How the Chinese Super League Overcame COVID

When the Coronavirus began spreading in Wuhan in December of 2019, little did we know, or anticipate, that, over the course of the next twelve months, it would flip our everyday life on its head. From lockdowns, quarantine, and public health emergencies to working from home, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our world, perhaps forever.

In the first few months after the outbreak, as countries and its citizens were scrambling to come to grips with this new, depressing reality of seemingly never-ending isolation, sports everywhere came to a screeching halt. Football leagues were suspended or canceled altogether, players were forced to isolate and train from home, and during the period between March and May, it seemed as though the world had stopped spinning.

Eventually, however, the wheels to bring about a “return to normality” began turning. In Europe, the Bundesliga was the first major league to come back behind closed doors and the Premier League soon followed suit; the Belarussian Vysheyshaya Liga, meanwhile, didn’t even bother stopping and soldiered on through the pandemic despite public disapproval from some of its players.

Now, almost a full year after the first cases of the virus were reported, normalcy still hasn’t resumed fully, and it probably won’t for a few more months or even years. Although fans have been allowed back into stadiums in the US and for a while in the Bundesliga, too, it’s still not the same, is it?

Shifting our perspective eastward, back to where it all began, it has been a similar story, but with markedly more positive results. Asia – in particular East Asian and ASEAN countries – dealt with the pandemic significantly better than the West. The K League returned with much deserved (online) fanfare, as millions upon millions tuned in to watch the season opener between Jeonbuk and Ulsan – the former has since pipped the latter to the domestic double – and even spectators were eventually allowed back into stadiums. In Vietnam, the country with perhaps the single most effective COVID response on the planet, the league resumed as if nothing ever happened, with tens of thousands (over)packing stadiums to watch their beloved teams – the V.League season just finished with Viettel ending the hegemony of city rivals Hanoi FC.

The J League later followed in South Korea’s footsteps, the A-League set up a bubble, and, of course, the Chinese Super League, the topic we will dig into later, was able to start its season, too.

But it certainly wasn’t all smooth sailing, even in countries that were unquestionably successful in their pandemic response. South Korean fans were barred from stadiums after infection numbers began spiking again. In Vietnam, the league was stopped altogether after a minor outbreak. Clubs in Thailand have had a tough time managing the financial burden of the break in play. A perpetual back and forth in Central Asia meant that leagues were constantly stopping and starting. Al-Hilal, the reigning champions of Asia, were kicked out of the AFC Champions League after being unable to name a big enough squad for their clash with Shabab Al Ahli and the Eastern division of the Champions League hasn’t even resumed play yet!

The provenance of the pandemic, Wuhan – home to Super League outfits Wuhan Zall on the men’s and Wuhan Jianghan University on the women’s side – and the rest of China rapidly dealt with the virus, as The Lancet’s Talha Burki reports:

“Wuhan was placed under a strict lockdown that lasted 76 days. Public transport was suspended. Soon afterwards, similar measures were implemented in every city in Hubei province. Across the country, 14,000 health checkpoints were established at public transport hubs. School re-openings after the winter vacation were delayed and population movements were severely curtailed. Dozens of cities implemented family outdoor restrictions, which typically meant that only one member of each household was permitted to leave the home every couple of days to collect necessary supplies. Within weeks, China had managed to test 9 million people for SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan. It set up an effective national system of contact tracing.”

Thus, China managed to keep its reported number of total infections below 100 thousand, despite its massive population. With that said, the pandemic did seriously derail the football calendar, though. The CSL was initially scheduled to start in late February but had to be delayed; as a result, Chinese teams were also unable to compete in the Champions League up until now.

Once the outbreak was contained, plans to commence the football season were forged. A new World Cup-style format was developed, two host cities were chosen, and the league was split up into two groups. Group A, playing in Dalian, featured defending champions Guangzhou Evergrande, 2019 FA Cup winners Shanghai Shenhua, Jiangsu Suning, Rafa Benítez’s Dalian Pro, Shandong Luneng, Shenzhen FC, Evergrande’s city rivals R&F, and Henan Jianye.

Group B, in the host city of Suzhou, contained Champions League contestants Beijing Guoan and Shanghai SIPG, promoted sides Shijiazhuang Ever Bright and Qingdao Huanghai, and also Chongqing Dangdai, Hebei China Fortune, Tianjin TEDA, and finally Wuhan Zall. 

After months of negotiations, all clubs agreed to pay cuts for their players and staff members, but the extent to which these reductions were actually enforced is not fully known. Foreign players and managers like Marouane Fellaini, Salomón Rondón, et al. had to complete a mandatory period of quarantine upon entering the country, but once everything was set-up in the two host cities and teams were able to get settled, the start of the season drew closer at last, five agonizing months after it was initially slated to begin.

Finally, on July 25, the first ball was kicked as Evergrande defeated Shenhua 2-0, thanks to a Wei Shihao brace. Over the course of the next two months, the league’s protagonists faced each other twice to determine who would battle for the title and who would fight for survival in the second stage of the tournament. A month after the start of the CSL, the much shorter Women’s Super League season also kicked off; after less than two months it concluded with Wuhan and captain Wang Shuang unexpectedly taking home the championship.

Wuhan celebrate their title after defeating defending champions Jiangsu (Chinese Football Association)

The only real surprise in Group A of the men’s Super League was just how bad Dalian were, finishing second from bottom; Guangzhou Evergrande, Jiangsu Suning, Shandong Luneng, and Shanghai Shenhua qualified for the championship stage. Group B, the weaker of the two, was a bit more open. Shanghai SIPG and Beijing Guoan made up the top two – no surprises there – but Chongqing Dangdai and Hebei China Fortune, the teams that rounded out the top four, both finished just four points off Beijing. When you take into consideration that last season a gap of 30+ points separated Beijing in 2nd from Chongqing and Hebei in 10th and 11th, respectively, then that is quite a stunning development. Tianjin TEDA finished bottom of Group B as the only team in the league without a victory to their name.

