CSL to kick off new season
High expectations as game promises fresh beginning
Published: Feb 29, 2024 10:32 PM

Chinese striker Wu Lei (left) shoots in a World Cup qualifying match against Thailand in Bangkok, Thailand, in November 2023. Photo: VCG

Photo: VCG

The new season of the Chinese Super League (CSL) is set to kick off on March 1, with an exciting opening match between the 2023 season champions Shanghai Port and the 2022 season winners Wuhan Three Towns. 

Adding to the excitement, Shandong Taishan will also feature in an early appearance in the CSL on Friday against Changchun Yatai, as the new schedule, which moves the original March 3 game forward, gives them more time to prepare for the upcoming Asian Champions League (ACL) match next week.

The recent performance of Taishan in the Asian Champions League has stirred up further interest from fans, as their remarkable comeback victory against Kawasaki Frontale during an away game in the round of 16 has propelled them into the ACL quarterfinals. 

Newly promoted team Qingdao West Coast, led by Japanese coach Hisashi Kurosaki, will take on Henan FC on Friday, meaning the opening day of the round will feature three games.

West Coast's recruitment of 20 domestic and international players for the upcoming season has raised hopes from fans that the club's ambitions for the season go beyond mere fighting against relegations in the league.

The other CSL debutants Shenzhen Peng City are also expected to inject fresh enthusiasm into the competition, as the club, which used to be known as Sichuan Jiuniu and won the League One title last season, is affiliated with the City Football Group, which also owns English Premier League club Manchester City.

Last season's fourth place finishers Chengdu Rongcheng have also been pinned as title contenders, after their signing of 11 players, including domestic star forward Wei Shihao.

Seo Jung-won, head coach of Rongcheng, once complained that the squad depth of the team was insufficient after several of his players were injured in the middle of the season. The team had their longest unbeaten run for a domestic league ended at 27 games last season.

Ahead of the league's full swing, the Chinese FA Super Cup has shed light on new coach-led Shanghai Shenhua, as the team defeated league title-defenders and their cross-city fellows Port thanks to the tactics of head coach Leonid Slutsky, whose resume includes managing the Russian national team and CSKA Moscow.

Amid preparations for the new season, the CSL's operational and disciplinary aspects have also undergone significant scrutiny. 

In a high-profile league-wide meeting held in Shanghai last week, club managers are committed to upholding fair play and discipline, underscoring the league's commitment to eradicating corruption and malpractice that marred the image of Chinese soccer last season. 

As the CSL embarks on its new season, all eyes are on the pitch, with hopes high for a rejuvenated era in Chinese soccer in the wake of Chinese national team's disappointing performance in the recent Asian Cup, where they failed to win a group match.

Mao Jiale, a Chengdu-based sports commentator, said the pace and quality of the league must be improved if the national team wants to benefit from it.

"The lackluster display of the national team highlighted a concerning trend of players in the league being accustomed to low-intensity thinking and movement," Mao told the Global Times. 

"This divergence from the modern trends in soccer development underscores the urgent need for the CSL to realign itself with higher standards of play."

Last season, the CSL boasted an average attendance of 19,900 spectators per match, with a total of 1.12 billion live viewers, all of which ranked as the highest in Asia.

Reflecting on the league's 20-year journey, amid the challenges ahead, Song Kai, chairman of the Chinese Football Association (CFA), expressed optimism about the future, reaffirming the league's dedication to becoming a premier competition in Asia while promoting a culture of fair play and healthy competition.