The winter transfer window in China has once again seen headlines generated worldwide as Chinese Super League sides continue to target leading talent from Europe and South America’s top leagues and clubs.
While such decisions impact heavily upon the fortunes of the team, tactical fit or the requirements of the coach are not always the sole consideration. At times, there is a desire to boost the club (or even the owner)’s renown with a high-profile capture which will generate headlines worldwide.
However, it is also fair to say recruitment has been less driven by marketing agendas than equivalent leagues in the USA and Japan.
High Pressure on the Chinese Super League’s Big Name Additions
The expectations upon foreign players in the Chinese Super League are high. With only three (previously four) non-Chinese players on the pitch, there is real pressure on those individuals to make a major difference in each and every game.
Patience is also in short supply when performances are not seen to be meeting the standards demanded. As Alberto Gilardino, Jo and Gaël Kakuta will attest, decisions are often made on a players future within just a few months. None of the above trio survived a second transfer window. Well rewarded they may be whilst they remain in Asia, but job security is not a concept foreign players in the CSL will be overly familiar with.
Playing or coaching in China requires adaptation. There are simply too many distractions and inconveniences to approach each game as one would in La Liga or the Premier League.
Newly-appointed Shanghai SIPG sports director Mads Davidsen has been one of the longest-serving foreign coaches in China over recent seasons, beginning his club career with the reserve side of Guangzhou R&F in 2013.
Talking about this issue, Davidsen wrote on his personal blog in 2015: “You have 0% chance of succeeding without adjusting, respecting and accepting the culture of the country, business and/or organisation (club), you work for.”
Willingness to Integrate is a Must
It is difficult to disagree—either for players or staff. The determining factor in a player or coach’s success in China is rarely talent but instead their attitude and ability to integrate.
One high-profile recent example of an individual who misunderstood the demands of China was former Romania international Cosmin Contra who managed Guangzhou R&F in 2015.
With boasts of his side playing Spanish-style football, Contra promised a lot after an encouraging spell at Getafe. Yet, despite an encouraging opening win in the AFC Champions League, things quickly fell apart.
The climate in Guangzhou is incredibly hot and sticky, with heavy rainfall also common in the summer months. High intensity tiki-taka football in conditions where a simple 10-yard pass along the floor is challenging is unsurprisingly not the simplest of tasks.
Should rumours from the dressing room be believed, Contra’s fiery attitude also led to issues with senior players in the dressing room. More so than most places, East Asia places great importance on the hierarchies in the squad. Senior players frequently lead revolts against managers who attempt to disrupt the status-quo — just ask Vanderlei Luxemburgo or Cuca.
Team Cohesion a Problem in the CSL
English coach Gary White, who enjoyed a successful six month spell at troubled Shanghai Shenxin last season recently opened up to ESPN about some of the unusual problems he faced.
White said: “One of the problems was the disconnect with the Chinese players and the foreign players. I tried to bring them together.
“I locked us all in the video analysis room and I told them we are not leaving until we are on the same page. I threw down boxing gloves and said that they could go for it if they wanted but we are leaving this room as one team, as a Shanghai Shenxin family.”
For players the same demands exist and it is unsurprising that it has largely been South American and African players who have shone over recent seasons. In attacking areas in particular, it is the foreign imports who are expected to take complete responsibility for creating and converting chances. For many used to the holistic team systems of Europe, it is a difficult adaptation.
Mixed Performances from Big Name Foreign Signings
Nicolas Anelka is an obvious example of a player who struggled to adapt to the increased expectation upon individual contributions in China, scoring just three goals in his one full campaign at Shanghai Shenhua.
For former Bundesliga top-scorer Lucas Barrios, Gilardino, Robinho, Sammir or Guillaume Hoarau there are no such excuses. However off-pitch factors behind such failings are numerous.
Former Scotland international Derek Riordan told the Scottish Sun of his 2011 stint at Shaanxi Chanba: “I was out there and it was probably the longest five months of my career. It’s not just me. Guys like Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka went out there and didn’t last long — and they were on absolute fortunes!
“The money is good, no doubt about that. They gave me an interpreter as well. But from a football and a lifestyle point of view, I would advise against it.”
There are many factors which come into a players’ ability to succeed with the infrastructure of the city and club hugely important. But it can prove impossible to fully predict how a player will react to months in hotels, often away from their family, in a country where everything is unfamiliar.
Not every high-profile addition disappoints. Paulinho has been hugely influential at Guangzhou Evergrande over the past two seasons, Tim Cahill adjusted to life in Shanghai and Frédéric Kanouté was a popular figure at Beijing Guoan. There have been many other successes.
Yet it is the likes of Darko Matić, Elkeson, James Chamanga and Roda Antar have set the standards foreign players in China must meet and it is their names who will live long in the memory of the local support—rather than the Anelkas and Robinhos.
Any new addition who assumes that success in the Chinese Super League will be a walk in the park is only destined to fail.