CSL's over-the-top suspension of Oscar hurts league's credibility
Chinese football has been no stranger to international headlines over the past two years, and over the course of the past week it has once more attracted the eyes of the footballing world following what was a fairly minor incident between the sides of Shanghai SIPG and Guangzhou R&F last weekend.
While video of the bust-up gained traction due to the heavy involvement of Brazilian star Oscar, it was given further life on Thursday following the announcement of an eight-match ban for the former Chelsea player. Having kicked the ball directly at two opponents -- with the ball still in play -- the Brazilian will miss half of his side's remaining fixtures this season. It is a punishment that is surely every bit as much of an overreaction as Oscar's rather amusing show of petulance.
Yet, following a season scarred by erratic application of punishments, there can be no surprise at the heavy-handed bans that resulted from the latest display of public disorder on a football pitch.
"To kill the chicken to scare the monkey" is an ancient Chinese idiom that has been surprisingly widely used in the context of football over recent months. Meaning "to make an example out of someone [with punishment] to threaten others," it is a line of thought that consistently has been applicable to the actions of the Chinese FA in meting out punishments this season.
From Qin Sheng's six-month ban for stamping on Axel Witsel's foot to Oscar's recent displays of disharmonious behaviour, the authorities have taken the opinion that such misdemeanours must be severely dealt with.
While the intention may be to rid the Chinese game of unnecessary negative headlines, if anything the FA have been consistent only in their inconsistency. Qin Sheng's stamp on the foot of Witsel provoked an unprecedented ban, yet when Jiangsu Suning's Yang Boyu later stomped on the body of an opponent in a fixture with Yanbian Fude, only a four-game ban was applied.
Then there is the case of Hulk, perhaps the biggest reason the authorities felt provoked to take action against Oscar. Serious allegations were made by then Guizhou Zhicheng coach Li Bing in May that SIPG forward Hulk had struck his assistant following a fixture between the sides. Yet, without any meaningful investigation, the matter was swiftly swept under a carpet by the FA due to lack of evidence. Following the witch hunt against Qin earlier in the year, accusations quickly were made of disparity between treatment of foreign and Chinese players.
There can be no doubt Qin suffered greatly because of the status of his victim. International headlines were made and, thus, the Shenhua midfielder was made a scapegoat in order to send a message to others. With that incident in mind, pressure has been ramped upon the CFA by local media over recent days to take similar recourse against Oscar. Any other outcome would have only led to further accusations of favouritism.
Yet, despite calls for punishment, nobody had expected to see the former Chelsea player handed an eight-match ban. Furthermore, the seven-match ban handed to R&F's Chen Zhizhao for his push in response is every bit as over the top. The misdemeanours of SIPG's Fu Huan (six matches) and R&F's Li Tixiang (five matches) in the same incident, meanwhile, are perhaps most difficult to discern. The message, though, is clear: The CFA will not tolerate mass pushing and shoving, especially when it attracts international coverage.
It is not a question of whether harsh sanctions are deserved -- there would be some support worldwide for policies that clamp down upon poor sportsmanship in football. The issue instead lies with consistency of application. The CFA may create headlines for the severity of their punishment, but it would be less of an issue if it was applied uniformly. Instead, the integrity of local competition is being affected by the whims of the country's disciplinary panel.
Shenhua will spend six months without their leading local defensive midfielder thanks to the CFA's decision to take such decisive action against Qin Sheng. Yet their rivals, such as Yang's Suning side, have not faced such obstacles -- before even mentioning Qin's teammate Sun Shilin, who received a two-match ban for an ironic thumbs-up.
Now it will be SIPG's turn to complain. Andre Villas-Boas' side are in the midst of a potential title race, lying four points behind Guangzhou Evergrande with 17 games to play. Now, though, they will be deprived of Oscar for more or less half of their remaining fixtures for an offence that the match official on the day of the incident did not even deem worthy of a yellow card.
It is not that the CFA in any way favour any side over another, but rather that they are influencing outcomes with the arbitrary nature of their punishments. The further development of Chinese football culture is intrinsically linked to the development of the Super League competition, requiring a tournament that is both competitive and played on a level playing field. However, until the CFA can come to a consensus that is universally applied regarding player punishments, they will continue to harm the game in the eyes of the very people they are trying to attract.
Audiences have shown they can accept players' behaviour occasionally overstepping the mark, but a league decided by the whims of power brokers will prove a much harder product to sell.
Chris Atkins is based in China and writes for ESPN FC about the Chinese Super League. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisAtkins_.