Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by a growing number of Chinese Super League clubs in 2016, Guangzhou Evergrande continue to dominate, winning a sixth straight title on Sunday.
Luiz Felipe Scolari made it two championships since arriving in June 2015 as the club were held 1-1 by Yanbian Funde but moved seven points clear of Jiangsu Suning in second with two games remaining.
Guangzhou have dominated most of the season, helped by Brazilian internationals Paulinho, who scored against Yanbian, and Ricardo Goulart, the league’s leading scorer, as well as a number of top Chinese players.
“Guangzhou are a worthy champion for sure,” said Mads Davidsen, assistant coach at fourth-placed Shanghai SIPG.
“This is the sixth title in a row, so no doubt they are still the strongest team in China.”
Despite the dominance, the signs are promising for the Chinese Super League.
The overall average attendance is set to finish close to the 25,000 mark this season, up from just over 22,000 in 2015. Once again, it is the highest in Asia.
“The fever here for football is something I have not seen before,” Choi Yong-soo, the South Korean coach of Jiangsu, was quoted as saying by Fifa. “The stadium and the fans, it’s all huge.”
Chinese clubs such as Guangzhou, Jiangsu, Shanghai SIPG and Hebei CFFC spent over US$400 million in the winter transfer window on stars such as Alex Teixeira, Ramires, Jackson Martinez and Ezequiel Lavezzi. In the summer, Shanghai spent more than US$60 million on Brazilian striker Hulk.
Choi believes that all the investment will make a difference.
“The infrastructure is well-established and the management system of the club is well-organised,” he said.
“They essentially have laid out the groundwork for further growth. It is an indisputable fact that Chinese football is developing at an unprecedented pace.”
The season also saw a number of prominent foreign coaches depart and arrive. Former AC Milan and Juventus boss Alberto Zaccheroni and ex-Brazil head coach Mano Menezes were fired in the first half of the season by Beijing Guoan and Shandong Luneng, respectively.
Menezes was replaced by former Bayern Munich boss Felix Magath, while ex-Real Madrid and Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini took over Hebei CFFC in August.
Scolari, who has lost just three league games in his time in China, is one of three coaches in the running to be named Chinese Super League coach of the year, along with Spaniard Gregorio Manzano of Shanghai Shenhua and Henan Jianye’s Jia Xiuquan.
“I want to say thank you to the players for their efforts and the fans for supporting us so well,” said Scolari.
“This win was not easy. The league is getting tougher all the time and so it is very satisfactory to win the title once again.”
Davidsen agrees that standards are rising. “We now have six or seven quite equal teams as Jiangsu, Shenhua and Hebei has stepped up this season,” said the Dane, adding that big-spending Tianjin, promoted from the second tier with coach Fabio Cannavaro, will continue to invest in the top tier ahead of 2017.
“Tianjin will probably finish in the top half as they have massive finances.”
Scolari is expected to leave Guangzhou at the end of the season though the Brazilian refused to comment on his future on Sunday.
Marcello Lippi, who led Guangzhou to three championships from 2012 to 2014, had been set to return before it was announced on Saturday that the Italian had been appointed as the national team head coach.
The appointment was warmly received as an up-and-down year for the national team enters its final weeks. In March, China made the third round of qualification for the 2018 World Cup for the first time since 2002. One point from the first four games in Group A triggered the resignation of Gao Hongbo on October 11.
Lippi will take control of China for the first time against Qatar on November 15. His first activity as the national team boss was to go and watch former club Guangzhou secure yet another title.