Tianjin Olympic Center, home to Tianjin Tianhai FC. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The recent rise of the Chinese Super League has much to do with the increasing involvement of conglomerates, but fans in the country are finding out that this can be a double-edged sword.

The relegation of Guangzhou to the second tier in 2010 for match-fixing produced a silver lining as property giant Evergrande bought the club and started investing in big-name foreign players and coaches.

Seven successive Chinese titles followed as did two Asian Champions League crowns, delivered by World Cup-winning coaches Marcello Lippi and then Luiz Felipe Scolari. Guangzhou Evergrande became the biggest club in Asia.

Encouraged by a government keen to see the world’s most populous country became a global power in football, its most popular sport, other businesses jumped right in.

Shanghai SIPG are now owned by Shanghai International Port Group, Shanghai Shenhua were taken over by Greenland Property and Jiangsu became the promotional plaything of retail giants Suning. With huge corporations splashing the cash, the Chinese Super League soon started to rival the lucrative English Premier League in terms of money spent on players. Attention, attendances and standards rose and the future looked bright for a new Asian football power.

Now, however, fans are finding out what happens to their clubs when parent conglomerates have non-football related problems.

In 2015, healthcare giant Quanjian bought second-tier Tianjin. Within weeks there were signs that fans were in for quite a ride as former Brazil and Real Madrid boss Vanderlei Luxemburgo took over. The year after, he was replaced by Fabio Cannavaro, the captain of Italy’s 2006 World Cup-winning team.

In his first full season, Cannavaro took the team into the top tier. Then the fun really started. In 2017 he signed Alexandre Pato, a former Brazilian international who had played for AC Milan, one of Europe’s biggest teams. Then Tianjin upstaged the mighty Juventus to sign in-demand Belgian international Axel Witsel.

By then established in the top tier, Tianjin finished in third place after an impressive debut campaign, earning a first-ever appearance in the Asian Champions League. The second season was not quite as impressive with a mid-table finish, though hopes remained high as 2018 came to a close. South Korean coach Choi Kang-hee, the most successful club coach in Asia, was persuaded to leave Jeonbuk Motors for Tianjin.

Things started to go wrong in a scandal that unfolded around the owners in December. It was reported by a health website Dingxiang Yisheng — and picked up by such media outlets as The Global Times and South China Morning Post — that in 2013, Quanjian had told the family of a four-year-old girl who had a rare form of cancer to cease undergoing chemotherapy and follow its “secret” cancer treatments instead.

Quanjian was also accused of using her image as part of a marketing campaign to suggest that its products had caused her condition to improve.

After she died in 2015, the girl’s father launched an unsuccessful legal action against the company claiming that he had been misled. The case was thrown out on lack of evidence.

The revelations made by Dingxiang Yisheng prompted an outpouring of stories on social media about Quanjian and its products and practices. Investigations followed that questioned some of the claims made by Quanjian. Amidst multiple accusations of pyramid trading, stories grew of people all over China being persuaded to part with large sums of money for products of questionable effectiveness.

Amid rising anger, Shu Yuhui, the founder of the company – which has denied all accusations – was arrested earlier this month on the charge of false advertising along with 17 other employees, two of whom were released on bail. The 51-year-old is now awaiting trial and could, according to Chinese media, face 25 years in prison.

It soon became clear that the football club, just one part of an empire, would be affected. First the official social media accounts were deleted, then the old company colors were removed from the training ground.

The new color is blue to reflect Tianjin Tianhai, a re-branded club that is now run by the local sports authority. It goes without saying that there will be less money available unless another company with deep pockets can be persuaded to step in.

Witsel left for Borussia Dortmund last summer. Pato is expected to follow suit and coach Choi has already moved to another club.

Relegation back to the second tier that the club only escaped in 2016 is now on the cards. Yet when clubs are just one part of a conglomerate’s empire, they are always going to be at least as susceptible as other parts of the business when problems arise.

This has been the case in South Korea where the most successful clubs are backed by companies such as Samsung, Hyundai and Posco who often finance football out of a sense of duty. In recent years, the purse strings at top clubs like FC Seoul and Suwon Samsung Bluewings have been tightened.

None, though, have been involved in the kind of scandal that has enveloped Quanjian and has resulted in one of the country’s best teams fearing relegation rather than aspiring towards the national league title.

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