This weekend will see football festivities re-ignited across China as the Chinese Super League commences for 2012. With the national team's early exit in qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, fans from the world's most populous country will be forced to focus their zest and passion on the local scene.
The long-anticipated season - now in its 19th edition - offers much enticement for more reasons than one. For media and fans alike, it is the star-studded line-ups that offer the most intrigue. While the country has spared no effort in expanding their trade exports, it has been the other way round in football over recent years, with the clubs vying with each other in importing big names.
The quantity of overseas names this year has reached an unprecedented level, with thirteen of the sixteen teams coached by experienced foreign tacticians, while a series of foreign players, several of whom are regarded as world-class, have travelled to the Far East from all corners of the globe.
Topping the big-spending list are Shanghai Shenhua, who have left no stone unturned in forming what is set to be the league's most expensive foreign line-up. The two-time Chinese champions raised quite a few eyebrows last December by inking a lucrative deal with French star Nicolas Anelka, before signing compatriot Mathieu Manset from Reading on loan and Bosnian Mario Bozic. Added to this already-formidable line-up is Australian striker Joel Griffiths, while rumours persist that the club is courting Didier Drogba.
Defending champions Guangzhou Evergrande proved last season's most successful importers with the signing of Argentinian midfielder Dario Conca, who joined Brazilian duo Muriqui and Cleo, to help propel their side to the title. Another notable is Henan Construction's new signing Christopher Katongo who captained Zambia to the 2012 CAF African Cup of Nations, earning the tournament's best player award in the process.
On the coaching front, Beijing Guoan's Jaime Pacheco will challenge Guangzhou counterpart Lee Jang-Soo in the title-race, while Hangzhou Greentown pin their hopes on Japan’s 2010 FIFA World Cup coach Takeshi Okada, who has openly stated his aim of winning the Chinese championship. Despite these high-profile names, Guizhou Renhe's home-grown Gao Hongbo cannot be underestimated, with the former China PR coach guiding unfancied Changchun Yatai to domestic honours in 2007.
With the unprecedented expenditure by clubs, this season is set to bring about a new dawn in terms of those competing for the title. The favourites, however, remain the big four in Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing and Shandong Luneng.
Having taken last season by storm by capturing their first title unchallenged, Guangzhou open their title defence against last season's strugglers Shanghai Shenxin. Previously known as Nanchang Hengyuan, the club was renamed after relocating their home ground to Shanghai. Inspired by the Conca-led foreign line-up, and also armed with Chinese internationals of Zheng Zhi and Gao Lin, Guangzhou enter the season on the back of an astonishing 5-1 demolition of K-League champions Jeonbuk Motors in Wednesday's AFC Champions League opener.
Much interest will of course be on Anelka as the former Real Madrid and Chelsea striker makes his Chinese debut for Shanghai against Jiangsu Sainty. With the 32-year-old spearheading the attack, Shanghai are expecting to bounce back having finished a disappointing 11th last season.
Last year's runners-up Beijing face newly-promoted Guangzhou R&F knowing they must push aside their recent 2-1 defeat at Ulsan Hyundai in the AFC Champions League. Although the capital side has yet to complete a high-profile signing to match the big-spending Shanghai and Guangzhou, they will be boosted by the recent return of Shao Jiayi from Germany.
Shandong, under newly-appointed Dutchman Henk ten Cate, have fixed their sights on restoring their place as the top Chinese side having finished outside the top three last term. Blessed with a Brazilian trio of Gilberto Macena, Obina and former Atlanta playmaker Fabiano, the four-time champions are expected to feature strongly.