15th place, Chinese Super League
By Daniel Rubens
The English Premier League isn’t the only top-flight football that’s experienced a cash influx recently. Clubs in the Chinese Super League have seen a massive uptick in their bottom lines of late as they seek to improve the standing of the league worldwide. They’ve done so by adding high-quality, foreign stars with the name recognition that the league hopes will help it turn into one of the better
The prime example of this is Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao, a team that was featured on this site last summer during a spending spree that propelled the club to a fifth straight title. With former Tottenham midfielder Paulinho and Colombian striker Jackson Martinez leading the way as their biggest names, Guangzhou appears well on their way to a sixth championship in a row, with a 10-point gap between them and their nearest chasers, Jiangsu Suning.
One other side that spent significant money to try and supplant Guangzhou atop the table has not had that domestic success this season. Shandong Luneng Taishan -- located in Jinan, the 10th-biggest metropolis in the nation -- has had a miserable league campaign thus far despite a run in continental play. In response, Shandong has continued to splash the cash as they try to both stave off the looming shadow of relegation and continue their push for silverware abroad.
Over the course of its history, Shandong Luneng has been one of China’s dominant sides. The club was originally founded as a semi-professional side in 1956 as Shandong Provincial by the government of the local Shandong province. Despite struggling in its early years, Shandong would rise in stature after the Chinese Cultural Revolution, becoming a consistent top-tier side by the end of the 1970s and winning their first trophy in 1979, beating a team from the host city of Beijing in the final of the Chinese National Games (which was considered the largest football tournament in China at the time).
That spurred the club to back-to-back second-place finishes in the national league, but the momentum stalled there. Shandong quickly slipped into the bottom half of the league table, and they were subsequently relegated from the division after the 1989 season. That was immediately followed by another relegation, this time to the third tier.
However, that proved to be just a blip, as the club won the third division title and were promoted back to the second for the 1992 season. During the 1992 campaign, the Chinese FA decided to fully professionalize the nation’s football for the 1994 season, and a third-place finish in the second tier that season was enough to guarantee Shandong a spot in the 1994 Chinese Jia-A League regardless of their 1993 finish. At the end of the 1993 season, in which they finished fourth, the club adopted full professionalism and changed their name to Shandong Jinan Taishan Football Club in preparation for the Jia-A League campaign.
Despite financial problems during its first few professional seasons, Shandong would quickly
The next four years saw a slight downturn, but Shandong again reversed course in 2004, when the Jia-A League was rebranded as the Chinese Super League. That season, with Chinese internationals Li Jinyu and Li Xiaopeng combining for 23 league goals, Shandong finished second in the CSL and lifted both the FA and League Cups. They dipped a bit the following season, but came back with a vengeance in 2006, winning the league title and FA Cup as Jinyu poured in 26 league goals.
That would begin a string of success for the club that’s continued. Shandong Luneng would repeat as title winners in 2008 and 2010, finish runners-up behind Guangzhou in 2013, and hoist the FA Cup again in 2014. All the while, the club’s reserve and youth teams were busy racking up titles, with the reserves having won the last six reserve league titles and the U-15s and U-17s each winning five championships between 2004 and 2010.
After their cup victory in 2014 under Brazilian boss Cuca, Shandong finished third in 2015, qualifying for another AFC Champions League. They were eliminated from the 2015 CL in the group stage, however, which cost Cuca his job. Still, Shandong had the league’s leading scorer in Brazilian Aloisio returning, a new manager with international experience with Brazil in Mano Menezes, and club legend Xiaopeng taking over as his assistant. The future looked as bright as ever.
Then, the 2016 season started, and with it came a severe downturn — at least domestically. After winning two and drawing one of their first five games, Shandong went 10 games without a win, getting outscored 16-7 during that stretch. The skid cost Menezes his job, as he was replaced by former Fulham coach Felix Magath, a man with a long history of success in Europe. That losing streak finally ended Saturday with a shocking win over second-place Jiangsu Suning, but Magath still has to figure out a way to escape from relegation danger, as his new side sit in 15th place, one point from safety, with just over half the season gone.
Meanwhile, as they’ve been scuffling domestically, the club has surprisingly found continental success. After beating India’s Mohun Bagan and Adelaide United to get into the AFC Champions League group stage, Shandong finished second in their group courtesy of a last-day win over Sanfrecce Hiroshima of Japan to gain entrance to the knockout stage for the first time in 11 years. In the Round of 16, Shandong beat Sydney FC on away goals to set up a quarterfinal tie
With both that tie and a relegation battle on the horizon, Shandong made a pair of massive moves this week to strengthen their attack corps. First, on Saturday, as they were busy snapping their skid, the club announced the arrival of Senegalese striker Papiss Cisse from Newcastle after a five-year spell in England in which he scored 37 Premier League goals. Then, on Monday, Shandong went back to the PL for Southampton’s Italian forward Graziano Pelle, fresh off playing in the Euros.
While bringing in the pair is no guarantee of success, it is a massive statement from a club looking to return to the summit of the Chinese football landscape. The side has struggled in attack this season, especially in league play, and adding two strikers with long track records of putting the ball in the net will undoubtedly help that. Both also have experience participating in international competitions and will provide the know-how required for the side to make a deep run in tournament play. Shandong Luneng knows both the trouble and opportunity it faces at the moment, and these new pieces should help the club compete domestically and continentally as it tries to return to the success it’s used to having.