Sky Really is the Limit

CSLYesterday, Sky announced that they would be broadcasting matches from the Chinese Super League (CSL) until the end of the 2018 season. With that in mind, The Mumbler has decided to give a bit of an insight into what lies ahead for the UK based viewers…

Firstly, this deal has most likely been struck on the back of huge investment by CSL clubs, particularly during the last 12 months. Some of the new arrivals can be found below with those familiar to the UK audience in bold:

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Transfer fees gathered from

Despite the sizeable amount of money spent on foreign players, the league’s rules limit how many are allowed in each squad. Since 2009, teams have been allowed to contain five foreign players, including one from the Asian Football Confederation (AFA). But only four of those five players, including the AFA player, are able to be on the field of play at any one time. For example, Lavezzi, Gervinho, M’Bia and Kakuta can’t all play at the same time. Prior to Lavezzi’s injury, it was Kakuta who had to settle for a place on the bench, often replacing one of the other three foreign players.

Obviously the purpose of this rule was to ensure local player development and that also includes only Chinese goalkeepers being permitted to play.

The issue with the approach of most CSL sides is that they’ve gone top heavy in their transfer dealings. Of the 25 players listed above, only one is a defender (Brazil international, Gil). Clubs like to go for names ahead of practicalities which leads to some of the foreign arrivals suffering from a lack of quality service, such as Pelle – who cut a frustrated figure during his latest match.

Wu Lei

China’s Wu Lei hoping to avoid the challenge.

That has natural implications on not only the national team in terms of attacking players coming through but it also dictates the winner of the MVP award. A Chinese player hasn’t won the award since 2007 and that led to the introduction of the top Chinese scorer award in 2011. Wu Lei – China’s biggest football star who made his professional debut at 14 – plays for Sven Goran Eriksson’s Shanghai SIPG and has claimed the last three seasons.

Established foreign imports have seen a rise in attendances and standard of play, but the quality of football is still behind the top European divisions, including the Championship in England. Teams in China seem to benefit most from balls into the box or counter-attacks and the games can often appear open in terms of space. Unfortunately, where a top European side would be ruthless and clinical, CSL teams often lack the ability to make the right decisions needed to capitalise. As a result, watching a CSL game can be quite anti-climatic given the number of squandered opportunities to create good chances.

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any goals, with only the Bundesliga having a better rate of goals per game than the CSL. The table below is based on the last five seasons after 2011 marked the anticorruption movement instigated by the Chinese Government.


LEAGUE 2011 (11/12) 2012 (12/13) 2013 (13/14) 2014 (14/15)

2015 (15/16)

CSL 2.35 2.63 (+11.9%) 2.63 (0%) 2.75 (+4.6%) 2.8 (+1.8%)
MLS 2.6 2.64 (+1.5%) 2.62 (-0.8%) 2.86 (+9.2%) 2.76 (-3.6%)
EPL 2.81 2.8 (-0.4%) 2.77 (-1.1%) 2.57 (-7.8%) 2.7 (+5.1%)
La Liga 2.76 2.87 (+4%) 2.75 (-4.4%) 2.66 (-3.4%) 2.74 (+3%)
Bundesliga 2.86 2.93 (+2.4%) 3.13 (+6.8%) 2.75 (-12.1%) 2.82 (+2.5%)
Serie A 2.56 2.63 (+2.7%) 2.73 (+3.8%) 2.69 (-1.5%) 2.58 (-4.3%)

*Despite the CSL always increasing its rate, this current campaign is down to 2.49 with a third of the season remaining.

I’ve included America’s MLS as they appear to be an immediate rival to the CSL. Whilst the American audience has been graced with a number of stellar names (Thierry Henry, David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo and David Villa), the majority of those arrived in the twilight of their careers, whereas China’s imports are around the 30 year old mark instead of 35.

Like the CSL, Sky recently added MLS football to their catalogue of leagues, so it will be interesting to see the impact this has on both in terms of increased exposure.

Another area of improvement for the CSL is the fanbase, with average attendances up year on year apart from a small drop in 2013. The average attendance of CSL matches last season was higher than MLS and only half-a-dozen short of Serie A.


Shenhua fans behind one of the goals.

Based on my experiences at Shanghai Shenhua’s ground, the atmosphere is impressive thanks to the Chinese supporters’ obvious enthusiasm for the game. Many of them would wake up during the early hours of the morning to watch their favourite European team and it is that sort of dedication, which isn’t just limited to the world’s more famous sides, that drives their passion.

