The Chinese Football Association Super League (Chinese: 中国足球协会超级联赛; pinyin: Zhōngguó Zúqiú Xiéhuì Chāojí Liánsài), commonly known as Chinese Super League (中超联赛) or CSL, currently known as the Ping An Chinese Football Association Super League for sponsorship reasons, is the highest tier of professional association football in China, operating under the auspices of the Chinese Football Association.
The Chinese Super League was created by the rebranding of the former top division Chinese Football Association Jia-A League in 2004. (see Chinese Jia-A League, not to be confused with Chinese Football Association Jia League, which is the current second tier league.)
Originally contested by 12 teams in the inaugural year, the league has been expanding. There are 16 teams in the current season. The title has been won by seven teams: Shanghai Shenhua, Shenzhen Jianlibao, Dalian Shide, Shandong Luneng, Changchun Yatai, Beijing Guoan, and Guangzhou Evergrande. The current Super League champions are Guangzhou Evergrande.
Unlike in many top European leagues, the Chinese Super League starts in February or March (spring in China) and ends in November or December (early winter). In each season, each club plays each of the other clubs twice, once at home and another away. The current system, with 16 clubs in the Super League, so the teams played 30 games each for a total of 240 games in the season.
The two lowest placed teams by the end of the season are relegated to the China League One and the top two teams from the League One are promoted, taking their places.
The top three of the league, as well as the winner of the Chinese FA Cup, qualify for the AFC Champions League of the next year. If the FA Cup finalists finish the league 3rd or higher, 4th place in the league will take the Champions League spot.
In 1994, the Chinese Jia-A League became the country’s first professional football league. On October 29, 2000, Yan Shiduo, vice-president of the Chinese Football Association, talked about setting up a new professional league system. In 2002, the CFA made a decision to establish the Chinese Super League, which started in 2004.
Compared to the Jia-A, the CSL is a lot more demanding on teams. The CFA and CSL committee imposed a range of minimum criteria to ensure professional management and administration, financial probity, and a youth development program at every club. The second division, China League One, was also re-established under a new system. Besides the regular professional league, the CSL also has a reserve league, U-19 league, U-17 league and an U-15 league.
The CSL and China League One’s goals are to promote high quality and high-level competition; introduce advanced managerial concepts to the market; enforce the delivery of minimum standards of professionalism; encourage the influx of more higher quality foreign coaches and players; and gradually establish the European system for player registrations and transfers.
The first CSL season began in 2004, with 12 teams in the league. The inaugural season was plagued with controversy, which continued from the former league, Jia-A. After 1998, scandals such as match fixing and gambling were uncovered. This resulted in loss of interest in the domestic game, low attendances and great financial losses.
The original plan was to have one relegated team and two promoted teams for the 2004 season and 2005 season, thus increasing the number of teams in 2006 to 14. But the CFA’s decisions caused the relegations to be cancelled for these 2 years.
For the 2005 season, the league expanded to 14 teams after Wuhan Huanghelou and Zhuhai Zhongbang won promotion from China League One. The Zhuhai team, formerly Zhuhai Anping, had been bought by the Shanghai Zhongbang real estate company and relocated to Shanghai for the 2005 season, and subsequently renamed to Shanghai Zobon.
In 2006, the league was planned to expand to 16 teams with the newly promoted Xiamen Lanshi and Changchun Yatai. However, Sichuan Guancheng withdrew before the start of the season, leaving only 15 teams when the season started on March 11. Shanghai Liancheng Zobon, after another change of ownership, was renamed Shanghai United.
In 2007, the league was again planned to be expanded to 16 teams, but once again it found itself one team short. Shanghai United’s owner, Zhu Jun, bought a major share in local rival Shanghai Shenhua and merged the two teams. As a result, Shanghai Shenhua retained its name as it already had a strong fanbase in the city, while Shanghai United pulled out of the league.
In 2008, the season started with 16 clubs participating for the first time, however Wuhan protested against punishments made by the CFA after a match against Beijing Guo’an, and announced its immediate withdrawal from the league, which left the season to finish with 15 clubs.
Since 2009, the league has run with 16 stable clubs participating in each year. Two are relegated to China League One, and two promoted from China League One each season.
In 2010, the CSL was beset by a scandal going right to the top of the CFA. The Chinese government took nationwide action against football gambling, match-fixing and corruption, and former CFA vice presidents Xie Yalong, Nan Yong and Yang Yimin were arrested.
In 2011, the anti-corruption movement had visibly improved the image of the CSL, with increases to attendance. Clubs such as Guangzhou Evergrande and Shanghai Shenhua began investing heavily in foreign stars. After former Fluminense midfielder Darío Conca transferred in 2011, Some noticeable signings during the 2012 seasons include former Chelsea forward Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka, former Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita and Fábio Rochemback, former Sevilla forward Frédéric Kanouté, former Blackburn Rovers forward Yakubu Aiyegbeni and former Borussia Dortmund forward Lucas Barrios. Former Japanese national team coach Takeshi Okada took up the reins as the new coach of Hangzhou Greentown, former Argentina national team coach Sergio Batista replaced Jean Tigana as Shanghai Shenhua’s head coach, and former Italy national team and Juventus manager Marcello Lippi replaced Lee Jang-Soo as Guangzhou Evergrande’s head coach.