The year that was: perfect spikers, Sun Yang's long battle, naturalized players

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In another hectic year for sports in China, women spikers defended the coveted World Cup crown, but there was disappointment for the nation's hoopsters, who failed to secure a direct spot to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. All eyes were also on Sun Yang, who faced the Court of Arbitration for Sport in a dispute with WADA.

An enviable record

Led by former star Chinese player Lang Ping, the Chinese national women's volleyball team successfully defended its FIVB Women's World Cup title in Japan with a game to spare.

Going into the tournament as a favorite, China beat Serbia 3-0 in a third-phase clash in Osaka on September 28 to secure the championship. A day later, it eased past Argentina with the same scoreline to end the tournament with a perfect 11-0 record. It was China's fifth World Cup title following its previous successes in 1981, 1985, 2003 and 2015.

Lang, the former head coach of the United States, was in tears as she faced cameras after winning the title. She described the success as a "hard journey" for the team though it looked smooth for outsiders. The victory also boosted the team's confidence of finishing on the podium at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. China head to the Games as defending champion, having won the title at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

International Volleyball Federation President Ary Graca attributed China's latest success to the new training methods brought by Lang into the team since she took the reins of the team in 2013. He also expects the team to do well in Tokyo.

"China will be in the final for sure," said the Brazilian. "A lot of things could happen, but I can say that there is a 70 percent chance of China winning in Tokyo. They are big favorites."

'Irresponsible' Lippi walks, naturalized players 

Beijing Guo'an's defensive midfielder Li Ke made history on June 7 by becoming the first naturalized professional to wear a Chinese national jersey. The 26-year-old of mixed Cypriot-Chinese ancestry started for China in its 2-0 victory over the Philippines in a friendly in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.

Naturalized players are newcomers to the Chinese Super League this season. Having naturalized players in the national team and top-tier clubs was a step that the country's sports authority took to help China secure a berth in the World Cup finals again after 20 years.

In August, China named Elkeson in its squad for its first World Cup qualifier. The Brazilian-born striker became the first player without Chinese ancestry to represent his new country.

Elkeson started his career in China with Guangzhou Evergrande in 2013. He moved to Shanghai SIPG in 2016 and has become one of the few veteran foreign players in the CSL. This summer, the 30-year-old moved back to Evergrande to prepare for his naturalization.

After adding new blood, the Chinese national team encountered another crisis last month — head coach Marcello Lippi announced his resignation on November 14 after China's 1-2 loss to Syria in the 2022 World Cup qualifier in Dubai. The defeat meant China was 5 points off Syria in Group A. Only the top team from each group and four best-placed finishers can advance to the next stage of the Asian qualifiers.

"A team should make all effort on the pitch, and should fully carry out the tactics deployed by the coach," Lippi, the 2006 World Cup winner, said at the post-match press conference. "If the players are afraid on the pitch, with no fighting spirit, no desire, no courage, and cannot show what they performed during my training, then I, the coach, is responsible" for it.

"My annual salary is very high. I am responsible for this loss. Now, I declare that I officially resign," said Lippi, who left the room before his comments could even be translated. The Italian was reported to be earning an annual salary of US$22 million.

Lippi was re-appointed as China's head coach in late May. The 71-year-old first took charge of China in 2016, and left the job in January this year when his contract expired after the Asian Cup.

His protege Fabio Cannavaro took over the position in conjunction with coaching Evergrande in March. But the 46-year-old stepped down a month later citing difficulties in coaching both the national and club teams at the same time.

Lippi's departure was deemed irresponsible by the domestic media.

The Chinese Football Association announced that it would find a new "responsible" manager with three coaches — Li Tie, Li Xiaopeng and Wang Baoshan — in line for the top job.

Evergrande, again 

Fabio Cannavaro's Guangzhou Evergrande won the 2019 Chinese Super League title with 72 points from 30 rounds, scooping its eighth top-tier league trophy in nine seasons.

Evergrande is now level with Dalian, which picked up most top-tier domestic trophies between 1994 and 2005.

This year, the CSL championship went to the wire with Beijing Guo'an just 2 points behind the leader. Eventually, Evergrande triumphed by beating Shanghai Greenland Shenhua 3-0 at home on December 1 for the deciding 3 points.

Guo'an defeated Shandong Luneng 3-2 at home to finish second in the league, followed by Shanghai SIPG finished third on 66 points.

Shenhua finished 13th in the 16-team CSL with 30 points.

Shanghai Greenland Shenhua won the second CFA Cup in three years.

But Shenhua gave its troubled fans something to cheer at the end of the season by beating Luneng in the two-leg CFA Cup finals. It was Shenhua's third Cup in history — and second in three years.

