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 By Chris Atkins

Crucial fortnight as Chinese football bids for wider respect

Shanghai SIPG striker Hulk
Shanghai SIPG brought in Braziilan striker Hulk for a CSL transfer record fee.

How important is continental performance to a league's standing and reputation? It's a question which has dogged the Premier League's claim to being the "greatest league in the world" over recent seasons, at the same time as English sides' Champions League performances have dropped off.

Whatever the hype and publicity a league may garner, results against sides from other divisions are the only real indication of relative strength. For the Chinese Super League, this means AFC Champions League success is a prerequisite of their quest to become the best league in Asia.

While five-time CSL winners Guangzhou Evergrande have won the competition twice in the past three years, no other side had advanced past the tournament's second round in its current format. On a continental stage, they were ploughing a lone furrow--until this year at least.

This week's quarterfinals saw two Chinese sides participate for the first time in the division's history, but Evergrande were not among them.

Sven-Goran Eriksson's Shanghai SIPG and a Felix Magath-led Shandong Luneng took on Korean heavyweights Jeonbuk Motors and FC Seoul respectively. It is a major step forward, but given both sides' sizeable expenditure, expectations were running high.

In preparing for this stage, SIPG broke the CSL transfer record to secure the signing of Brazilian international striker Hulk. Graziano Pelle and Papiss Cisse (the latter not registered in the competition), meanwhile, there were also high-profile arrivals in Shandong. For their Korean opponents, such signings are frankly inconceivable.

Yet, heading into the second leg, it is the Korean sides who will be feeling more confident. Seoul claimed a comfortable 3-1 home victory over Shandong, while Jeonbuk left Shanghai having earned a 0-0 away draw. While far from insurmountable, they hold a slender advantage.

Reaction has not been good with questions over Eriksson's future already raised, while provincial media has described Shandong's task as "extremely difficult". Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily journalist Feng Zhen went a step further stating that if both sides were to exit at this point, it would be an "embarrassing blow" for the CSL's claims of being the best in Asia. The report admits that originally the expectation of many had been of an all Chinese semifinal, an outcome which is now looking rather unlikely.

With Evergrande and headline-grabbing Jiangsu having crashed out early on, it is now important for the continuing momentum of the league that at least one of the remaining pair advances. The K League may lack big names, but should it provide both East Asian semifinalists its status as Asia's leading competition would be undeniable for the time being.

Year after year, Korean teams reach the latter stages of the competition en masse.

China vs. Qatar
China will embark on the final qualifying stage of the 2018 World Cup next week.

Long-term, the fate of the two sides over the next fortnight will not affect China's footballing development. However the local desire for the league to earn respect as a competition, will only be truly satiated when Chinese sides are consistently performing at the very top level of Asian competition.

While the national team will take longer to fix than the standard of club competition, it is a topic which is particularly relevant when the final stage of 2018 World Cup qualifying begins next week.

The top 12 sides in Asia will now compete for four confirmed places in Russia and having snuck through to this stage, China are not expected to advance. However, all efforts are being made to give the side the best chance possible -- including extended training camps and mass purchasing of away tickets for next week's away game in Seoul.

Indeed, should they qualify the players will split $9 million USD as bonus with $450,000 for each win achieved. As ever, money is being seen as the route to quick results.

There is a positive aura around Chinese football at the moment, but the national teams' results must at least be credible to maintain that pride. With considerable effort being made to build the game from a fairly low base, widespread positivity is essential.

The Premier League has shown that a league can continue to grow through star power and entertainment alone, irrespective of results in continental competition and at national team level. But the CSL simply does not have the same pedigree of club or depth of support to fall back upon.

Building its status is a must as they strive for international respect and consistent Champions League performance is the quickest route to doing so. Evergrande have led the way, but others must now begin to pick up the mantle to prove that the Cantonese side are not simply a very wealthy anomaly.

Spending money to achieve improved domestic results is all well and good, but the real benefits will only be seen when Chinese football sees noticeable improvement of its local talent across the board. With rival competitions struggling financially, improved ACL performance is a must and that improvement must begin now.

Chris Atkins is based in China and writes for ESPN FC about the Chinese Super League. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisAtkins_.

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