At Shenhua, you would find nearly all fans on their feet for the entire game. There would be flags aplenty; megaphone users acting like conductors at each end of the ground and a series of well-known tunes sung throughout. Sky’s first game is Shenhua against Ramires’ Jiangsu Suning at the Hongkou Stadium so expect a decent turnout for the Saturday evening kick-off (12:30 p.m. in England).


LEAGUE 2011 (11/12) 2012 (12/13) 2013 (13/14) 2014 (14/15)

2015 (15/16)

CSL 17,651 (+21.1%) 18,740 (+6.2%) 18,571
18,986 (+2.2%) 22,193 (+16.9%)
MLS 17,872 18,807 18,594 19,148 21,574
EPL 34,601 35, 931 36,657 36,175 36,451
La Liga 28,265 29,430 26,702 26,741 27,775
Bundesliga 45,116 42,421 43,502 43,527 43,309
Serie A 23,214 24,655 23,481 22,149 22,199

Shenhua’s Hongkou Stadium.

The anticorruption movement needed to restore the CSL’s reputation and the attendances are a good sign that it’s working. This season, the number stands at 24,760, an 11.5% improvement on last year.

The only issue with most of the stadiums is that they are surrounded by running tracks, which dampens the atmosphere. Shenhua don’t have this issue as they play their home games at a purpose built football stadium.

In terms of competitiveness, the CSL is prone to throwing up some surprise results – partly due to the playing surfaces and distances travelled for away games – but Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Guangzhou Evergrande have dominated over the last five years with consecutive championships.

Last season saw Eriksson’s Shanghai SIPG push them all the way to the final day but Guangzhou Evergrande held out to win the league by the small margin of two-points. Most teams have played 20 of their 30 games already, yet Guangzhou sits seven-points clear of Jiangsu with a game in hand.

The top three plus the domestic cup winners are entered into the Asian Champions League, a tournament that CSL sides have enjoyed recent success in. Guangzhou won the 2013 and 2015 tournaments, while this year’s competition sees Shanghai SIPG and Felix Magath’s Shandong Luneng reach the quarterfinals where they both await South Korean opposition in late August.

As Man Utd and Man City recently discovered, the playing surfaces in China aren’t quite up to scratch compared to what the UK viewers are used to. This can lead to some amusing moments as well as scrappy encounters, particularly during the latter part of the March to November season with the heat of summer and regular fixtures taking its toll.

Penalty position copy

The keeper’s starting position before the run up had even started. Couldn’t see the linesman.

Like the pitches, the officials are also of a lower standard than what European supporters are familiar with. Juan Mata found himself questioning the referee’s performance during the friendly with Dortmund when Luke Shaw was adjudged to have committed a handball despite being side on to the pass with his arm straight down his side. And just this evening, Shanghai Shenhua were correctly awarded a penalty in their CFA Cup match with Fabio Cannavaro’s Tianjin Quanjian, but the referee failed to spot the goalkeeper’s starting position was a yard off his line before saving the spot kick. Moments like these are pretty common while players’ reactions to poor decisions can appear excessive and over the top.

Just Sunday night, Shenhua were defending their one-goal advantage away at Shandong when an unsavoury and unnecessary incident occurred. After Pelle had his point-blank range header saved and Cisse dragged the rebound wide, half of the Shenhua team aggressively ran towards the linesman to question why he didn’t raise his flag. The replay suggested he was actually right, but the behaviour of some players, often Chinese, left little to be desired. Think Roy Keane and co late 90s early 2000s.

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Just the seven Shenhua players running to the linesman even though Cisse missed.

Sky’s deal makes sense, as viewers will have something to watch during the offseason, particularly when there isn’t an international tournament to kill a month of the break. The time difference might be beneficial to viewing figures but the majority of the weekend games take place at 7:35 p.m. in China, which depending on the time of year can be seven or eight hours ahead.

Those who watch may be open to some bizarre moments based on personal experiences. They range from a Chinese footballer becoming frustrated with fan abuse on his way to the team bus and opting to throw his shoes at the ‘bully’ to a coach escaping his technical area, against the referee’s orders, and walking nearly as far as the goal just to confirm what a player was trying to say. These do happen and they can be moments of comedy but also bang-your-head-against-the-wall frustrating.

So tune into Sky if you’re intrigued by the fastest emerging and improving league in world football and want to see what all the fuss is about; watch some familiar players managed by some nostalgic names, sweating their way through the humid Chinese summer on the side of some questionable playing surfaces officiated by some equally questionable referees in front of an enthusiastic crowd. It’s probably better than hitting the shops during Saturday lunchtime. And after all, there are still a couple of weeks to kill until the Premier League starts!