As the 2016 Chinese Super League season was preparing for its curtain raiser, supporters of Beijing Guoan were as excited by the new campaign as the rest of the country.
After an offseason in which the wider world had awakened to the growing spending power of Chinese clubs due to the arrivals of Alex Teixeira (€50 million to Jiangsu Suning), Ramires (€35m also to Jiangsu) and Jackson Martinez (€42m to Guangzhou Evergrande), among others, Guoan fans were pleased their club had played their part in that process also.
Wearing the green of the capital side this season are Turkey star Burak Yilmaz and Brazilian duo Ralf and Renato Augusto — both internationals, league winners and players of some repute in their own right — for around €20m. However, for the first time in seven years, the name of Croatian defensive midfielder Darko Matic is absent from the squad list. For many, it doesn’t seem right.
After 200 league appearances — a CSL record for a foreign player at one club — Matic was allowed to depart and join North Eastern side Changchun Yatai on a free transfer. The feeling within the club was that in this new big-spending era for China, Matic was not quite up to it at the ripe old age of 35.
For many supporters, Matic’s exit was devastating — the fact that Guoan have endured a horror campaign since his departure has done little to ease their doubts. Direct replacement Ralf has been one of the year’s major disappointments and the 2009 champions lie ninth in the table. Given they have not finished outside the top-half since 2003, it is major cause for concern.
Matic, meanwhile, has become a semi-regular contributor on live broadcasts of the league, using his excellent Chinese language skills and unassuming character to carve out a niche for himself in the media.
For Guoan fans, it is a constant reminder of their loss. The player who epitomised the club’s battling spirit in recent years has left a side bereft of that “never-say-die” attitude. The club are unlikely to admit their mistake, but the supporters would take their idol “Ma5” back in a heartbeat.
With a strict quota of just five foreign players, the wrong squad decisions can have severe consequences. Guoan are now paying the penalty.
Matic’s legend status among supporters is not unique, but few come close to matching his stature in China. While foreign observers may focus predominantly upon the big-name stars, it is lesser known names who have become dearest to locals’ hearts.
Zambia’s James Chamanga is another who is still going strong well into his 30s after nearly a decade in the country, much to the delight of the Liaoning faithful. Indeed, with his two goals over the past weekend he is now joint-third top scorer in the league this season and, at 36, he has shown no signs of slowing up. The 2012 AFCON winner will almost certainly leave China without ever winning a title, but he will be remembered as making a significant impact on the Super League.
Longevity is a rare beast in Asian football, but it can bring great adulation — besides financial reward — as a result. Matic and Chamanga are regarded as having shown the Chinese game respect and are thus acknowledged as “one of our own” by the support. They “get” China.
However, there are players who achieve idolatry in much shorter time and it is rarely the bigger names who seem to inspire such attachment.
Shanghai Shenhua fans have cheered on their fair share of superstar names over the years (Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba for example) and will continue to see big name additions arrive like Fredy Guarin, Obafemi Martins and Demba Ba. Yet, if any can match Syrian striker Firas Al-Khatib for popularity at Hongkou they will be doing very well.
Khatib arrived in the aftermath of the club’s disastrous experiment with Anelka and Drogba, at a time when the club were short of hope. Yet, his all-action displays up front and tireless work rate, combined with a healthy goal scoring record, proved the perfect tonic for the embattled fans. His release from the club in 2013 remains contentious among the club’s support to this day.
Younger fans and new viewers of the league are understandably drawn to the big name arrivals. But those who have followed Chinese football for years are not getting over-excited at the recent rush of imports. Indeed, many turn their noses up at the relentless fawning.
Ramires, Teixeira and Martinez will all doubtless come and go over the next couple of years, just as Drogba, Alessandro Diomanti and Seydou Keita did before them. Very few will leave the tangible impression in the hearts of their club’s support of a Matic, Chamanga or Firas.
Matching their impact should be the aim for all players arriving in China, whatever their status elsewhere. They are the measure for success in the CSL.
As Renato Augusto and Ralf are fast discovering, reputation counts for little once results start going against you.
© 2016 ESPN FC. | This article first appeared on the ESPN FC website on 5 August 2016.