China: CNFL emerges as king of the hill, expands to 33 teams for the 2022 season

Whereas there once were three American Football leagues operating in China, there now stands only one. After a tumultuous past two years, the China National Football League, CNFL, the oldest and most prestigious American football league in China, now stands alone as the big cheese in the Chinese American Football scene.

After temporarily paring down to 10 teams in 2020 as many teams temporarily suspended operations, the CNFL was back at full force last season with an 18-team league, with several teams jumping ship from the City Bowl. In the wake of the Z League and the City Bowl capsizing, the CNFL has sailed through the turbulent waters like a lifeboat, bringing aboard many new teams and welcoming back old friends. As a result, the CNFL now sits at 33 teams with the 2022 season now fully underway.

The defending champion Shanghai Titans are looking to retain their crown as the best team in China. However, the Chengdu Pandaman are still looking to win their first title after heartbreaking back-to-back losses in the championship game.

CNFL commissioner Datong Wang had this to say about the CNFL nearly doubling from last year:

“This will be the 10th season for CNFL, the league started in 2013 with eight teams, 33 teams participation is the largest ever in league history.  This is very exciting for the league, its players and fan base.  2022 will be an exciting season and everyone is looking forward to get the season kicked off.”

The 2022 CNFL will be organized in its customary four divisions, North East, South, and West. With so many teams competing this year, the CNFL playoff format will feature the top five teams from the North and East divisions, and the relatively smaller West and South divisions will send their top three squads to the postseason.

North Division:

Beijing Commander – New to CNFL this year

Beijing Cyclones – 2nd year in the CNFL, one of the original 8 and played from 2013/2014, left in 2015, returned in 2022

Changchun Icebreakers – New to CNFL this year

Harbin Tigers – New to CNFL this year

Jinan Mammoths – New to CNFL this year

Peking Watchers – New to CNFL this year

Qingdao Conquerors – 2nd year, joined in 2019

Shenyang Hunters – New to CNFL this year

Shenyang Spartans – 1st, joined CNFL in 2021

Shijiazhuang Liberators – New to CNFL this year

Tianjin Black Sails – New to CNFL this year

Tianjin Pirates – 5, one of the original 8 teams in 2013, left 2014, came back 2017-2019, sat out 2020, returned 2021

In 2021, the league was bereft of a team in China’s capital city, but this year as part of the North expanding to a 12-team division, three Beijing teams have joined the fold. The Commander and Watchers are brand new teams, while the Cyclones were former members of the AFLC and are back in the CNFL after a lengthy absence. The Shenyang Hunters are an experienced team that was the first and only champions of the North-South football league that temporarily sprung up from the wreckage of the City Bowl a year ago.

Week 1 recap:

As is what has become an almost standard tradition at this point, the North Division kicked off the CNFL season. The biggest surprise was the visiting Changchun Icebreakers pulling off a stunning upset under heavy rain against the Shenyang Hunters. The Hunters have been very strong in past years, playing in different leagues, and were considered one of the division favorites going into the season.

The other notable result was the Qingdao Conquerors, a rising power in the North that has been to the semifinals the past two years, crushing the Black Sails and showing once again why they’re the favorites in the North.

Week 1 Results:

Peking Watchers 18 Beijing Commander 10

Changchun Icebreakers 19 Shenyang Hunters 18

Jinan Mammoths 34 Beijing Cyclones 20

Shenyang Spartans 14 Tianjin Pirates 3

Qingdao Conquerors 31 Tianjin Black Sails 0

Shijiazhuang Liberators 42 Harbin Tigers 12

East Division:

Hangzhou Ospreys – New to CNFL this year

Hangzhou Smilodons – 5, joined CNFL in 2017

Nanjing Tigers – New to CNFL this year

Shanghai Wolves – New to CNFL this year

Shanghai Nighthawks – 4th, joined CNFL in 2014, left in 2018, returned 2022

Shanghai Streetcats – 3rd, joined CNFL in 2019

Shanghai Titans – 8th, joined CNFL in 2014

Shanghai Warriors – 7th, one of the original 8 teams in 2013, left in 2020, returned 2022

Suzhou Blue Knights – New to CNFL this year

Xuzhou Chuhan – New to CNFL this year

The East has traditionally been the strongest division in the league, with its crown jewels being the three Shanghai teams, the Nighthawks, Titans, and Warriors all winning championships. For the first time since 2017, the OG giants of Shanghai football are reunited in the same league. They are looking to renew some old rivalries and are joined by a 5th Shanghai team, the Wolves. The rest of the division includes the 2020 CNFL champions, the Hangzhou Smilodons, and a bevy of teams from the City Bowl.

