Second place, Chinese Super League
By Daniel Rubens
During the Chinese Super League financial boom that’s occurred over the past few years, a couple of teams have risen to prominence domestically thanks to their newfound wealth. Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is Shanghai SIPG. A young club still in its relative infancy, Shanghai SIPG have used a handful of shrewd decisions in recent times to vault itself to new heights in both domestic and continental competition.
The club’s history is a short, but interesting one. In 2000, former Chinese international player and manager Xu Genbao founded a football academy to try to develop a stronger youth football culture in China. He originally had no plans to establish a senior team, but it became apparent over the first few seasons of the academy’s existence that the lack of competition for the young players was an issue. With that realization in mind, Genbao decided in late 2005 to found a first team together with a company called Shanghai Dongya Sports and Culture Center Co. Ltd, with Genbao installed as the new club’s chairman. The side was known as Shanghai Dongya (literally translated to East Asia) Football Club and began play in 2006 under one of the coaches from the academy, Frenchman Claude Lowitz.
The new club was placed in the third tier (known as League Two) of the Chinese football system despite at the time being made of exclusively youth players between 14 and 17 years old. That didn’t seem to hurt the side, though, as the Red Eagles finished seventh in the Chinese League Two while setting numerous records relating to their stunning youth.
Lowitz left the club after the first season and was replaced by a former assistant manager, Jiang Bingyao, but the team didn’t miss a beat. Still the youngest squad in the league, Shanghai Dongya nonetheless ran amok in the third tier, losing just two games en route to a league title and a promotion to the second tier.
That began a rise that has continued to this day. As the club ascended up into the second division, it moved into a bigger stadium, settling in the 65,000-seater Shanghai Stadium in its second season in the league. After finishing sixth in its first season, Dongya placed fourth during its inaugural campaign in the Shanghai Stadium despite still playing exclusively with a U-20 team. During that season, the Red Eagles earned a well-deserved reputation as a youth factory and began to be considered something of a Chinese Manchester United due to both that young talent and Genbao’s widely known desire to create a club that could rival United’s popularity in China.
However, those problems would be overcome a year later when, in 2012, the club — playing under a new name, Shanghai Tellace, which would only last a season — once again surprised those in the division with a sterling campaign. The Red Eagles led the league in goals scored, finish second in goals conceded, and lost just five of 30 games to earn a league title and a berth in the first tier.
Upon arrival in the Chinese Super League, the club again changed its team name to Port Shanghai F.C. under a sponsorship agreement with the Shanghai International Port Group. After surviving relegation in the first season, the group became more involved with the club, acquiring naming rights (hence the SIPG part of the team’s name) while making a big splash by hiring former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson. With the group’s financial backing, Shanghai SIPG went to work in strengthening the squad, bringing in a total of eight new players in the transfer window ahead of the 2015 season, including the most expensive Chinese player ever, Yu Hai. The Red Eagles started the campaign strong and continued to improve over the course of the year, adding Ghanaian star Asamoah Gyan and eventually finishing second, just two points behind champions Guangzhou Evergrande.
That was good enough for a first-ever berth in the Asian Champions League, and the 2016 season would prove to be a successful one. After the purchase of former ACL and CSL Golden Boot winner Elkeson from Guangzhou, SIPG would surprisingly finish first in its Champions League group before facing FC Tokyo in the Round of 16. Trailing 2-1 late in the second leg, Wu Lei — who back in 2006 became the youngest ever player in Chinese football history when he debuted at the age of 14 for the club — found the net to send the club through to the quarterfinal on away goals. They would eventually lose in that round and finish third in the league, but their newfound status in the competition was enough to attract another big-name Brazilian to the club as Hulk joined in the summer transfer window.
A few more massive moves came in the winter window of 2016 as the club strengthened ahead of this year’s campaign. In November, after Eriksson left the club, former Chelsea Tottenham, and Zenit boss Andre Villas-Boas was hired as the Red Eagles’ new manager. He was then followed by two former Chelsea superstars, Portuguese international center back Ricardo Carvalho and Brazilian superstar Oscar. While neither has really taken off since arriving before the season, those additions are signs of clear intent that the club planned to stay at the top of the league.
This season, they’ve done just that while also succeeding in the ACL. With 16 games played of 30, the club is just a point off the top of the table in close pursuit of Guangzhou Evergrande, who the Red Eagles face next weekend. Hulk and Lei have each scored nine goals — Lei’s total is the highest in the league this year for a Chinese player — and added five assists while Oscar has chipped in seven assists despite scoring just one goal so far. They’ve scored five more goals than anyone else in the league, they take more shots than anyone else, and if they keep up their stellar play from the first half of the season, they’ll continue to
Despite this success, there are a few worrying symptoms for the club that could lead to issues down the line. In addition to being the most free-spending club in the country, Shanghai SIPG have established an untoward reputation for hotheadedness this year. This was exemplified by Oscar’s actions on June 18 when he started a brawl as opponents from Guangzhou R&F complained to officials. Oscar twice kicked the ball at opposing players, setting off a melee that ultimately resulted in an eight-game suspension for the Brazilian. It could have further consequences in the future if it leads to unrest among the supporters or players.
For now, though, the Red Eagles have a rosy future. They’re in the running for two trophies, and for a club that’s not even 12 years old, they’ve made some massive strides in recent seasons. However, they need to tread lightly. If circumstances go south, the whole club could come crashing down. Success can be fleeting, and if Shanghai SIPG wants to sustain the upward path its been on, the club will need to be a bit more careful moving forward.