the largest shareholder in the CSL, hurt its ability to recoup its investment. Could it be that the projected subscriber base just doesn’t exist?

#3 The current campaign has been, in one respect at least, the proverbial season of two halves. In the winter transfer window, CSL clubs shelled out some jaw-dropping sums to acquire players that have been big names in the global game. Shanghai Shenhua’s capture of Carlos Tevez, regarded a decade or so ago as one of football’s finest strikers, in a deal that reportedly made him the world’s highest-paid player, on an annual salary of $41 million, raised eyebrows among aficionados everywhere. SIPG’s signing of Brazilian midfielder Oscar from English giants Chelsea involved similar levels of cash and suspension of disbelief but at least brought on a player in his prime who could easily be lighting up a higher stage. Others leaving European football for China on tidy contracts included Belgian international Axel Witsel; another former Chelsea man, Nigeria’s John Obi Mikel; and Brazilian forward Alexandre Pato.

The CFA had, in fact, already signaled its dissatisfaction with the influx of money-grabbing foreign talents by reducing the number of overseas players teams can field in a game from four plus a substitute to three. Then, in June, came the coup de main – overseas transfers in the mid-season window would carry a 100% levy. If a club paid less than 45 million yuan ($6.63 million) for a player, the same amount again would have to be put into the club’s own youth system; if more, then a matching sum would have to be rendered unto Caesar, or rather the state’s football development fund.

The whole idea is to nurture more young Chinese players – a laudable aim, but one hedged in by commercial imperatives that create something of a Catch-22. If the league is banking on foreign stars, however superannuated, for box-office appeal, then what happens to the whole enterprise if they’re removed from the picture? It’s unclear if the rule will remain in place for next season or what impact it might have in the long run. But certainly, summer signings were significantly more mid-market, which is probably a good thing, as teams built around a small nucleus of bling-encumbered big-shots famously struggle to find balance. Tevez, incidentally, has been utterly useless, scoring just three goals in a meager 14 appearances to date.

#4 Similarly, it’s no longer enough just to appoint a European or South American manager and expect success on a plate in the CSL. OK, Guangzhou Evergrande have just sealed their seventh straight league title, and their second under former Chelsea and Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, and SIPG have had a good season under another former Chelsea manager, Andre Villas-Boas – they will finish second in the table and got to the semi-finals of the Asian Champions League. But other foreign coaches have fared less well this term. Beijing Gouan showed Spaniard Jose Gonzalez the door in June, after just six months in the job, and Shenhua – who sit a lowly 12th in the standings – parted company with Gus Poyet (yeah, he used to play for Chelsea) last month. Fabio Capello, hugely successful at the helm of AC Milan back in the 1990s, took over at struggling Jiangsu Suning in June but has only just been able to ensure their top-flight survival.

#5 As one might expect given the mishmash of coaching influences in Chinese football – Italian, German, Portuguese, Brazilian, Korean – and the lack of a tried and trusted formula for the national team, which remains calamitously feeble, there is still no identifiably Chinese style of football. It can be a task getting anywhere near Evergrande’s or SIPG’s Brazilians but games otherwise often seem to have a pronounced physical edge. There is also the occasional dust-up, with the fiercest of them this season coming in an SIPG-Guangzhou R&F clash when a couple of over-enthusiastic interventions from Oscar – for which he was subsequently, and quite unfairly, banned for eight matches – sparked a mass brawl. His team-mates Hulk and Wu Lei were also suspended later for wearing t-shirts supporting Oscar, and Villas-Boas earned his own sanction for an Instagram post that questioned his player’s treatment. The Chinese are all about the rule of law, you understand.

#6 Chinese football displays a glaring lack of transparency in terms of relationships between clubs, their investors, players, fans and the powers-that-be. In July, Jiangsu Suning’s owners – the retailers Suning – were as good as accused of using football to launder money by Chinese state TV. And in the same month, 13 CSL clubs were forced to deny that they were in breach of regulations in relation to unpaid player transfers, salaries or bonuses. Non-resolution, they were told, could see them kicked out of the league next season. Some issued statements denying irregularities; others said they were investigating matters. Then, miraculously, the issue just went away. Who paid what to whom, and when? Cui bono, apart from some young foreign men with tattoos and their agents? Who knows? Perhaps the skies over Beijing hold the answers.

