Bernie Ibini has finally put ink to paper and will join newly promoted Chinese Super League side Shanghai SIPG on a three-year contract. Weeks of speculation had the 20-year old linked with Club Brugge, where he trialled earlier in the year, and where Central Coast Mariners teammate Mat Ryan just signed. Yet the reportedly $600,000 move to Shanghai East Asia, known for sponsorship reasons as SIPG, gives Ibini a chance to potentially play as soon as June 22.
Though not overpopulated with Australians, the CSL has increasingly become an option for A-League players to make a move upward in competition and wages. Currently five Australians play in China's top tier, including Michael Marrone at Shanghai Shenxin, Rostyn Griffiths at Guangzhou R&F (now managed by Sven-Göran Eriksson), Ryan McGown at Shandong Luneng Taishan (though he never played in the A-League), Matt McKay at Changchun Yatai and Erik Paartalu at Tianjin Teda. Daniel Mullen is under contract at Dalian Aerbin but spent part of 2013 on loan at Melbourne Victory.
While McGown's Shandong Luneng Taishan are currently in second place and just drew the CSL's top club, Guangzhou Evergrande, away from home, each of the other Australians in the top flight are with clubs in the middle of the table or much worse. Likewise, Ibini's new team struggled to start its debut season in the CSL before a league-wide three week break. SIPG have won only three games from twelve in 2013 and recently suffered a five-game losing streak before exploding for a 6-1 rout of city rivals Shanghai Shenxin over the weekend.
Ibini will surely be happy with his new wages, as well as the chance to play in an ongoing season instead of having to wait until August if he moved to Europe. Yet the latter destination is clearly where he wanted to land after three seasons at Central Coast. His description of his arrival in Shanghai over the weekend leaves no doubt he does not expect China will be his final destination.
"While it is not the move to Europe everyone was expecting, I think Australians have seen through the Asian Champions League that the Chinese Super League is of a strong standard. I think it is a little step up and maybe I have to reach my goals in a bit of a different way. That’s a challenge I’m up for. Shanghai SIPG understand that I have ambitions to get to Europe and will help me in the best way they can to reach that goal, just as the Mariners did."
Disappointment rings through his statement, though as investment and talent continue to increase in China, such a move is no longer the disappearing act it once was. Ibini may not spend his early 20s at an established European club in a small country like his former teammate Ryan, but if SIPG stay up, he should see abundant opportunities in the CSL.