When Tim Cahill announced his move to Shanghai Greenland Shenhua last week he spoke of wanting a “project”, a major factor, he claimed, for his decision not to return to Australia.
Many scoffed, suggesting the move had more to do with money than any great desire to grow football in China. While you cannot ignore the financial component of the deal, the reaction to his decision only serves to reinforce why such a deal is necessary: Chinese football doesn’t yet have global respect.
Speaking to the media at last week’s global New Balance launch, Cahill didn’t shy away from his decision.
“I am always someone who has been a leader, not a follower,” the former New York Red Bulls striker said.
“I am not scared to do something that’s different. I am always ready to jump. There’s method in the madness. I have always embraced different countries when it comes to football and it’s time to jump again.
“China is a great market, it’s one of a number of offers I had. Why China? Why not? [Shanghai is] a great city. I am 35 years old, I can definitely afford to go to these countries to understand football.”
But can one player change the perception of an entire league? The Chinese Super League has seen high profile players come and go, most notably Didier Drogba and Nikolas Anelka, also at Shanghai Shenhua.
According to Mads Davidsen, first team coach and analyst along with U23 coach at Shanghai rivals Shanghai SIPG, that change is already under way.
“It will take some time before people realise that China is developing into the best league in Asia,” he told Football Channel Asia.
“I’m already seeing a change from a ‘retirement’ league to a ‘development’ league. Last year at our club (Guangzhou R&F) we signed three foreigners all under 24 and all of them are now (being) followed by European clubs as they performed (well) last season.
“So I analyse a change in the league and if this continues people will see the same (players moving to Europe) in years to come.”
One player well positioned to judge the rise in China is Montenegrin international Dejan Damjanovic.
Having started his career at the turn of the century in Serbia, the 33-year-old has played across Asia since 2006, first on-loan at Al Ahli in Saudi Arabia before moving to Korea where he played briefly with Incheon United before six successful seasons with FC Seoul where he made his name.
Capped 27 times for his country, Damjanovic moved to China at the start of the 2014 season, signing with Jiangsu Sainty before making the switch to Beijing Guoan later in the season.
“In the beginning (when I first signed) people were surprised, like ‘why China? It’s a step back,’ but over time everybody has changed their opinion,” he told Football Channel Asia.
“China is investing a lot in football and the fans are unbelievable. I’m sure I made the right choice and I’m really enjoying Beijing and the CSL.”
Asked to compare China with Korea, Damjanovic was typically honest.
“The only difference is the players’ character,” he said.
“Both leagues (CSL and K League Classic) are very fast with a lot of contact and running but Korean players have character.
“When things are hard they will push more and they never give up. But in last few years the big problem in the K League is (a lack of) money, and foreigners are leaving the league and automatically the quality is lower.”
Football in China is growing, of that there can be no doubt. Increasingly the clubs are growing in professionalism, especially off-field thanks to the introduction of experience, such as Sven Goran Eriksson and Marcello Lippi, from Europe.
For Damjanovic this importing of knowledge from Europe is the major reason behind the growth in Chinese football in the last few years.
“Honestly a few clubs have high class facilities that you can compare with the best clubs in Europe but generally it’s still lower than Europe,” he said.
“But I see that they are trying to copy things from European clubs and a lot of foreign coaches in China are helping with good advice about these things. Generally they have improved a lot in last few years.
“And good results in ACL and national team show that everything is going in the right direction.”
Davidsen, part of Eriksson’s team that has moved from Guangzhou R&F to Shanghai SIPG this year, agreed and explained how his club are investing in off-field structures to ensure long term success and viability.
“The management are willing to invest and therefore bring in knowledge and experience with Mr. Eriksson and his staff which I’m a part of,” he told Football Channel Asia.
“So our job is to develop the club – the first team, the training curriculum, the winning culture, the performance analyst area, a scouting and recruiting system, set up the youth structure and hopefully build a healthy club for the years to come.
“It is very positive to be a part of as the clubs let us take the football decisions and support our ideas and suggestions.
“So this will also lift Chinese football as better and more experienced coaching staff are coming on, helping and guiding the club owners in the right direction.”
Shenhua are also implementing an overhaul, especially at the youth level, in an effort to put years of mismanagement behind them.
“I think Cahill’s signing has more relevance to Shanghai Shenhua as a club than it does the domestic league as a whole,” said Cameron Wilson, founding editor of Chinese football website Wild East Football.
“It underlines the fact the club are reborn, on a sound new financial footing, and are taking steps towards being one of China’s major clubs again.
“Under Zhu Jun, the previous Shenhua owner, the club didn’t have any formal youth system for many years; an absurdity considering the sums squandered on Anelka’s wages.
“But now the club has brought back Shangahinese football legend Fan Zhiyi to coach the youth, and relaunched its football school.”
All this points to a league and a football culture that is growing every year. What it still lacks and craves, however, is respect and legitimacy.
That won’t come with just one player signing, it is far more complex than that, but Cahill can play an important role in spreading the word about Chinese football and educating a western audience that is ignorant about football in the Middle Kingdom.
“I definitely think I will create a bridge there to help the growth of the game,” the 35-year-old said last week.
It’s a point made also Wilson: “I think Cahill can be a bridge between China and Australia socially.
“I think he can do a lot of good in China, someone like him with a social conscience. He can inspire youth and do a lot to improve the image of the league overall.
“There’s a thriving football culture in China, even if the results of the national team aren’t what everyone wants to see.
“Going forward Australia and China are moving closer together economically and socially via immigration. Football is a common point between both countries and Tim Cahill sits right in the middle of that.”
It’s for that very reason that Cahill’s signing has the potential to be a big game changer for Chinese football.