The Rise of the Chinese Super League

February 9, 2016

Chinese Super League Logo; By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48967650

Fredy Montero joined Chinese Super League club Tianjin Teda on February 6 for €5 million. Montero, the all-time leading goal scorer for Seattle Sounders FC, left Sporting CP, boyhood club of Cristiano Ronaldo and a team in the Champions League group stages in 2014. It’s not uncommon for players to move away from the top European leagues towards the end of their careers. After winning Chelsea their first and only Champions League title in 2012, Didier Drogba’s next competitive kick of the ball came in China for Shanghai Shenhua, where he joined former Chelsea teammate Nicolas Anelka. But Fredy Montero is 28. Coming into what for many players are the best years of their career, the Colombian decided to ply his trade in China, a move that as recently as two years ago may have been seen as surrender. These days it’s anything but.


Think back to when David Beckham put Major League Soccer on the map when he moved from Real Madrid to the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007. The players that followed him were all seen as older, beyond the age where they could command playing time in Europe, and using their soccer stature to grow the game in places where it was not as popular. In came Thierry Henry to New York, Robbie Keane to Los Angeles, and Kasey Keller and Freddie Ljungberg to Seattle. MLS clubs began playing high profile friendlies in the summer against the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid, and the old veterans began lighting up the league as new passionate fan bases cropped up across the country, especially with the new teams. Then in 2013, the Seattle Sounders brought both Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins to MLS from Tottenham and Levante respectively. The next year, Michael Bradley arrived from Roma to play for Toronto FC, and Julio Cesar arrived for play time to prepare for Brazil’s World Cup campaign that summer, after he was dropped for Robert Green at QPR (still can’t understand what Redknapp was thinking there). In Brazil, 13 members of Jurgen Klinsmann’s 23 man roster played in MLS, and most fans were puzzled when a fourteenth player (Landon Donovan) wasn’t included. Jermaine Jones arrived in New England after the tournament. The next year, Toronto coaxed Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco, more young, burgeoning talent, out of Europe and into the MLS, and that summer the Galaxy brought in Mexico international Giovani dos Santos who does things like this. This summer, Jordan Morris, the former Stanford University striker who has already played in the full USMNT, turned down an offer from Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga to sign a Homegrown contract with Seattle, legitimizing MLS once more. Major League Soccer’s meteoric rise from a footnote in the soccer world to a quality rich league is impressive, but another once looked down upon organization, the Chinese Super League, seems to be growing at an alarming rate.


In the summer of 2015, the Chinese Super League began to flex its muscle, when Guangzhou Evergrande, managed by Brazil’s 2002 and 2014 World Cup manager Luiz Felipe Scolari, swooped for midfielder Paulinho (then 26), member of the 2014 Brazil World Cup squad, and forward Robinho (then 31), member of the 2006 and 2010 Brazil World Cup squads, from Tottenham and AC Milan respectively. Elsewhere in the league, Shanghai Shenhua bought the Senegalese, former Chelsea forward Demba Ba (30) from Turkish club Besiktas, and Shanghai SIPG bought USMNT pantomime villain Asamoah Gyan (then 29) from Al-Ain FC.
This winter, Fredy Guarin made the move from Inter Milan to Shanghai Shenhua for €13 million. The 29 year-old Colombian was a fan favorite at the San Siro, making 108 Serie A appearances in the Nerazzuri midfield during his three and a half seasons at the club as well as 58 appearances for the Colombian national team. Another player to make the leap from Serie A is 28 year-old Ivoirian striker Gervinho from AS Roma to Hebei China for €19 million. Gervinho made 71 league appearances for the club after being sold from Arsenal in 2013, has 71 appearances for the Ivory Coast national team, and was joint-top goal scorer for Ivory Coast at the 2014 World Cup along with Manchester City striker Wilfried Bony, his goals include this beauty against Colombia . Guangzhou Evergrande added to their South American contingent by adding 29 year-old Colombian striker Jackson Martinez from Atletico Madrid for €42 million. Although Martinez was still finding his footing for Los Colchoneros, there is no doubt of his quality, having scored 67 goals for Porto on 89 league appearances. Martinez also has 39 appearances for the Colombian national team, and the big striker will be looking to prove his quality again. 28 year-old Brazilian midfielder Ramires won a Champions League title with Chelsea, scoring the goal that gave Chelsea one foot in the final in the away leg of the semifinal against Barcelona in 2012. He also scored this thunderbolt in September. He made 160 Premier League appearances for Chelsea and has 52 caps for Brazil to his name. Jiangsu Suning signed him for €28 million. Gervinho, Martinez, and Ramires were on teams that qualified for the Champions League knockout stage and still decided to move on to China. Champions League sides need depth, and therefore need to hold onto as many quality players as they can, making the mass moves to China all the more significant. In the case of Guarin, while he may not have played on a Champions League side, he was an often-used piece in his time at Inter. But none of these four men would send shockwaves through the soccer world like the €50 million transfer of Alex Teixeira from Shakhtar Donetsk to Jiangsu Suning did. The 26 year-old attacking midfielder was linked with Premier League teams Liverpool and Chelsea. Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, since taking over the club in 2003, has been both notoriously impatient with managers as well as perfectly willing to splash the cash on top players. Teixeira scored 22 goals for Shakhtar in the first half of the 2015-16 season and with Chelsea’s offense sputtering most pundits assumed that Chelsea would move for him in the winter. To beat out one of the top clubs in Europe for a highly touted player is a big step up for the Super League, and with the mass talent entering the league, the Super League looks to be following the same trend as MLS in quality. The 1994 World Cup sparked a soccer revolution in the States. This transfer window may do the same for China.

Jorge DeNeve
Los Angeles native. Still wondering where the Galaxy went wrong and decided buying Jermaine Jones was a good idea.

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Camille Robert

Well said. Well written. Very interesting.