By Michael Church
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Former Liverpool and Real Madrid head coach Rafa Benitez has laid bare the difficulties foreign coaches face working in the Chinese Super League: a lack of understanding of the game among local players.
Benitez saw his Dalian Pro side lose 2-0 to Tianjin Teda in the first leg of a playoff on Monday evening, and the Spaniard was left frustrated at not being able to influence the outcome as he would if he were coaching in Europe or elsewhere.
"When you work with a team in Europe it's totally different to when you work with a team in China," he said.
"In Europe, the understanding of the game is different and here it is more difficult... So it’s not what you want to do or what you can do - it’s what your players can do."
Benitez is one of numerous high-profile coaches brought in by Chinese clubs over the last decade to help lift the standard of the game in a country desperate to establish itself as a player on the global scene.
But while China’s economy has improved remarkably over the last three decades and the nation’s international profile has increased significantly in other areas, in football China remains a minor player.
It has only once qualified for the World Cup finals, in 2002, although club teams have had success on the regional level, with Guangzhou Evergrande twice winning the Asian Champions League in the last seven years.
The first of those successes came under Italian World Cup winner Marcello Lippi in 2013 while Luiz Felipe Scolari, another man to have won the game’s most famous trophy when he led his native Brazil to the 2002 title, steered the club to the title two years later.
Chinese teams, though, often rely heavily on highly paid foreign stars or, increasingly, on naturalised players who have played in the Chinese Super League for five years and have acquired citizenship.
The quality of locally developed players remains low, however, especially outside the leading three or four teams who have stockpiled the best talent from a shallow pool.
That lack of excellence is further highlighted by the small number of Chinese players currently plying their trade in leagues outside the country, with only international striker Wu Lei, presently on the books of Espanyol in Spain’s second division, worthy of note.
For Benitez, who was hired on a contract worth a reported £12m per year, the frustration at seeing his side struggle through a lack of tactical and technical ability is significant.
Backed by the wealthy and influential Wanda corporation, Dalian have the financial resources to be a major player in Chinese football. But Benitez and his team are locked in a battle that will see them finish no higher than ninth in this year’s standings.
They will take on Tianjin in the second leg of their playoff on Saturday needing to overturn that two-goal deficit if they are to harbour any hopes of finishing as high as possible in the COVID-19 affected table.
"I suppose that we will have a chance for sure," said Benitez of the impending second leg.
"But it will not be easy because the other team was doing well."
(Reporting by Michael Church; Editing by Hugh Lawson)