Arrival of foreign stars back in China suggests late-July kickoff now likely
A week after the Chinese Basketball Association returned to the court, the country’s soccer fans are still awaiting news on when the delayed Chinese Super league season will finally kick off.
A steady stream of foreign players and coaches back to China in recent weeks has heightened expectations of a rumored late-July start for the CSL, which was originally scheduled to begin on Feb 22 until the COVID-19 pandemic forced its postponement.
The latest indication of an imminent kickoff has been the arrival in China of Beijing Guo’an’s French head coach, Bruno Genesio, and the club’s Congolese striker, Cedric Bakambu, over the last week.
On Friday, Bakambu posted a picture of himself at one of Shanghai’s airports on social media, accompanied by the message “Hello Beijing”.
Sports reporter Miao Yuan claims more of Guo’an’s foreign contingent will follow.
“Beijing Guo’an’s head coach Genesio arrived in Shanghai on June 22, and its foreign player Bakambu landed in China today,” Miao wrote on social media on Friday.
“Also, the rest of Beijing Guo’an’s foreign players are waiting for their visas. Right now Genesio is going through a medical quarantine in Shanghai, and the coach is expected to rejoin the team on July 6.
“Two more Guo’an assistant coaches returned with Bakambu. They will return to the team after a 14-day quarantine… Guo’an has been working hard to facilitate the return of all of its foreign players and coaches.”
A temporary ban on most foreign nationals entering China has been in place since late March to prevent imported coronavirus cases.
However, like Guo’an, Dalian Professional has been able to work with authorities to ensure the return of its big-name foreigners－Spanish head coach Rafa Benitez and Venezuelan forward Salomon Rondon－as well as Swedish pair Marcus Danielson and Sam Larsson.
One of the CSL’s most famous imports, Guangzhou Evergrande’s Brazilian midfielder Paulinho, returned to Guangzhou in mid-June.
It’s unlikely that clubs would recall their imported stars without a kickoff date in sight. According to Xinhua, all clubs have learned “from unofficial channels” that the league will resume on July 25. However, just like the CBA, the Chinese Football Association has decided to stage the competition in two hub cities.
PP Sports reported that the 16 CSL teams will be split into two groups, which will be based separately in Dalian, Liaoning province, and Suzhou, Jiangsu province.
Group A in Dalian will be comprised of defending champion Evergrande, Jiangsu Suning, Shandong Luneng, Henan Jianye, Dalian Pro, Guangzhou R&F, Shanghai Shenhua and Shenzhen. The latter club replaces Tianjin Tianhai which in May disbanded due to financial difficulties.
Group B in Suzhou will feature Guo’an, Shanghai SIPG, Wuhan Zall, Tianjin Teda, Chongqing Dangdai, Hebei China Fortune, Qingdao Huanghai and Shijiazhuang Ever Bright.
The CFA was in June reported to be considering a round-robin format followed by a knockout stage to decide the champion, AFC Champions League spots and relegation places. However, these details have yet to be confirmed.
PP Sports reported that many clubs are organizing warm-up matches and intend to head to either Dalian or Suzhou well ahead of the supposed July 25 kickoff date.
Henan head coach Wang Baoshan told media that his team is preparing for a number of scenarios.
“We are confident about the coming season. As for the competition format, we are making preparations for all possibilities. And we will play more warm-up matches to adjust to the pace of playing a round-robin competition,” Wang said on Friday.
“The new format means a bigger uncertainty, and we will change our tactics accordingly. Another test could be the body strength and endurance of our players… Also the strength of a team’s substitute bench will also be a test.”
Hopes of a CSL return have been tempered slightly by the resurgence of the coronavirus in Beijing. The capital reported 14 new domestically transmitted COVID-19 cases on Sunday. From June 11 to 27, Beijing reported 311 locally transmitted confirmed cases.
CFA plans for a late-June start to the season reportedly failed to earn government approval due to inadequacies identified in the governing body’s health and safety measures. The CFA’s COVID-19 consultant, Zhang Wenhong, said earlier this month that the season would not restart until the virus is under control in China.
“The goal of our battle against the virus is to keep cases dwindling close to zero. So we are more cautious and need more time,” said Zhang.