The big-spending Chinese Super League (CSL) kicked off its 2017 season last Friday with new policies regulating the use of U-23 players and foreign talent taking effect. The first round saw several traditional powerhouses encountering a new set of circumstances in the first round.
Last season runners-up Jiangsu Suning suffered a crushing defeat away to Shanghai Shenhua. Former Manchester United and Manchester City striker Carlos Tevez was reported to be the world's highest-paid player after signing a two-year contract with Shanghai. He gradually found his rhythm, scoring in a penalty and providing two assists to help his side claim an easy 4-0 victory over Jiangsu.
Other action in round one saw Brazilian international Paulinho contribute two goals to Guangzhou Evergrande on Sunday, helping the defending champions edge Beijing Guo'an 2-1 in a match full of gunpowder, with a total of two red and 13 yellow cards shown.
A traditional rivalry in the league, the high-profile match between Guangzhou and Beijing attracted live audience of 47,998, a record number for a first round match. According to the Chinese Football Association (CFA), the total number of the live audience members in the opening round was 203,267, with average attendance hitting 25,400.
Chinese clubs spent a record-high 390 million euros in this season's transfer window, according to the estimate by Transfermarket, which means the CSL surpassed the English Premier League this winter to become the world's highest-spending football league for two consecutive years.
With the arrival of world-class talent, the league's influence continues to grow quickly both domestically and internationally. This season, the CSL will be broadcast in 96 countries and regions including Britain, Brazil, France and Belgium. That is an increase of 25 markets over last year.
Guangzhou Evergrande is chasing a seventh consecutive league title, but will find tougher challenges from clubs which have bulked up with foreign talent such as Oscar and Carlos Tevez.
In an attempt to reduce the feverish spending on foreign players and give more chances to local talent, a new policy went into effect this season allowing a maximum of three non-Chinese players and at least one U-23 Chinese player in the starting lineup. Previously, the foreign quota was four and it was not mandatory for U-23 players to start.
However, foreign players still played a key role in the first round of action. Besides Paulinho, another Brazilian (Elkeson) completed a hat-trick in Shanghai SIPG's 5-1 win over Changchun Yatai. With the Brazilian trio of Hulk-Oscar-Elkeson, and the league's best native scorer Wu Lei, Shanghai SIPG has formed a formidable attacking line. The team also clinched two consecutive wins in the group stage of the Asian Champions League.
The season opener also witnessed other lackluster performances from big-spending clubs such as Hebei China Fortune and Tianjin Quanjian.
CSL newcomer Tianjin Quanjian, under the leadership of former Italian captain Fabio Cannavaro, brought in Belgian national Axel Witsel and former Brazilian talent Alexandre Pato, but they were beaten by Guangzhou R&F 2-0. CSL sophomores Hebei China Fortune also failed to prove their mettle with a 0-0 tie to Henan Jianye.
Although China Fortune and Tianjin Quanjian made huge investments in the winter transfer period, they still need time and experience to be better adapted to the new atmosphere of the CSL.
The new foreign player quota aims to reduce the team's dependency on foreign star players. But for some teams who excessively rely on foreign players, it also means a change in tactics. For instance, Nigerian international Anthony Ujah of Liaoning Shenyang Carsing had to sit in the stands due to the limitation, watching his team draw with Guizhou Hengfeng 1-1.
But the foreign players' limitation also gives more chances to local players. The first round's eight matches have a total of 19 goals, among which Chinese players scored five. On the contrary, all of the goals in last season's opening round were scored by foreign players, save for one delayed game between Bejing Guo'an and Tianjian Teda.