Stars deserting Chinese Super League

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 March, 2007, 12:00am

The Chinese Super League (CSL) is facing another struggle to restore its credibility, not only among the fans but also the country's elite players.

With the league remaining a hard-sell to the public, disillusioned by match-fixing and on-pitch violence among other problems, an increasing number of players are looking overseas for job opportunities, although the migration could translate into painstaking social adjustments, linguistic barriers and, in some cases, even a pay cut.

Some 40-plus players are plying their trade overseas and even more are planning for trials abroad. The latest high-profile players include China captain Zheng Zhi, who joined English Premier League side Charlton on loan from reigning CSL champions Shandong Luneng; his national teammate Sun Xiang, now a PSV Eindhoven defender who moved from Shanghai Shenhua; and promising striker Dong Fangzhuo on the Manchester United reserve team. But the majority settle for less visible outfits in second-tier European leagues or emerging soccer territories in Australia and North America.

'The previous generation of Chinese players wouldn't go overseas unless being offered a job at the major European leagues but now a considerable number desperately want to escape the mess at home,' said Gao Leilei, a Beijing Hyundai striker who played in the A-League season on loan to the Auckland-based New Zealand Knights.

Gao plans to return to Auckland for the new season later this year, although the Oceanic series, which is still in its inception, isn't known to be a big paymaster. 'I just feel better playing there, watched by a sizable crowd every time I take to the field, and enjoy the game,' the 27-year-old Gao said. 'Staying in China could mean a better salary but it can do no good for my game. Even the promise of money can be easily broken here. There are too many cases of outstanding wages. Anyone can be the next victim.'

Unpaid wages are common in the CSL but it is not the only trouble the league faces. A report released by the Chinese Football Association this week revealed that the average attendance per game for the 2006 season hovered slightly above 10,000, almost the same as the historic low in 2005.

To add to the woes, British internet phone service provider Iphox quit its multi-million euro title sponsorship deal with CSL, leaving the series without a major backer for the second time in three years after German electronics maker Siemens pulled the plug in 2005.

And China's elite footballers seem to be losing patience over the continuing bad news and increasing job insecurity. Negotiations between two Chinese players and Major League Soccer of the United States have raised a few eyebrows in the domestic media, which has long regarded America as not soccer friendly. Yao Lijun from Shanghai Shenhua has accepted an offer to trial with the Los Angeles Galaxy, while Xu Qing is already in the final phase to secure a permanent move to Toronto FC.

'Learning English has become an immediate priority for more and more domestic footballers,' Titan Sports said. 'They badly need the language skills for a possible overseas career, no matter where. In this sense, the country's soccer is about to be deserted by its own players.'