Football Tribe SEA Editor
It was a fall from grace as swift as its own rise to the top.
Chinese Super League side Tianjin Tianhai have announced that they are quitting the CSL and shutting down operations altogether, after a long, tumultuous battle against financial troubles that was riddled with uncertainties after uncertainties after uncertainties. The club’s fate was already hanging in the balance during the start of the 2019 season. Once bankrolled by the wealthy Quanjian Natural Medicine, a Chinese health product company, as Tianjin Quanjian, investigations revolving the 2015 death of Zhou Yang, a 4-year old girl suffering from a rare form of cancer who was the face of the Quanjian company and their health products, set off a domino effect that not only tarnished Quanjian’s reputation as a whole and condemned important figures within the company to prison sentences, but also pretty much shuts off any form of financial support towards Tianjin Quanjian. Deprived of their main benefactor, Tianjin Quanjian was then put underneath the temporary ownership of the Tianjin Football Association, thus rebranding themselves as Tianjin Tianhai.
In their first season underneath temporary ownership, Tianjin Tianhai barely avoided relegation, finishing 14th on the table, 4 points above 15th placed Shenzhen FC, who were relegated at the end of the season. With Tianjin Tianhai’s demise, Shenzhen were reprieved of their relegation and will participate in the 2020 Chinese Super League season in Tianjin Tianhai’s place, while city rivals Tianjin TEDA will continue to represent the city of Tianjin in the Chinese top flight this year.
With the 2020 season being postponed until June due to the COVID-19 pandemic, at least a dozen clubs in the top three tiers of Chinese football are being disbanded due to various reasons, mainly financial. The second-tier Chinese League One, set to be expanded from 16 teams to 18 teams for the 2020 season, ends up with only 14 teams due to teams shutting down left, right, and center. Sichuan Longfor, Guangdong South China Tiger, and Shanghai Shenxin were all disbanded during the off-season, while former Asian Club Championship (the predecessor to the AFC Champions League) winners Liaoning FC were given somewhat of a reprieve after they merged with newly promoted Shenyang Urban FC, thus becoming Liaoning Shenyang Urban FC. Tianjin Tianhai were the first CSL club to go under during the buildup towards the 2020 season and even without the COVID-19 pandemic, the threat of expulsion and disbandment were already looming above their head, with players reportedly going unpaid for three months.
During the era underneath Quanjian ownership, the club had a meteoric rise up the Chinese football pyramid. Champions of the 2016 Chinese League One, the club finished third in the 2017 Chinese Super League table, being managed by 2006 FIFA World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro and having the likes of Brazilian Alexandre Pato, Frenchman Anthony Modeste, and Belgian Axel Witsel within their ranks. They were also strongly linked with then-Chelsea striker Diego Costa, which indirectly sets off a chain of events that led to Costa falling out with then-Chelsea manager Antonio Conte, before subsequently leaving Chelsea underneath a cloud and returning to Atletico Madrid.
During their first and only foray into the AFC Champions League in 2018, the club managed to surprise many by going all the way to the quarterfinals, being the last Chinese team standing in the competition. Eliminating Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao along the way, the club were knocked out of the ACL by J.League 1 titans Kashima Antlers, who would went on to win the entire competition.
Tianjin Tianhai fans thought that their club was saved in March after real estate investment company Vantone stepped in to take charge of the club. However negotiations soon break down and Vantone decided not to go through with their plans, leading to Tianjin Tianhai waving the white flag and submitting an application to resign from the CSL on Monday.