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A death, arrests and a Chinese football club in meltdown

Shanghai (AFP) – When Brazilian star Alexandre Pato jetted out of China for his holidays he played for Tianjin Quanjian. Two months and a dozen arrests later, the club as he knew it is gone.

In its place is a new incarnation, although whether Pato is still there when the Chinese Super League (CSL) season opens in the spring remains to be seen.

A discredited subsidiary of the Quanjian Group remain the owners, according to corporate records, but the club was this week renamed Tianjin Tianhai and placed under the control of the local sports authorities, state media say.

Pato’s side is facing a deeply uncertain future, hunting investment and reportedly needing to sell players to survive.

The affair is a microcosm of the worst of football: excessive spending, unpredictability and an overreliance on questionable corporate owners.

Tianjin Quanjian’s troubles came to light late last month when its owners, self-styled experts in traditional Chinese medicine, came under scrutiny for their treatment of a young cancer patient.

The girl was reportedly taken off chemotherapy and instead received alternative healthcare based on Quanjian-produced remedies. She died in December 2015 aged seven.

Quanjian faced a public outcry over the girl’s death after an article published on an online health platform in December was shared extensively — leading to a rapid questioning of other claims it had made for its products. 

The company was placed under investigation for alleged pyramid selling and false advertising on January 1, according to Xinhua news agency.

Quanjian’s founder Shu Yuhui was among more than a dozen arrested, according to the China Daily.

The company has denied wrongdoing in relation to the girl.

– Largesse –

Football history is littered with once-proud clubs that crashed and burned for whatever reason — but the rapid pace and murky nature of the Tianjin meltdown has stunned observers.

Shen Chen has been an avid follower of football in Tianjin, a port city in China’s northeast, since he was six.

Now 33, Shen said: “If Tianjin doesn’t find a better company to take over, the team is very likely to get relegated.

“And if by the end of the year no company comes in, the team may be disbanded and the players released.”

Tianjin Quanjian’s maroon, blue and gold crest has been unceremoniously removed from club buildings in recent days and replaced by the blue of the new Tianjin Tianhai.

The old name is also being erased online with its posts on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, deleted and the club badge scrubbed out.

It’s a far cry from just over a year ago.

Tianjin Quanjian finished third in the 2016-17 CSL season under the leadership of Italian World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro, the highest in their short history.

Former AC Milan starlet Pato, now 29, was part of an expensive attack along with Frenchman Anthony Modeste.

The club — thanks to Quanjian’s cash — also boasted 20-million-euro Belgian international midfielder Axel Witsel.

Only Pato now remains and he and his teammates, who are in pre-season training in the United Arab Emirates, have reportedly been muzzled.

– ‘Strange feeling’ –

Chinese fans are used to their clubs changing names or even pulling up stakes for different cities.

The Tianjin club — not to be mistaken with rivals Tianjin Teda — was founded in 2006 and initially played in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, about 600 kilometres (370 miles) from Tianjin.

It moved to Tianjin the next year and became Tianjin Quanjian in 2015 when the ambitious company took control as part of its rise to prominence.

The club’s subsequent unravelling has received scant coverage in the state Tianjin Daily, suggesting that authorities are eager to keep a lid on the affair.  

So what happens now to its fans?

“It is a strange feeling for them because they did not think that Quanjian would be investigated so quickly by the state,” said Shen, adding that some supporters will switch to Tianjin Teda, strugglers in the CSL in recent years.

“I’ve seen screenshots of their group chats and they’re really fed up, but what can they do?”

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