By Michael Church
HONG KONG (Reuters) - China's latest attempt to end their long World Cup exile is casting a long shadow over the last few weeks of the Chinese Super League season, with title hopefuls Shanghai SIPG among clubs to have lost players to an under-25 boot camp.
When SIPG begin their final push to what they hope will be a maiden league title against Jiangsu Suning in Nanjing on Sunday, squad players Lin Chuangyi and Lei Wenjie will be some 500 kilometres away in Tai'an.
The duo were among 55 players under the age of 25 suddenly called up from clubs in China's top two divisions at the start of October and gathered in a training camp in the mountains in the west of Shandong province.
Former Shanghai Shenhua coach Shen Xiangfu is overseeing the camp where the players are undergoing military-style training featuring lengthy runs and no ball work at least until the end of the month.
Players have been pictured in Chinese media dressed in camouflaged fatigues and with their heads shaved but otherwise details have been typically sketchy in a country where lack of transparency from officialdom is the norm.
The initiative follows a well-worn pattern in Chinese sport and reflects the desperation of the country's sporting authorities as they look to find a way to ensure qualification for the 2022 World Cup finals in Qatar.
China have played just once at soccer's global showpiece and President Xi Jinping has made it clear the country's ambition should be not only to do so again, but ultimately to be in a position to win a tournament.
Centralised squads featuring the country's leading talent are nothing new in China with the "Jianlibao" youth team of the mid-1990s the most successful example.
That squad was sent to Brazil for two years to train ahead of the 1997 World Youth Championship and several players, including Li Tie and Li Weifeng, graduated into the side that Bora Milutinovic led to the 2002 World Cup finals.
More recent attempts have been less effective but the Chinese Football Association are planning to give this one every chance with some media reports saying the players will remain in camp until the end of the year.
Some players, including Beijing Guoan winger Wei Shihao, have been given dispensation to leave the camp following call-ups for Marcello Lippi's China squad for matches against India and Syria.
The loss of the players is likely to have more impact lower down the Chinese Super League but the whole affair has added to an air of confusion surrounding the league after sudden regulation changes over the last couple of seasons.
Guangzhou Evergrande, champions in each of the last seven seasons and four points behind SIPG with five matches remaining, have been stripped of the services of five players as they prepare to host Beijing Renhe on Saturday.
These include Liao Lisheng – a regular until the return of Paulinho from Barcelona over the summer – and recent signing Tang Shi.
Dan Petrescu's Guizhou Zhicheng are four points adrift at the bottom of the table and will be missing 21-year-old midfielder Chen Ji, who has played 21 times so far this season, as they aim to pull themselves clear of the relegation places.
Things are even worse for Henan Jianye, who sit just one place above Guizhou, and 14th placed Chongqing Dangdai Lifan.
Henan's Zhong Jinbao, Long Cheng and Long Wei have all been called up for the squad, with the trio appearing in a total of 48 games in the current campaign, while Feng Jing, Luo Hao, Yin Congyao and Cao Dong have amassed 61 games for Chongqing.
SIPG should have enough strength in depth to cope without forward Lin and midfielder Lei as they seek to end the Evergrande era by claiming their first CSL title.
They will, however, also be missing Portuguese coach Vitor Pereira from the sidelines for this weekend's match after he picked up a three-game ban for "unsporting behaviour".
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney and Greg Stutchbury)