After a short break, the knockout stages kicked off, to determine the final league table. Tianjin used that break in play, and the month of September more broadly speaking, smartly, signing Tiquinho Soares from Porto, veteran Brazilian forward Sandro Lima, and they took Uzbek star Odil Akhmedov on loan from SIPG, who had just bought Aaron Mooy and needed to open up a foreigner spot. As a result, Tianjin surprisingly beat Shenzhen and Dalian before falling to Henan, meaning that, despite being the only CSL team in history(!) to have a winless regular season, they ended up finishing 10th.

Funnily enough, Henan, the team that beat Tianjin in the playoff to decide who would finish 9th and 10th, also finished bottom of their respective group, with just six points and only one win to their name. So, in conclusion, the two worst regular season sides actually ended up being the best teams during the relegation stage. On the other side of the bracket were Shijiazhuang Ever Bright and Wuhan Zall; the former was automatically relegated, while the latter will face League One runners-up Zhejiang Energy Greentown in the relegation playoff. Changchun Yatai, spearheaded by golden boot winner and former USL and MLS striker Tan Long, will be automatically promoted after winning League One.

In the championship stage, Evergrande marched straight to the finals, easily brushing aside Hebei China Fortune and Beijing Guoan along the way. Meanwhile, the other sides weren’t quite as dominant; Beijing, Jiangsu, and SIPG barely managed to squeak past their quarter-finals opponents. The losers of the quarters then fought for places 8th-5th; despite there being not much to play for, both ties were dramatic affairs with Shandong Luneng defeating Hebei China Fortune after extra time and Chongqing Dangdai beating Shanghai Shenhua 10-9 after an epic penalty shootout. Shandong then pipped Chongqing to 5th place, while Shenhua battered Hebei 5-1 on aggregate in the battle for 7th.

With Guoan losing to Evergrande, the fixtures between Jiangsu and SIPG would decide who would go to the finals and who would face Beijing in the battle for third place. A thrilling, back-and-forth first leg ended in a stalemate, as Alex Teixeira’s opener for Jiangsu was canceled out by an extremely unfortunate own goal from Zhang Cheng – seriously, go find the highlights on YouTube, it’s a ridiculous own goal. What made this draw an even bitterer pill to swallow was the fact that SIPG had been reduced to ten men 20 minutes earlier when Mirahmetjan Muzepper was sent off – on an interesting but perhaps controversial side note given the political situation, Muzepper was the first Uyghur to feature for the Chinese national team when he came on as a substitute vs Qatar in 2018.

The second leg ended all square, too, and it even had another red card in it as well, this time for Jiangsu, but nevertheless, they still managed to sneak past SIPG in extra time, thanks to Luo Jing’s amazing strike in the 106th minute. This result meant that 2018 CSL champions SIPG would have to battle it out with Beijing for that coveted last Champions League spot.

After a thrilling first leg, that saw Beijing come away with a 2-1 victory, the second leg finished 1-1, meaning that there will be no Oscar, Arnautovic, Mooy, and Hulk in the Asian Champions League next season unless SIPG or Jiangsu win the FA Cup – a daunting, nigh on impossible task for the former as they will be in Qatar for the resumption of the Champions League when the FA Cup starts back up; which players – if any at all – will feature in the cup has not yet been revealed.

In the big game, the final – or, well, the finals – Guangzhou were awaiting Jiangsu in what was a mouthwatering prospect. Elkeson, Paulinho, and Talisca going up against Miranda, Alex Teixeira, and Éder. The defending champions, coached by none other than Fabio Cannavaro versus a Jiangsu side managed by one of Asia’s most decorated coaches in Cosmin Olăroium. But, inevitably, the first leg didn’t quite live up to expectation, ending in a scoreless draw.

The second leg, however, provided plenty of fireworks. Teixeira hit Guangzhou on the counter right on the stroke of half time and was brought down by the last man, He Chao, who was subsequently sent off; the ensuing free kick by Éder deflected off Paulinho and into the back of the net. Just two minutes after the restart, Teixeira got on the scoresheet himself after some questionable defending. Wei Shihao pulled one back for the reeling champions in the 60th minute, but it was in vain as Jiangsu held on to win their first-ever Chinese Super League title.

Jiangsu Suning players celebrate their championship (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Once the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, China managed to not only successfully return to normality, but it put on a spectacular football season that culminated in a final that will live long in the memory of Jiangsu fans.

“This season, the Super League attracted a total of 389 million TV viewers, an increase of 20.8% over the same period last season. It is worth mentioning that the cumulative number of TV viewers is 1.65 billion, an increase of 37.4% over the same period last season,” the league announced on Friday.

An increase in TV viewership was to be expected with supporters only being allowed back into stadiums during the latter stages of the tournament, but it is nevertheless a promising sign for the future of the league. Despite a global pandemic, interest in Chinese football is as potent as ever; let’s hope that the CSL can use this – and the fact that the 2020 season also saw an increase in playing time for U23 players – as a springboard for more growth and development in the next few years. Reducing pay inequality, making the league stronger and more appealing, and churning out better players for the national team has long since been a desideratum.

With the AFC Champions League still to be decided, who’s to say that Chinese football won’t yet have more reasons to celebrate in 2020.

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