It's Substance over style, this time

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It's Substance over style, this time

Beijing Guo'an fans support their team in the rain last season.

The CSL has given up on big-name stars as it tries to re-establish itself.

As the Chinese professional league arrives at its 20th season, repairing its damaged image and building up local talent, rather than hiring foreign superstars, appear to be at the top of the CSL's agenda.

Can Beckham promote CSL?

In a bid to help fix Chinese soccer's damaged image abroad, former England captain and global brand name David Beckham was named as the Chinese Super League's ambassador in order to boost the league's appeal.

However, the 37-year-old's ambassadorship has been heavily scrutinized and many pundits feel there is little he can do to improve the image of Chinese soccer, which has been plagued by numerous problems, including a shortage of local talent, inadequate training of referees and an ailing league system.

"Beckham has no connection with the Chinese league. Now he comes to sell its image instead of actually playing. How can he represent the league? Do we need him?" Xinhua commented.

Bi Xuemei, professor of sports public relations and communications at Beijing Sport University, said Beckham's work won't erase the negative image of the game here.

"It's just a drop in the ocean," Bi said. "I will say it's a positive step, but it won't do much to save the broken face of Chinese soccer as effectively as some people think."

Reported details of the deal vary wildly. An Italian paper said it was rumored to be worth 50 million euros ($65 million), but the CFA claims Beckham will be paid 2 million euros by the International Management Group for taking up the ambassadorship.

"He (Beckham) only plays a supplementary role, and we have to work hard by ourselves to boost the development of Chinese soccer, and lift up our image," said CFA deputy head Yu Hongchen. "But such measures will help to accelerate the process and promote the brand of the Chinese league."

According to the CFA, Beckham will pay three visits to China from March to November. He will carry out his role in popularizing the sport among Chinese children, promoting the league's overseas copyright, visiting Chinese clubs and attending a series of activities to celebrate the 20th season of the league.

League wants more regulations

After its founding in 1994, the Chinese professional league experienced prosperity in the 1990s, but match-fixing and corruption scandals saw Chinese soccer suffer an overall slump after the country's first and only World Cup appearance in 2002.

After three years of waiting for a decision on the biggest scandal in Chinese soccer history, the CFA finally announced its sanctions last month. Thirty-three individuals, including several former soccer officials, received lifetime bans, and 12 clubs were also punished.

CSL clubs Shanghai Shenhua and Tianjin Teda were given six-point penalties for the coming season after being found guilty of fixing matches in 2003. Shenhua was also stripped of its league title for that season.

"Is there a long-term regulatory system for Chinese soccer? No, there is not. So what we hope to see and hear after what the CFA handed out is a blueprint to build a proper system and put it into practice," said Chinese commentator Liu Jianhong.

It's Substance over style, this time

Game ahead of fame

Compared with the boisterous start of the 2012 season, which saw Chinese teams splash out big bucks for big names on the international transfer market, the new season will get off to a less robust start as the CSL clubs have become more rational and pragmatic in their selection of foreign players.

Spearheaded by cash-rich Guangzhou Evergrande, Chinese clubs caught "star fever" the past two years. Evergrande broke the league's transfer record four times in two years through the signing of Brazilian striker Muriqui and countryman Cleo, Argentina midfielder Dario Conca and Paraguay striker Lucas Barrios.

Shanghai Shenhua drew the most attention last year, signing Cote d'Ivoire striker Didier Drogba and French forward Nicolas Anelka. However, the duo's quick departure and the team's ninth-place finish in the league gave Chinese clubs reason to reflect on their superstar obsessions.

Though the famous duo significantly raised the profile of the Shanghai club and the league, it failed to significantly improve the team's on-field performances due to a relatively weak local supporting cast and off-field pay issues.

Most Chinese clubs have now switched their sights to the lower divisions of the European and South American leagues, and players that better fit their lineups.

The biggest signings this offseason were Evergrande's Brazilian midfielder Elkeson, Dalian Aerbin's former Paris Saint-Germain striker Guillaume Hoarau and Guizhou Renhe's Bosnia and Herzegovina national team captain Zvjezdan Misimovic.

Aerbin, also with a solid real estate background and in its second year in the CSL, appears to be defending champion Evergrande's greatest threat.

The club, which boasts former Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita, Hoarau, and several national players, is expected to recapture the soccer glory of Dalian after eight-time league champion Dalian Shide quit the league due to financial concerns last season.

Guizhou Renhe, Guangzhou R&F and Shandong Luneng are also among the favorites to finish in the top four and claim a berth in the next AFC Champions League.

The competition at the bottom of the league will be no less fierce than that at the top.

The point deficits and loss of crucial players could push Shenhua and Teda into the relegation zone along with low-budget teams like Shanghai Shenxin, Qingdao Jonoon, and Liaoning Whowin.

Apart from Anelka and Drogba, Shenhua also lost key local players including Feng Renliang and Wu Xi. The aging Teda lineup saw its national striker, Chen Tao, move to Aerbin.

On the international stage, Evergrande, with 11 national players and a formidable South American presence led by Italian coach Marcello Lippi, appears the only Chinese club capable of a deep run in this year's AFC Champions League.

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