By Michael Church
TOKYO (Reuters) – Rafa Benitez complained long and loud about Mike Ashley’s lack of ambition when he was in charge at Newcastle United but the Spaniard should have few such problems when he commences his reign at China’s Dalian Yifang.
After signing a 30-month contract at the club worth a cool $21 million (16.7 million pounds) a year by some accounts, Benitez takes charge of his first game on Sunday when Dalian host Henan Jianye in the Chinese Super League.
While Ashley is extremely rich — worth some $2.8 billion according to Forbes — Benitez’s new boss has accumulated a fortune almost 10 times that amount through the success of his Wanda entertainment and property group.
Wang Jianlin, one of China’s richest men, is determined to return the glory days to a coastal city once at the forefront of Chinese football and it remains to be seen if Benitez can satisfy his demands for success.
Four coaches in less than two years have fallen short of expectations at a club eager to climb to the summit of the Chinese game, a pinnacle occupied at the turn of the millennium by another side from Dalian that was owned by Wang.
From 1994 to 2000, Dalian Wanda – bankrolled by Wang long before it was fashionable or politically expedient for the country’s billionaire class to involve itself in football – were the dominant force in China.
Four league titles in six seasons as well as an appearance in the final of the 1998 Asian Club Championship – the forerunner to the Asian Champions League – ensured Dalian was one of the leading centres of China’s football development.
But, after corruption and match-fixing scandals rocked the sport in the country in the early years of the century, a disillusioned Wang bailed out, selling the club and turning his back on the game for a decade.
Without his involvement, Dalian slipped away and, as Guangzhou Evergrande established themselves as the country’s pre-eminent power with seven straight league titles, the club declined before shutting down in 2012.
It was an ignominious end for one of the powerhouses of Asian football.
Wang’s interest in the game was later reignited at national level – Wanda bankrolled Jose Antonio Camacho’s ill-fated tenure as China coach in 2011 – as well as abroad with an investment in Atletico Madrid and a tie-up with FIFA.
After a shift in the political climate which encouraged investment at home, however, the 64-year-old has now turned his sights back to the domestic club scene.
Dalian Aerbin, established in 2009, were bought out in 2015 by the Yifang Group, part owned by Wanda, and billionaire Wang was back in club ownership.
Since then, the club has received significant investment and Benitez will be expected to keep Dalian in the top flight before building a side capable of challenging for the Chinese Super League crown.
The former Valencia and Real Madrid coach takes over a squad that has been in a state of flux since promotion to the top flight in 2017 and they are currently 10th in the 16-team league.
Juan Ramon Lopes Caro earned them the place in the top tier only to be replaced by former China striker Ma Lin ahead of the 2018 campaign.
Despite the signing of former Atletico Madrid duo Yannick Carrasco and Nicolas Gaitan, a dreadful start to that season saw Ma replaced by Bernd Schuster.
The German steadied the ship, taking Dalian to 11th at the end of the season before making way for twice Asian Champions League-winning South Korea coach Choi Kang-hee.
The on-field struggles have continued, though, with reports of ructions behind the scenes involving Belgian Carrasco, who Choi publicly vilified just days before standing down amid growing speculation over the arrival of Benitez.
Now the former Liverpool manager will have to decide either to soothe Carrasco’s concerns or ship him out, with Arsenal among the destinations suggested.
He will also need to bring the best out of recent signing Marek Hasmik, a player he knows well from their time together at Napoli, even if Benitez does not want to be overly dependent on foreign players.
“One of the most important things will be to improve the Chinese players because I think they are the key,” Benitez said after his appointment.
“So we have in mind to sign the right foreign players and they have to bring us quality and experience and one of the main things will be to improve the Chinese players.”
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)