Since its inception in 2004, the Chinese Super League (CSL) has been the top division in Chinese football. Although the league has a strict quota on the number of foreign players that can be registered with each club, the CSL has increasingly been able to attract some of football’s biggest names. Join us as we take a look back over the years and highlight some of the most successful CSL imports, and some of the transfers the league would probably rather forget.
The Success Stories of CSL
Name: Dario Conca
Years in China: 2011-2013, 2015-2017
Teams: Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao, Shanghai SIPG
Known for: Being the first real superstar of the Chinese Super League.
Quite often, we define a league by its superstars. La Liga has Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Paris Saint Germain light up Ligue 1 with the world’s most expensive player in Neymar. For the CSL to develop, it was always important to have its own marquee players, and while it now boasts a whole host of super-expensive imports from Europe, like Hulk and Oscar, the league’s first superstar actually came from much more humble origins.
When Dario Conca arrived at Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao for the relatively modest fee of USD 10 million, it went largely unreported in the international media. The Argentine playmaker was uncapped for his country and arrived directly from South America, where he had been playing for Brazilian side Fluminense.
To watch Conca playing in the CSL was like watching a poor man’s Messi, which would be a decidedly backhanded compliment if compared to any other player. As the Guangzhou’s number 10, he pulled all the strings for his side and seemed to decide games almost single handedly. During his time in China, Conca was the league’s undoubted superstar.
Over three seasons, Conca played 99 games, scored 54 goals and provided countless assists for his teammates. He later returned to the CSL with Shanghai SIPG, where he continued to show what a player he could be. But it is for his time at Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao that he will be thought of most fondly in China.
Years in China: 2015 - 2017
Teams: Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao
Known for: Proving China is not a graveyard for football careers.
Like many players before him, Paulinho was accused of chasing the money when he swapped the English Premier League for the CSL. When he left Tottenham Hotspur to sign with Guangzhou Evergrande for USD 16.8 million, the player insisted it was for footballing reasons. However, commentators assumed this was all part of the spiel he was prompted to say.
Yet under World Cup winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, Paulinho looked like a completely different player to the one that had struggled to even get into a match day squad at Tottenham Hotspur. He became a midfield general for the Guangzhou side, and in three years helped his team win two league titles, one domestic cup and the Asian Champions League.
Paulinho’s performances in the CSL were rewarded with an unexpected transfer to Spanish giants FC Barcelona for an eye-watering USD 48 million. Paulinho has continued to prove his doubters wrong in Spain, where he has been an integral part of a side that is already running away with La Liga after only half a season.
Although Paulinho’s spell in China was relatively brief, his performances and subsequent move may well be seen as a watershed moment. His time at Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao shows that coming to play in China is not necessarily part of an irreversibly downwards trajectory. Young players looking to further their careers may take note.
Name: Marcelo Lippi
Years in China: 2012 - 2014, 2016 - Present Day
Teams: Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao, China National Team
Known for: Being Chinese club football’s most successful coach.
The biggest success story in the CSL is arguably not a player at all, but a coach. Marcelo Lippi arrived as manager of Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao in 2012 with a big reputation. At club level he had won five league titles and one European Cup with Juventus. He later cemented his status as a world-class coach when he masterminded a World Cup win in 2006 with an Italian side that was in disarray after the Calciopoli scandal.
Unlike many of those that came before and after him in China, however, Lippi lived up to the hype. His trophy haul says it all. Under the Italian, Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao won three consecutive CSL titles and became the first ever Chinese side to win the Asian Champion’s League in 2013.
In 2014, Lippi stepped down from his role at Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao but, with team China in a mess after a dismal start to their World Cup qualifying campaign, he was appointed coach of the national side in 2016. Lippi will always be remembered around the globe as the coach that won the World Cup with Italy in 2006. But he will go down in China as a hero of the domestic game.
Name: Nicolas Anelka
Years in China: 2012 - 2013
Teams: Shanghai Shenhua
Known for: Living up to his reputation as Le Sulk.
Nicolas Anelka would probably argue that his reputation as a difficult footballer deflects from his successes as a player. After all, he scored over 200 career goals and won league titles in Italy and England as well as a Champions League with Real Madrid and a European Championship with the French national side. On the other hand, he also made a habit of getting into hot water for behavior such as celebrating goals using anti-Semitic gestures and saying things to his manager during a World Cup that are far too offensive to reproduce here. It was this kind of behavior that saw the nickname “Le Sulk” follow him throughout his career.
So when Anelka signed for Shanghai Shenhua, it seemed like a recipe for disaster. And while it did end as predicted, this time Le Sulk may be able to claim he was not totally to blame.
Anelka was brought to Shanghai Shenhua by his compatriot manager Jean Tigana. But soon after he arrived, Tigana’s was fired. Suddenly, Anelka found himself at an unknown club in a strange country. In the Frenchman’s defence, he stepped up and helped to coach the team while they searched for a new manager. As the search dragged on and the players were kept in the dark over what was happening, Anelka ran out of patience and walked out on the club. As reports of unpaid salaries circulated, a much clearer picture of the mess at the club began to emerge.
It was a shame for CSL fans that they didn’t get to see more of Anelka, as he was a genuinely gifted footballer. After a return of 3 goals in 22 games, however, it’s fair to say China did not see the best of Le Sulk.
Name: Jackson Martinez
Years in China: 2016 - Present Day
Teams: Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao
Known for: Being the most expensive reserve team player in the history of football.
At the start of 2016, Jackson Martinez moved from Atletico Madrid to Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao for USD 50 million, the most expensive football transfer in Asia ever at that time. By the end of 2017, the Colombian striker has found himself languishing in the club’s reserves.
This was not how it was meant to go down. Martinez had built up a reputation as a goal machine in Europe after scoring 94 goals in 143 games for FC Porto. An underwhelming season at Atletico Madrid followed, but Martinez received an offer from AC Milan before deciding to come to China.
A slightly disappointing return of 4 goals in 10 games saw Martinez ousted out of the side by rival strikers Alan and Ricardo Goulbart. As the Colombian continued to struggle to make his way back into the first XI, he found himself out of the squad altogether. The Guangzhou side was limited to three foreigners, and Martinez soon found himself fourth choice.
Whether it is with Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao, another CSL side, or a move back to Europe, there is still time for Martinez to resurrect his career. For the time being, however, he is the most expensive reserve team player in the history of the game. It’s a superlative, at least.
Name: Ezequiel Lavezzi
Years in China: 2016 - Present Day
Teams: Hebei Fortune
Known for: Making ill-advised jokes about his new Chinese employers.
Don’t get me wrong, Ezequiel Lavezzi is a good footballer. The Argentinean made a reputation for himself as a dangerous wing forward over almost a decade in Europe with first Napoli and later Paris Saint Germain. The thing is, you would never mention him in the same breath as Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo and he was never going to win the Ballon d’Or.
The whole football world raised a collective eyebrow then when Hebei Fortune signed Lavezzi on a two-year contract worth a reported USD 62 million. Just to break that down, that is USD 31 million a year, USD 2.5 million a month, or USD 650,000 a week. To make it painfully clear, it works out as around USD 92,000 a day, USD 3,800 an hour, and around USD60 per minute.
So when you’ve just become the best-paid footballer in the world, the last thing you ought to do is go on social media and make a racist joke about the people from the country you’ve moved to. Yet, that’s exactly what Lavezzi did when posing for a team photo with a slanted eyed gesture. It probably didn’t help either that Lavezzi went his first 10 matches without scoring a goal.
Lavezzi apologized for the photo incident and since then things have gone better for the Argentine striker, who has bagged 20 goals in 27 games in 2017.
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