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Villas Boas – the new Sir Bobby

This article appeared in The Herald

Liverpool re-hiring Kenny Dalglish was described as a gamble. Rangers promoting Ally McCoist, their assistant these last four years, is explained in similar language. But few gambles in football seem on the face of matters as speculative as the punt taken on one Andre Villas Boas by Porto last summer.

His name was barely familiar even to his countrymen. He was 32, an age at which most players are still coming to terms with the idea that they are “experienced”. And, in fact, he had never actually been a footballer. For anyone.

There have been others who’ve been given their chance at managing big clubs without ever having played on any grand stage – Arsene Wenger is one who springs to mind – but usually there is a requirement to work one’s ticket in the lower divisions. Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa, however, is a man who knows his own mind. The Porto president handed a spiky young Jose Mourinho his first major appointment and did not live to regret it; Villas Boas was, similarly, his personal choice to succeed Jesualdo Ferreira.

Once again he has been vindicated. Porto host Spartak Moscow in the first leg of a Europa League quarter-final tonight having eliminated CSKA in the last round and fresh from clinching the Liga Sagres title with a 2-1 win at Benfica on Sunday. Before they took that punt on Dalglish, Liverpool were sniffing around Villas Boas; more recently Roma were rebuffed. The Porto native – a supporter of the club as a boy – has made it clear he wants to guide them into the Champions League next season.

So far, so much a case of Mourinho Mark II. And Villas Boas’ relationship to the “Special One” seems almost umbilical. Before taking over at bottom-of-the-league Academica in October 2009 – from which position he led them to a safe 11th place – he spent years working under the current Real Madrid manager, first at Porto, then at Chelsea, and then at Inter Milan.

The younger man has been keen to downplay this relationship, however. Rumours that his split from Mourinho 18 months ago was an acrimonious one may or may not be well-founded, but he has at times seemed annoyed at attempts to paint him as some kind of De Niro to his master’s Brando. “I am not a clone of anyone,” he has said. “I want to leave my mark on this club. We do not have the same character and personality. We communicate and work differently.”

“He’s very insistent that he’s not the new Mourinho,” the editor of the Portugoal football website, Tom Kundert, told Herald Sport. “He was in fact originally taken on at Porto by Bobby Robson and he is quoted as saying that he sees himself more as Robson’s successor. He said ‘I have English ancestry (his late grandmother was from Manchester), a big nose and I like drinking wine.'”

The story of Villas Boas’ conscription by the late Robson might well be the stuff of a Hollywood yarn. As a teenager he lived in the same building as Robson – who coached Porto from 1994-96 – and harassed the latter into reading some of his meticulous scouting reports on the team’s next opponents. The former England manager was impressed enough to offer the precocious youngster a role within the club’s observation department.

At 17, he achieved his UEFA C coaching licence in Scotland before, aged 21, becoming head coach of the British Virgin Islands. When Pinto da Costa appointed Mourinho in 2002, the latter brought Villas Boas in as an assistant, and so began his higher education in the managerial arts.

It would not be accurate to suggest the new Porto coach has simply transplanted Mourinho’s template, however. Like Mourinho he is adept at motivating players and impeccably organised, but there are major tactical differences: like Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, Villas Boas’ Porto play high pressure, passing football; his is a more fluid 4-3-3 than Mourinho’s was at Chelsea, with the wingers frequently becoming strikers.
“Where Mourinho is results driven and therefore traditionally quite defensive, Villas Boas gives his players a lot of licence,” says Kundert. “At the same time they lose very few goals. Tactically he has to be given credit.”

In the last four years, Porto have lost the likes of Bruno Alves and Raul Meireles, Lucho Gonzalez, Lisandro Lopez, Ricardo Quaresma, Jose Bosingwa, Pepe and Anderson. Benfica, meanwhile, looked a much stronger side than their domestic rivals this season: Luisao, Fabio Coentrao, Javi Garcia, Gaitan and Saviola would all walk into Villas Boas’ team.

In such circumstances, any manager who can put out a side as ruthless and tactically superior as the current Porto is bound to have Europe’s elite clubs taking note. He may not be able to keep him forever, but Pinto da Costa’s gamble has paid off. The risks for future suitors are beginning to seem negligible.