Most windows allow light to shine through them, illuminating something that would otherwise be in darkness, but the Chinese transfer window seems to work in the opposite manner, almost like a two-way mirror. There lies within this huge and mysterious land an amazing footballing world in keeping with the country’s diverse personality, but anyone standing on the outside reading coverage about the game here would be forgiven for thinking the story of Chinese football begins and ends with a massive, twice-yearly shopping spree.
International media tend to focus on the expensive foreign signings as doing so is easy and seems to sell most papers. Hardly any native players are known outside of the country and the generation of players who did make their mark overseas, such as Fan Zhiyi, Hao Haidong and Sun Jihai, have all retired. But there are plenty of reasons not to switch off until the next window opens.
The Chinese Super League season kicks off this weekend and, if you look beyond the dazzling stars and huge transfer fees, you will see a fascinating competition with history and traditions that match many other leagues. On the fixture card this weekend is a traditional blockbuster match – six-time champions Guangzhou Evergrande welcome old foes Beijing Guoan to Tianhe Stadium for a contest that has been key in deciding the destination of the title in recent years.
The clubs are separated by 1,300 miles as well as two very different languages (Cantonese and Mandarin), climates, cuisines and mindsets. Each team represents their side of the great north/south cultural divide in China. Beijingers are known to be fierce; they enjoy a shot – or six – of the local baijiu firewater before games; and they aren’t afraid of confrontation. Their ability to offend with bursts of sharp-tongued jing ma (Beijing cursing) is legendary and they are generally seen as a bunch not to be trifled with.
Guangzhou, which sits on the south coast of China, is home to fans who are mocked for eating mild food and being unable to handle their drink – or any cold weather. Does that sound familiar? Through Chinese football we can see some interesting cultural parallels with places closer to home.
Guangzhou Evergrande fans embrace their distinct identity with a zeal equal to anything seen in the north, proudly hanging a banner in their stadium that reads, in English, “We are Canton”. Other fans accuse them of being glory-hunters – and it is true that their attendances have doubled since the Evergrande Group real estate company invested in the club and helped them win six titles in a row – but they were one of the best supported teams in the country before their sugar daddy owner, Xu Jiayin, arrived in 2009.
Clashes between these two teams are generally exciting affairs featuring some of the best football the league has to offer. Beijing Guoan struggled to finish anywhere near Evergrande last year but their fans will be hoping for a repeat of their visit to Tianhe on the penultimate game of the 2014 season, when a spectacular Shao Jiayi free-kick two minutes from time secured a famous victory and took the title race down to the last day. Evergrande prevailed, but it was the closest they had come to not winning the league since 2009.
Unfortunately, stories such as this one can be hard to hear above the noise about transfers. There is a lack of clear information coming out of China and tabloid reporters know they can link anyone with a move here with impunity; there’s no risk of being contradicted by anyone in China. This is a rather opaque place in general and the football culture is no different. Chinese media often cite unnamed sources, especially for anything remotely controversial, so accountability is low. The Chinese phrase for “a source familiar with the matter” is one of the most common you will read in the football columns; nobody wants to be the one blamed for upsetting the delicate internal politics of many of the clubs.
Even when information is officially confirmed, all may not be as it seems – it is not unheard of for new domestic signings to be unveiled in the obligatory scarf-holding pose, only for the move to be canceled just before the window closes if it means the club can bring someone better in.
This is the state of Chinese football media. Things are unclear at the best of times, even before language differences are factored in. Much of what is reported about foreign players moving to China is quoted from Western news sources, who in turn are often quoting “a source in China”. So both sets of media end up quoting each other in a feedback loop. Things have become even messier now that agents are using offers from “an unnamed Chinese club” as convenient bargaining chips in their negotiations with European clubs.
With information so hard to find – and contradict – a lot of reporters focus on the hubbub around the transfer window. Yet, if they watched Guangzhou Evergrande winning the Asian Champions League for the first time, tuned in for a pulsating Shanghai derby, or even saw the fans of Korean ethnic side Yanbian celebrating their surprise promotion to the Super League in 2015, they would discover some intriguing footballing tales.
A lot of the players who moved here in the transfer window were heavily criticized, but a more magnanimous attitude to Chinese football would be better for all concerned. The top European leagues are far ahead of the Chinese Super League and no amount of money is going to change that in a hurry, so they need not be so defensive. Besides, China makes no secret of the fact that it looks up to European football and respects it.
The game here is far from perfect and has some way to go before it can achieve its ambitions, but it should not be berated for having the audacity to bring in the best players it can. If you want to make a judgment on Chinese football, look beyond the transfer window, focus on the action and discover the stories this huge country has to offer.