Shenhua was 0-1 down after the first leg in Shandong. But Choi Kang-hee's team was fired up for the return leg at Shanghai's Hongkou Football Stadium on December 6. It won the match 3-0 and 3-1 for aggregate victory. The Cup victory also secured a 2020 AFC Champions League spot for the winner.

Wu Lei opens European account with Espanyol

The 2018 Chinese Super League top striker and Chinese international Wu Lei joined La Liga side RCD Espanyol from Shanghai SIPG in January for a reported 2 million euros (US$2.2 million). Spanish media reported that Wu had signed a two-year contract with a one-year extension clause.

Wu scored 27 goals in the 2018 CSL season, which won him the CSL Top Scorer and Player of the Year awards, while his club clinched its maiden domestic league title. Espanyol is owned by a Chinese company, Rastar Managerial Group, with Chen Yansheng as club president.

Wu Lei joined RCD Espanyol from Shanghai SIPG in January.

On March 2, the 27-year-old became the first Chinese footballer to score in the Spanish top-tier league in Espanyol's 3-1 victory over Real Valladolid. Espanyol finished seventh in the 2018-19 season. Wu scored three goals, contributed one assist and created one penalty in his 16 appearances for his new club.

On October 3, Wu scored for the first time in a major European competition as his side beat CSKA Moscow 2-0 in the Europa League group stage.

But Espanyol is struggling in the ongoing 2019-20 season, battling relegation at the bottom of the 20-team league on 10 points from 18 rounds. Wu managed one goal in his 15 league appearances this season.

The club fired head coach Pablo Machin one day before Christmas Eve.

"The club has taken this decision as a consequence of poor results and salvage the ‘blanquiazul' side's current situation," Espanyol said in a statement.

Hoopsters struggle

The 2019 FIBA World Cup was held in China for the first time from August 31 to September 31. Shanghai, as one of the eight host cities, staged a total of 13 games, including group-stage matches of Group E featuring defending champion the United States, second-stage ranking matches, two quarterfinals and one 5th-8th ranking match.

China got a relatively easy draw in Group A with Poland, Venezuela and Ivory Coast. Months before the tournament, the Chinese Basketball Association President Yao Ming set a goal for the men's team — to become the best Asian team at the World Cup and qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

But China could only manage one victory over Ivory Coast in the group stage. It finished 24th in the tournament and failed to qualify for the Games. Spain beat Argentina in the final to become the world champion.

Asked who should be blamed for China's poor show at the tournament, Yao gave an uncharacteristically blunt answer: "Me."

"The fans had great expectations for China but we could not make it," the former Houston Rockets All-Star said. "The World Cup is a window for us to look out at the world. The gap between China and the world-leading basketball countries has been growing."

China's head coach Li Nan resigned after the tournament. The men's national team's only chance of making it to the Tokyo Games is a difficult regional qualifier in June. It must top a group consisting of teams such as Greece, Canada, Uruguay, Czech Republic and Turkey.

Drama at CAS

Three-time Olympic swimming champion Sun Yang pleaded innocent during a Court of Arbitration for Sport public hearing in Montreux on November 15.

The 28-year-old sat before the sport's highest tribunal to clear his name after the World Anti-Doping Agency appealed against him and FINA over the swimming body's decision in favor of Sun for alleged violations of anti-doping rules.

Chinese three-time Olympic swimming champion Sun Yang (2nd L) and his lawyers attend a public hearing in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Montreux, Switzerland, on Nov. 15, 2019, as the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) appealed against Sun Yang and FINA over FINA's previous decision in favor of Sun on his alleged anti-doping rule violations. (Photo by Alain Grosclaude/Xinhua)

Sun refused to complete a doping test conducted by the international testing company IDTM on September 4, 2018, saying the doping control officer and her assistants lacked sufficient authorization and credentials.

His case was heard by FINA, which decided on January 3 that the swimmer was not guilty of anti-doping rule violation.

WADA disagreed and appealed the decision.

In the hearing, Sun explained that he stopped cooperating in the process because he found the doping control assistant's behavior unprofessional.

"It is important to fight against doping, but it is also important that the regulations are complied with by everyone, including the anti-doping organization itself," he said.

"Otherwise, everyone here behind me now can be the doping officers without training and officially authorized accreditation."

The courtroom debate was, however, marred by poor interpretation of Sun's testimony and those of his witnesses. Lawyers of both parties had to constantly repeat their questions and even interrupt the witnesses' testimonies as a result of incomplete and inaccurate interpretation of Chinese and English.

Franco Frattini, CAS panel president, closed the one-day hearing as he thanked the nine people, including Sun, who testified in only the second public hearing in CAS history. 

A final result is expected to be announced no earlier than mid-January.

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