Fans return, Chinese Super League season off to strong start

FILE - In this Feb. 28, 2017, file photo, Brazilian player Oscar of Shanghai SIPG makes a gesture during an Asian Champions League group-stage match against Western Sydney Wanderers in Shanghai, China. Just over a week into the Chinese Super League season, Oscar is among the international players who are helping fans forget about the financial problems which plagued the competition ahead of the start. (Chinatopix via AP, File)
·3 min read

Just over a week into the Chinese Super League season, Oscar is among the international players who are helping fans forget about the financial problems which plagued the competition ahead of the start.

Recent international headlines focused on the folding of champion Jiangsu FC, the departure of big-name players and coaches — some stars who'd made the league one of the most talked-about outside Europe — and the imposition of a strict salary cap.

On the opening day, though, and with fans back in the stadiums, the conversation switched to Oscar as the former Brazilian international and record Asian signing became the first player in the league's history to record four assists in a game. He did it as Shanghai Port thrashed Tianjin Tigers 6-1 on April 22.

Oscar, signed for around $90 million from English Premier League giant Chelsea in 2016, helped Marko Arnautovic, who also joined on big money from West Ham United in 2019, score three goals to ensure that Hulk, the popular Brazilian striker who was one of a number of stars to leave the league after last season, was barely missed.

“It was a fantastic performance for the team and Oscar showed what we all know; that he is still a top-class player,” Shanghai Port coach Ivan Leko said. “It was the perfect way to start the season though there is, of course, a long way to go.”

Shanghai was in the groove again Wednesday with Aaron Mooy, the Australian international who arrived from Brighton and Hove Albion last August, setting up Ricardo Lopes to help give the team a 3-1 win over Beijing Guoan. Congo striker Cedric Bakambu, another big-money import from Europe, assisted on Beijing’s goal.

Other players familiar to fans around the world were also in action. Former Manchester United star Marouane Fellaini headed home in the final seconds to give Shandong Taishan a 1-0 win over Guangzhou FC, the eight-time league champions.

Fellaini had been rumored to be leaving China but has pledged his future to Shandong.

“Shandong is one of the best teams in China,” the Belgian star said. “We are continuing the good momentum of last year and our spirits are also very good and I am delighted to be here and looking forward to a great season.”

Guangzhou coach Fabio Cannavaro, who led Italy to the 2006 World Cup, is still without Paulinho as the ex-Barcelona and Brazil player is unable to enter China because of travel restrictions.

The global pandemic also means that games will take place in two hub cities — Guangzhou in the south and Suzhou, near Shanghai, as the league works to reduce travel. There will be no automatic relegation as the number of teams will expand from 16 to 18 in 2021.

Another plus point for the league is that while games in many parts of the world are still playing in empty stadiums, there were 30,000 fans in Guangzhou for the derby between FC and City on the opening day of the season, the biggest crowd in China since 2019.

According to media reports, more than 10,000 tickets for Shanghai’s city derby against Shenhua on May 5 sold in just four minutes on Wednesday, despite the game taking place in Suzhou, more than 100 kilometers (60 miles) away.

Oscar said he was pleased that the 2021 season is underway.

Ahead of the season-opener, he said 2020 “was tough for everyone, but now it is time for us to play.”

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