Jailed owner, COVID-19 spell the end of Chinese soccer’s Tianjin Tianhai

Society & Culture

The China Sports Column is a SupChina weekly feature.

COVID-19 has claimed its first high-profile sports team in China.

Tianjin Tianhai of the Chinese Super League (CSL), the country’s top domestic soccer league, has declared bankruptcy and folded, thus ending a prolonged saga that includes a jailed owner and a failed emergency takeover.

Tianhai, which is Tianjin’s second soccer team, rose quickly through the ranks of Chinese soccer after the original club, Hohhot Binhai, was bought by billionaire Shù Yùhuī 束昱辉, founder of the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) company Quanjian Group.

The club went from the Chinese third tier in 2007 — the bottom rung of the Chinese professional soccer ladder — to the CSL in a decade, earning a promotion to the first tier under former Italian World Cup-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro in 2016.

But during its ascent, owner Shu was accused of running a pyramid scheme with his company, Quanjian. Everything went downhill in 2015, when the company claimed it had discovered an herbal cure to cancer.

The “cure” was a beverage of ground dates and comfrey body oil. After the death of a four-year-old cancer patient after her father refused hospital treatment in favor of the Quanjian date cocktail, the company came under suspicion.

A report by WeChat medical news account Dingxiang Yisheng sparked an investigation into Quanjian’s practices, which resulted in the arrest of Shu in January 2019. He was eventually found guilty of false advertising and illegal multilevel marketing.

The soccer club’s viability was thrown into the air immediately afterwards. Ownership of the team was transferred to the local football association, and the club was renamed Tianjin Tianhai.

Unfortunately, the club’s vast expenses previously covered by Shu — including considerable wages owed to foreign stars such as Alexandre Pato — put the club into financial turmoil. Earlier this year, the club went on sale “for free.” Per ESPN:

“The club have reached a critical moment and in order to maintain the hard-fought position in the Chinese Super League, have, after careful considerations, made a difficult decision,” read a statement on the club’s official social media channels.

“We will transfer 100% of the club with zero fee.”

Tianhai fans briefly held hope that the Beijing-based real estate giant Vantone would take over the failing club, but with the uncertainty surrounding the current pandemic and significant pressures in the Chinese real estate sector, the takeover fell through. After the Chinese FA blocked a final takeover bid, it spelled the end of the club.

Within two years, Tianhai went from knocking out Guangzhou Evergrande in the AFC Champions League to finishing one place above relegation and financial collapse.

The result of Tianhai’s folding is that Shenzhen FC, which finished bottom of the CSL last season, get a reprieve and will remain in China’s top division.

The 2020 CSL season, originally scheduled to kick off in February, is still awaiting the all-clear from authorities to begin playing games.


NBA has a new China chief

NBA China

The NBA has appointed Chinese national Michael Ma (马晓飞 Mǎ Xiǎofēi) as the new head of NBA China, the first time someone from mainland China has occupied the position since the NBA opened a Beijing office in 2008.

The move comes after the NBA was subject to a total Chinese media blackout following Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey’s tweet last October supporting Hong Kong’s protesters.

CCTV stopped all coverage of the world’s top basketball league, and NBA coverage in Chinese state media was reduced to the bare minimum, only mentioning major events such as the death of Kobe Bryant and the suspension of the league due to COVID-19.

But perhaps there will be a thawing of relations between the NBA and China.

After all, in January, Cuī Tiānkǎi 崔天凯, the Chinese ambassador to the U.S., tweeted praise of Kobe Bryant for “his contribution to the world of sport and to #ChinaUS people-to-people exchanges.”

China’s consul general Huang Ping thanked the NBA for a $1.4 million donation to Hubei Province in February.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has been on a path to returning the NBA-China partnership to “normalcy.” Speaking in February, Silver estimated that losses resulting from China’s snub of the league fall somewhere in the $400 million range.

Ma comes into the organization already with his back against the wall. Despite being the first Chinese head of NBA China, nationalist rag Global Times was quick to say that it was “not enough to win back the mainland market.”

Chinese netizens commented on the NBA official reshuffle, and many said they could not care less about the US league, unless Morey is punished for his misbehavior.

“The season is suspended due to the COVID-19 anyway, and I’m OK to continue living without the NBA,” wrote a fan on Hupu.com, a major sports website in China.

“We did not and will not forget what he has done. When the NBA and Morey own their mistakes, I will consider welcoming the league back,” wrote another.

Michael Ma

Ma arrives in the role after a successful stint as the CEO at the Chinese sports talent management agency Endeavor China. He is also the son of Mǎ Guólì 马国力, a founder of CCTV sports, who helped introduce the NBA to Chinese TV viewers for the first time in the 1990s.


Song Yadong stays undefeated in UFC after controversial decision

Song Yadong beats Vera at UFC

Chinese fighter Sòng Yàdōng 宋亚东 (16-4-1) overcame his toughest challenge yet, scoring a unanimous points decision over Ecuador’s Marlon “Chito” Vera (15-6-1) on Sunday’s UFC on ESPN in Jacksonville, Florida.

Zhāng Wěilì 张伟丽 may be China’s star fighter in the UFC, but the 22-year-old Song is at the head of a generation of fresh Chinese fighters beginning to emerge on the MMA scene.

Song’s victory over Vera was his fifth win inside the UFC cage (to one draw and no losses), a record unbeaten streak for an Asian fighter in the fighting organization.

The fight was close throughout the three rounds, and at the judges’ decision, Vera was visibly aggrieved. He refused to accept Song’s post-fight handshake, instead turning to Twitter to vent his frustration at the decision.

Despite a strong opening round from Vera, who dominated with leg kicks, and a period of control in the clinch during the second, Song was able to withstand the pressure and create the space to land consistently and often.

In the post-match press conference, the “Kung-Fu Monkey” revealed that he knew the result would be a tight one. “I was thinking maybe it was a split decision, but when I heard it was a unanimous decision I felt good,” Song said. “I knew I would have to give it everything I had. I only had two weeks’ preparation, but I was prepared for three rounds. I knew Vera is a really good fighter. I didn’t feel like I fought well, but I learned a lot from this fight.”

The young featherweight, who admitted he had been gorging on junk food a few weeks ago, could see his UFC ranking break into the top 10 following the victory.

The China Sports Column runs every week on SupChina.