Chinese Super League: Jordi Cruyff on Marouane Fellaini, Mousa Dembele and the future

By Simon StoneBBC Sport
Jordi Cruyff became
Jordi Cruyff, who played for Manchester United between 1996 and 2000, helped Maccabi Tel Aviv become the dominant force in Israeli football before heading to China

Jordi Cruyff was curious when the call came.

"China? Wow. What should I expect? A lot of things surprised me in a positive way, other things show they have a long way to go," he told BBC Sport.

On the pitch, former Manchester United winger Cruyff delivered: 15 points from the final nine games was enough to keep Chongqing Lifan above the Chinese Super League relegation zone on goal difference.

The new campaign in China starts this weekend and this season the league will feature former Premier League midfielders Marouane Fellaini and Mousa Dembele after their moves from Manchester United and Tottenham respectively.

'Almost nobody speaks English'

In a footballing sense, Cruyff is reasonably well travelled.

The 45-year-old Dutchman's playing career took him from Spain to England, Ukraine and Malta.

As a sporting director - the route he chose after retirement - Cruyff spent two years at AEK Larnaca in Cyprus and then five in Israel with Maccabi Tel Aviv, where he then became manager before standing down in 2018 to take a break from the game.

China is a different experience entirely, especially with a squad that - barring three Brazilians - is exclusively Chinese.

"Almost nobody speaks English, so it is really tough," said Cruyff.

"You work with four translators so you need short, clear messages. If it is going to be complicated, [you need to] bring visual aids so the players can see what you are trying to explain to them, not only hear.

"In Europe, you can shout at each other on the pitch or correct each other in a tough way. China has a more respectful culture. If there are things they are not really used to doing, don't expect it from them.

"You need to try and organise your team in such a way that you can avoid having to talk too much or make players think about what you have said. Give them a task and that is it."

Clubs are limited to a maximum of four overseas players in their squad, and can only choose three in their matchday squads.

However, 12 of the 16 Chinese Super League clubs have foreign managers, including former Italian World Cup-winning skipper Fabio Cannavaro, who is in charge of Guangzhou Evergrande, former Watford boss Quique Sanchez Flores, who is at Shanghai Greenland, and ex-Wales coach Chris Coleman, who was appointed manager of Hebei China Fortune in June.

2019 Chinese Super League teams (position last season)
Shanghai SIPG (champions)Tianjin Tianhai (9th)
Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao (2nd)Guangzhou R&F (10th)
Shandong Luneng Taishan (3rd)Dalian Yifang (11th)
Beijing Sinobo Guoan (4th)Henan Jianye (12th)
Jiangsu Suning (5th)Chongqing Dangdai Lifan (13th)
Hebei China Fortune (6th)Tianjin Teda (14th)
Shanghai Greenland Shenhua (7th)Wuhan Zall (promoted)
Beijing Renhe (8th)Shenzhen FC (promoted)

Fellaini the big name

Former Everton defender Tyias Browning, who signed for Guangzhou Evergrande on 20 February, is the only British player in this season's Chinese Super League.

Dembele left Tottenham for Guangzhou R&F in an £11m deal in January.

But Fellaini's move to Shandong Luneng created the biggest impact. The 31-year-old - who scored the winner on his debut on Friday - has signed a three-year contract with the club, who finished third in the table last year, 10 points behind champions Shanghai SIPG.

Cruyff is expecting the Belgian to make a major impact.

"They love big names in China and they want the league to get attention," he said.

"If I had been offered Fellaini and we could have afforded him, I would also have said yes.

"Physically he is going to be superior to anyone. His team also has [former Southampton forward] Graziano Pelle - another strong, physical guy - so I can imagine they will play very direct football and their strength will make a difference.

"I am sure Fellaini will enjoy it and score lots of goals."

Travelling is among the differences to European football Fellaini will quickly need to adapt to.

The longest journey - between Beijing and Guangzhou - is over 1,350 miles and takes three hours on a plane.

And while Cruyff says facilities in China are improving, it is less than three years since a prestigious pre-season match between Manchester City and Manchester United in Beijing was called off because heavy rain had left the pitch at the Bird's Nest Stadium unplayable.

Graziano Pelle
Italian striker Graziano Pelle joined Shandong Luneng from Southampton in 2016 and helped them win the 2019 Lunar New Year Cup earlier this month

The future

China's relationship with the most popular global team sport is complex.

President Xi Jinping is an advocate of the sport and business people have been encouraged to get involved, both at home and abroad.

There is a dream to host a World Cup at some stage. The national team have qualified for the World Cup once, in 2002. They have not been beyond the quarter-finals of the Asian Cup since 2004 when, as hosts, they finished runners-up.

However, more foreign coaches are being employed to raise standards at youth level and simple mathematics leads Cruyff to conclude China will eventually be a force in the game.

He said: "You don't have to be a genius to work out if they continue for the next 10 or 15 years with the same football investment, there will be a moment where they come close. Why? Just make a calculation - percentage per population.

"It is going to be a long process because, although they have so many people, the talent still has to be brought out. You need to produce players at the age of eight, not when they are 15. That is the next step."

China played at the 2002 World Cup
China were knocked out in the group stage in their only World Cup finals when this team, including one-time English Premier League players Sun Jihai, Li Tie and Fan Zhiyi, lost all three games against Brazil, Turkey and Costa Rica

Spice of life

Although not as well known as Shanghai or Beijing, Chongqing district is massive.

Located in the centre of China, it has a population of 30 million, which is spread over an area the size of Austria. The city has a population in excess of eight million.

As a relative newcomer, Cruyff has had little chance to explore, although he does experiment when he goes out for dinner.

He said: "I live in the area where they have the most spicy food - and it is really spicy. I am afraid to eat a cookie sometimes.

"But you have to adjust to different places. You can't take the easy way. You have to keep an open mind. If all you eat is an apple all your life, you will never know what a banana tastes like."

Can you name the 12 former Premier League players currently playing in China?

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