Week 1 recap:

Despite a stiff challenge by the Ospreys, the defending champion Shanghai Titans started their season off on the right foot by using their running game to control nearly the entire 4th quarter and salt the game away.

The other notable result is the Shanghai Streetcats defeating the Shanghai Nighthawks 20-6. The Nighthawks have a legacy and are the oldest American Football team in China, but the upstart StreetCats pulled off the upset thanks to a pair of interceptions returned for touchdowns. The Shanghai Wolves- Shanghai Warriors game was postponed due to thunderstorms.

Week 1 Results:

Shanghai Streetcats 20 Shanghai Nighthawks 20

Nanjing Tigers 36 Suzhou Blue Knights 0

Shanghai Titans 34 Hangzhou Ospreys 19

Hangzhou Smilodons 46 Xuzhou Chuhan 0

Shanghai Wolves – Shanghai Warriors (Postponed)

South Division:

Foshan South China Tigers – 8, one of the original 8 in 2013, left in 2014, rejoined in 2015

Guangzhou Apaches – 8, joined CNFL in 2014

Guangzhou Goats – 1, played in 2014, left in 2015, rejoined in 2022

Gun Cavalry (Nanchang) – 1, joined CNFL in 2021

Shenzhen Buffaloes – New to CNFL this year

Wuhan Spicy

Despite the lingering loss of the three Hong Kong teams and Taipei (who are all still unable to play due to COVID protocols), the South Division features several new teams from the City Bowl, the Shenzhen Buffaloes, and the Guangzhou Goats. The Wuhan Spicy are, on paper, a new team; still, their roster features many familiar faces from the 2019 champion Wuhan Berserkers.  Interestingly, the Spicy were founded by Wang Shida, currently plying his trade in the EFL with the Cologne Centurions.

Week 1 Recap:

The South division opened with a pair of close games as the Foshan South China Tigers went on the road and beat the Wuhan Spicy in a thrilling back and forth affair. Foshan’s victory was only assured with a terrific red zone stop as Wuhan was at the Foshan 10-yard line and knocking at the door when the game ended.

Week 1 Results:

Foshan South China Tigers 28 Wuhan Spicy 26

Guangzhou Apaches 22 Shenzhen Buffaloes 18

Gun Cavalry 21 Guangzhou Goats 0 [Forfeit]


Chengdu Pandaman – 7, joined CNFL in 2015

Chongqing McFuries – 4, joined CNFL in 2017, sat out 2020, returned in 2021

Tibet Khyung – New to CNFL this year

Xian Panthers – 1, played in 2018, rejoined for 2022

Zhengzhou Steamer – 4, joined in 2018

While the Chengdu Pandaman are two-time runners-up, the most intriguing team in the West this year are the newcomers, the Tibet Khyung. While they will only be playing road games this year, perhaps one day in the future, the Khyung can welcome a team to the high plateaus of Tibet.

Week 1 Recap:

The only game played in the West for Week 1 was the Zhengzhou Steamer taking on the Xi’an Panthers. Zhengzhou is a team that has steadily improved throughout the past several years, and it was on display as they swept aside the Panthers.

Unfortunately, the Tibet team could not travel to Chengdu due to circumstances, so the game was postponed until further notice.

Week 1 Results:

Zhengzhou Steamer 32 Xi’an Panthers 12

Chengdu Pandaman – Tibet Khyung (postponed)

With the CNFL entering its 10th year of existence, the future looks brighter than ever for the top league in Chinese American Football. The league officially kicked off their 2022 season on July 23rd with the North Division beginning their regular season, while the other three divisions began league play on August 13th. The competition looks to be its fiercest yet with so many teams ready to compete for a championship.

Graphics: Igor Lazarevic

Allen Hu is a Chinese-American who grew up playing American Football in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania. He primarily spends his time in both the United States and China