The Hongkou football stadium will surely remind striker Tim Cahill of the best years of his career. The home ground of his new club Shanghai Greenland Shenhua FC is one of two purpose-built football arenas in the Chinese Super League (CSL) whose season got underway on 7 March. No other stadium produces an atmosphere to match it in Chinese football and Cahill experienced it for himself in Shanghai Shenhua’s 6-2 win in the local derby against Shanghai Shenx. When the “Blue Boys” kop end is in full voice, it’s like being at a ground in the Premier League where Cahill, amongst other teams, played eight years for Everton. But his show on the opening day was stolen by the three-goal Brazilian Paulo Henrique.
Shanghai could well be the final port of call in Tim Cahill’s football career which has spanned four continents. Most probably it will not be his most successful phase – a sentiment most pundits would agree with even though the 35-year old is still considered to be a top transfer. The Australian showed just how good he is at the Asia Cup on home soil in January when he, the alpha dog, led the Socceroos to their first ever title win. In doing so he contributed three vital goals. Real Sociedad from Spain and Everton both tried to secure his services afterwards.
After three years at Red Bulls New York, Cahill has however decided in favour of the CSL adventure and a club that is neither a title contender nor a candidate for a place in the Asian Champions League. The squad is too weak even after the signing of Greek international Avraam Papadopoulos from Trabzonspor and the 2012 Africa Cup winner Stoppila Sunzu from Zambia. Cahill was enticed by a salary rumoured to be in the region of three million US dollars and the chance of a new adventure. “I’m someone who is embracing culture and a different aspect of life,” he told the Australian media. That Cahill knocked the Chinese national team out of the Asia Cup with his two goals in the quarterfinal is something for which he has been quickly forgiven by fans in the People’s Republic.
They are qualities that the previous highly-paid imports at Shenhua lacked when they moved to the Shanghai club. The former world class strikers Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba were never comfortable in their new surrounds and left the club, for whom the German pros Carsten Jancker (2004) and Jörg Albertz (2003-2004) also played, after a couple of months. They were unable to prevent the financial metropolis’ top dogs from dropping down the pecking order in the city behind rivals Shanghai SIPG.
SIPG stands for Shanghai International Port Group which operates the terminals in the local container port. The club was only founded in 2005 by China’s former national coach Xu Genbao. His exemplary academy system formed the basis for his successful team. A non-Chinese player was only signed for the first time in 2010. Backed by SIPG funding, the club now also attracts big names. The coach is the Swede Sven-Göran Eriksson. The top star is the Argentine Dario Conca who won three league titles with China’s leading team Guangzhou Evergrande. After an short intermezzo last year at Fluminense in Brazil, he is this year back in China.
SIPG, which founder Xu wants to turn into “China’s Manchester United”, is improving constantly. They finished fifth last year but the contenders for the championship are the same ones as in previous years. Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao FC has won each of the four league titles since 2011. This year however the capital city club Beijing Guo'an above all sees itself as having a real chance of winning the championship. The two clubs were neck and neck right up to the very last game of last season. In the Beijing club’s favour is that Guangzhou was in a state of chaos only a few days before the start of the season.
The new coach Fabio Cannavaro – 2006 World Cup winner with Italy – was sentenced to ten months imprisonment in his home country for tax evasion. As reported by the British daily newspaper The Guardian, Cannavaro doesn’t have to serve his prison sentence just yet as he can appeal. The club however has to expect that, should the appeal fail, Cannavaro will soon no longer be available to manage the team. In the Asian Champions League, Guangzhou posted a vital 3-2 win at last year’s winners Western Sydney Wanderers. In Asia, the side is one of the crème de la crème.
By chance or not, Italy’s World Cup winning coach Marcello Lippi recently announced he would resign from his post as the Director of Football at Evergrande Taobao as of 1 March. After wining three championships, Lippi earlier stepped down from his position as head coach in November 2014 and installed Cannavaro as his successor. In a club statement, Lippi has left Guangzhou for “health and personal reasons”.
The chaos has taken the attention away from Guangzhou’s record signing, the Brazilian Ricardo Goulart who moved to Guangzhou from the Brazilian champions Cruzeiro Belo Horizonte for 15 million Euro instead of going as expected to a top European club. The 23-year old attacking midfielder decided in favour of the more lucrative offer. He promptly scored two goals in the match against Sydney. Another Brazilian striker has been signed from Red Bull Salzburg for 11 million Euro – the top goal-scorer Alan who found the net 92 times in 126 games for the Austrian club. World Champion Alberto Gilardino on the other hand has left the club after only a few months. Alan is only 25-years old and, in contrast to Cahill, is an example of the trend that clubs in China’s Super League are in the meantime securing the services of young foreigners. In spending approximately 110 million Euro, the Chinese clubs have invested more money in transfers than ever before. Only the English Premier League spent more in the last transfer period.