Chinese Super League side Tianjin Tianhai, formerly coached by Italian World Cup-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro, has folded after teetering on the brink for months.
It is a swift and dramatic fall from grace for a club that was until recently home to Brazilian star Alexandre Pato, Belgian international midfielder Axel Witsel and French striker Anthony Modeste, and were playing in the AFC Champions League as Tianjin Quanjian in 2018 (even knocking out two-time Asian Champions Guangzhou Evergrande).
Trouble began brewing in December 2018 when an investigation found Tianjin-based healthcare product giant, and then owner of the football club, Quanjian Group was involved in false marketing, after releasing an advertisement which claimed that they’d cured a patient of cancer with their medicine.
The above advertisement uses Zhou Yang's photo and claims that her cancer markers dropped to a normal level after the girl took Quanjian's medicine for less than two months. Screengrab via Dingxiang Yisheng
The false claims contributed to the December 2015 death of a 4-year-old Inner Mongolian girl, identified as Zhou Yang, while the company were also accused of being involved in illegal multi-level marketing (read: pyramid scheme practices). Quanjian Group founder Shu Yuhui was arrested in January 2019, and the club was transferred to the local sports bureau and renamed Tianjin Tianhai.
Saddled with heavy debts, the club’s fans thought they had been saved when real estate company Vantone stepped in to take over in March. However, negotiations with the company broke down, and on Monday Tianhai submitted an application to withdraw from the CSL for the forthcoming season.
Tianhai had just survived relegation last season, coming four points above Roberto Donadoni’s Shenzhen FC, condemning the Guangdong to the drop. Shenzhen FC are now set to remain in China's top division after all.
At least a dozen clubs in China’s top three tiers of professional football have gone under in the last six months, but Tianhai is the first from the CSL. Tianjin still has representation in the top flight courtesy of Tianjin Teda. The new CSL campaign was supposed to begin on February 22, but was indefinitely postponed by the coronavirus pandemic. The league could now start in late June, albeit in an altered format.
[Cover image via Tencent Sport]