The spending may have slowed, but world-renowned coaches such as Fabio Capello and Manuel Pellegrini and players like Hulk and Javier Mascherano have the same objective in the 2018 Chinese Super League that kicks off on Friday – stop Guangzhou Evergande from winning an eighth consecutive title.
Guangzhou may not be as dominant as in the past. The team has struggled to replace influential midfielder Paulinho, who left for Barcelona in August. In two 2018 Asian Champions League game so far, Guangzhou is the only one of four Chinese teams without a win, tying with Buriram United of Thailand and Cerezo Osaka of Japan.
“The desire to win titles is still there and it comes from the players,” said Guangzhou coach Fabio Cannavaro. “Players have short careers and want to look at a cupboard full of medals. We are looking forward to a good season and worked hard in winter training.”
While Guangzhou has a history of starting slowly, the Italian is under pressure in his second spell as coach at the club after being fired in June 2015 after just six months. The 2006 World Cup-winning captain was replaced by 2002 World Cup winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who delivered three league titles and one Asian championship before leaving in November. After leading Tianjin Quanjian to third last season, Cannavaro has been given a second chance.
Shanghai SIPG finished second in 2017 and could be Guangzhou’s closest challenger again. Much depends on star striker Hulk, who scored 26 goals in 2017, in his first full season after being signed for around $60 million in the summer of 2016.
Shanghai also has a new coach after Andre Villas-Boas resigned to participate in the Dakar Rally with fellow Portuguese Vitor Pereira ready for the challenge of delivering Shanghai’s first title. “We are on the right path and we are improving,” said Pereira. “It is important that we have a good start.”
The biggest name arrival is Mascherano. The midfielder joined Hebei China Fortune from Barcelona for less than $10 million to link up with fellow Argentine international Ezequiel Lavezzi. Under former Real Madrid coach Pellegrini, Hebei is also chasing a first title.
“We are looking to progress and improve all the time,” said Pellegrini, who led Hebei to fourth in 2017, a best-ever finish. “I think we have strengthened in signing an experienced player like Javier.”
With Tianjin Quanjian, which finished third last season with Brazilian star Alexandre Pato and Belgian international Axel Witsel in the mix as well as Beijing Guoan, Guangzhou could have a fierce fight to take title No. 8.
Competition may also strengthen given the considerable drop in 2018 transfer spending from the 2017 winter transfer window when Chinese teams splashed out more on players than any other league in the world.
Soccer authorities, concerned about the sums involved, intervened to apply a brake on the spending. During the 2017 season, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) introduced a 100 percent tax on the signings of foreign players for a fee of over $7 million.
It is not just a desire to reduce the money being spent but to increase opportunities for young Chinese players. In 2017, the number of foreign players that could be selected for a game was reduced from four to three. In 2018, for every foreign player on the field, clubs have to select one Chinese player under the age of 23.
The biggest signing of the pre-season period was that of Cedric Bakambu from Villarreal in Spain to Beijing Guoan for around $50 million. There were reports that Beijing used the money to free the player from his contract with his Spanish club to make the Congolese international a free agent in order to circumvent the ‘transfer tax’. The CFA announced that it was closely watching any attempt to find a loophole.