The pandemic gave us a new-look CSL campaign－and saved its biggest surprise for last
It was only fitting that the most unusual of Chinese Super League seasons delivered a most surprising ending.
Jiangsu Suning's shock 2-1 win over Guangzhou Evergrande in Thursday's final in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, saw the CSL crown a brand new champion－the top flight's ninth different winner since the inception of pro soccer in China in 1994.
Simply arriving at the finish line safe and sound, however, was perhaps the biggest reason to celebrate following a campaign that presented unprecedented challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"This is a dream-come-true for me, after all these years, Jiangsu finally stands on the highest podium," said Suning midfielder Ji Xiang, whose team rode its luck in the final's scoreless first leg on Nov 8.
"This year has been a very tough year for everyone. I really want to thank the Chinese Football Association for staging this season," Ji added.
"Also I want to thank all my teammates and coaches. Under such difficult circumstances, none of us simply gave up. We should cherish all we have now."
Suning head coach Cosmin Olaroiu hailed the triumph as the "most precious" of his career and reserved special praise for organizers after over 9,000 spectators were allowed inside Suzhou Olympic Sports Center to witness the historic night.
"I told my players before the game that whatever we do in this life, everything is about feelings, emotions and moments like this. This is the moment they will remember all their lives," the Romanian said.
"I've won many trophies in my life, but this is the most precious and the most difficult one. Usually I would be in the team that is the favorite to win the title. This is one of the few times I'm in a team that is not a favorite to win. So the joy is much bigger.
"I want to thank and honor everyone who supported and participated in this campaign… Considering the situation of the world at the moment, it's amazing that we have had the chance to play this championship.
"What's more extraordinary was that we had our supporters at this game. I don't know if there's another league in the world that has played continuously with spectators and finished like this. They organized it perfectly to end the season like this."
With eight titles to its name since 2011, Evergrande has utterly dominated the CSL over the last decade. So, Chinese Football Association president Chen Xuyuan reckons victory for Nanjing-based Suning was a healthy outcome for the domestic game.
"Chinese soccer needs a more diversified and competitive environment," said Chen. "Having more teams contending for the league title will benefit the development of Chinese soccer."
Fans clearly agreed with those sentiments. Within 12 hours of Suning's win, related topics had been viewed over 230 million times on Weibo, providing yet more evidence of how the league has gripped the public's imagination this year.
According to the CSL, the average viewership for each of its 160 matches this year was 7.74 million－16.6 percent higher than last term. Throughout the season, CSL matches were viewed over 1.2 billion times, with 64 percent of that figure attributed to mobile devices.
Thursday's second leg of the final attracted the most attention－over 22.26 million views－while the entire season generated around 246 million comments online.
The most popular teams, according to CSL data, are Evergrande, Suning, Shanghai SIPG, Shandong Luneng and Beijing Guo'an. The city of Shanghai boasts the most CSL fans in China, with a 7 percent share, ahead of Beijing and Guangzhou (both 4 percent).
Record ratings were unimaginable back in February when the CSL was forced to postpone due to the pandemic. After a hiatus of about half a year, the CFA finally obtained government approval to kick off the season behind closed doors in July, with the 16 teams split into two groups based in Suzhou and Dalian, Liaoning province.
Safety has always been the top priority for the CFA, with comprehensive epidemic prevention methods adopted in both cities. Players, coaches, referees and key staff members were assigned to blue zones which were under strict lockdown, with no contact with the outside world allowed. They also faced frequent body temperature checks, nucleic acid and coronavirus antibody tests.
Thanks to China's control of the epidemic and these strict measures, participants in the season were assured of a safe environment. CSL general manager Dong Zheng rated the entire effort an eight out of ten.
"We achieved what we planned to do. In the beginning, it still required more efforts and better cooperation among the various parties. But later in the season everything went very smoothly," Dong told Xinhua. "This has been a great test of our organizational ability."
Just days before the opening match in late July, a fresh outbreak of COVID-19 cases in Dalian had cast doubt over the kickoff. However, organizers' exhaustive preparations paid off and the lockdown area remained totally secure.
Recalling those pressurized days, Dong said he had total confidence in the CSL's measures to deal with all emergencies. He felt "relieved" when the season finally started and thought "the return of the CSL was truly great news for Chinese soccer".
The shortened window to stage the season prompted the CSL to adopt a two-phase, tournament-style format. The 16 teams were initially split into two groups to play a round-robin format in the host cities.
Based on the first-phase results, teams then entered a championship group and a relegation group to decide the final standings. CFA president Chen says fans can expect more of the same next term.
"Based on the current situation of the pandemic, I personally think the next CSL season will continue to use the tournament style," said Chen.
"If we go back to home-and-away style, it would be very risky for the league if there are new coronavirus cases in different cities. Now we have a full set of tried-and-tested methods and experience of the tournament-style season. Of course, though, there will be changes even if we stick with the tournament format for next season."