SHANGHAI (AP) -- For Chinese Super League club Shanghai Shenhua, the new season has brought new optimism.
After several years of turmoil that saw the team stripped of its 2003 CSL title in a match-fixing investigation and foreign stars Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka depart midway through their contracts during a shareholder dispute, Shenhua is finding success again on the pitch, with three wins to start the season.
The players have an obvious chemistry, too -- even if they can't always understand one another.
At a recent practice in Shanghai's sprawling suburbs, Shenhua's latest marquee signing, Australia international Tim Cahill, bantered with Colombian captain Giovanni Moreno and several Chinese teammates in a mix of English, Chinese and Spanish. The team's translators, meanwhile, got a work-out as the goalkeeper coach, Juan Mesquida Garcia, barked rapid-fire instructions in Spanish, and the new manager, Francis Gillot, gave interviews to the media in French.
Shenhua is emblematic of the new and improved Chinese Super League -- it's increasingly globalized, brimming with newfound professionalism and flush with cash, thanks to its deep-pocketed owner, Greenland Group, one of China's largest real estate developers. The product on the pitch is becoming more watchable, too.
"People aren't familiar with the Chinese league -- they judge it without knowing anything about it. But when they watch the matches, they realize they are good quality," said Gillot, the former manager of Bordeaux.
"I see Chinese players who are at a very, very high level and they could play today in the French Ligue 1," France's elite division.
What a difference a few years makes. Chinese soccer used to be difficult to enjoy as a fan -- the CSL was mired in corruption scandals and uninspired play, prompting Chinese state television to stop broadcasting games, sponsors to pull out and attendance to flag.
The league's mismanagement had a knock-on effect with the national team, as well. China suffered a number of humiliating defeats, including a 5-1 loss to a Thai side comprised mainly of junior players in 2013 that prompted spectators to riot outside the stadium, shouting "disband the national team!"
Just when it seemed Chinese soccer couldn't sink any lower, the government decided it had seen enough. A corruption crackdown shook up the CSL, resulting in the arrests of dozens of top-level officials, national players and referees on match-fixing charges.
And suddenly, with credibility at least partially restored, sponsors and investment returned in a big way, along with the sport's disillusioned fans.
Guangzhou's club experienced perhaps the biggest turnaround: relegated to China's second division in 2010 as punishment for alleged match-fixing, the team was purchased by big-spending real estate group Evergrande, signed Italy World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi and high-priced foreign players like Argentinian Dario Conca, and three years later became the first Chinese team to win the Asian Champions League trophy.
Last year, the team got another boost when Chinese online sales behemoth Alibaba purchased a 50 percent stake for $192 million (??179 million). It also announced it would set up football academies for young Chinese players in Spain and the Netherlands.
Now, every team in the league wants to replicate the Evergrande model. According to FIFA, during the recent winter transfer window, Chinese Super League clubs spent a record $85.5 million (??79.5 million) on foreign players -- the third-highest total in the world and more than five times what they spent in 2013.
Evergrande were again the biggest spenders, paying a CSL-record $16.2 million (??15 million) for Brazil international Ricardo Goulart, but other clubs also had flashy deals, most notably Shanghai SIPG, which signed Conca for a reported $10.8 million (??10 million) per year and hired former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson as coach.
Conca's salary has not been confirmed by his club, but if true would be similar to the wages received by Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
"Suddenly, everyone buys top foreigners," said Mads Davidsen, a Danish assistant coach at Shanghai SIPG. "When I came here (in 2012), the foreigners on CSL teams didn't have that good a level. Now it's extremely difficult to come here as a foreigner, you have to have a high level. All of this has helped lift the league."
The league's top three scorers this season are all Brazilians, with Shanghai Shenhua's Paulo Henrique leading the table with four goals in four games. None of the top eight scorers are Chinese.
Teams are paying attention to physical training, analytics and scouting -- things that were formerly afterthoughts, he said. And the pace of play is much faster.
"One of problems was the tempo, the Chinese players played too slow," Davidsen said. "They got a shock how fast the game is when they played at the international level."
Shenhua midfielder Zhang Lu can see a difference on the national team already, even though he was only just called up in March.
"The national team was rebuilt last year with fresh blood. The tactics are now closer to the European style, with higher speed and more balance and discipline," he said through a translator before practicing with Shenhua.
After a surprise run to the quarterfinals of the Asian Cup in January, China looked strong in draws with Tunisia and Haiti last month as it prepares for the Asian qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup, starting in June. China has only qualified for the World Cup once in 2002 and failed to score a goal in three losses.
With backing from the country's most powerful football fan, Chinese President Xi Jinping, the government is also investing in the long-term development of the sport, recently unveiling a reform plan to expand soccer programs at schools across the country.
American Tom Byer, who gave Japanese soccer a major boost by developing a nationwide grassroots training program, was poached by the Chinese Football Association two years ago to do the same here. He's in charge of the first phase of training for up to 6,000 soccer instructors that starts in July.
Byer said there's a misconception that China lacks the sports fields to develop soccer at the grassroots level, but he believes the facilities are actually better than what he sees in Japan. The problem is that China lacks a football culture that encourages kids to start playing at a very young age.
"This isn't just to put China in the World Cup," he said. "It's basically an attempt to put sports, in general, back inside the school system."
Rowan Simons, head of China ClubFootball, an amateur soccer network in Beijing with 4,000 children, said the reform plan has the potential to be a major turning point if the government truly commits to the long-term process.
"It changes what has been a fatal short-termism, leaders being appointed and requiring results in the few years they'll be there, and discounting any plans that take longer than that," he said.
"Football reform has been tried many times in China, but nothing of this scale."
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