Why local players remain vital for Chinese Super League clubs, despite the huge transfer splurge on foreign stars

As Gao Lin stars for Guangzhou, there’s a ‘bubble’ in the market for homegrown talent

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 April, 2016, 2:36pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 April, 2016, 6:13pm

Guangzhou Evergrande moved back to the top of the Chinese Super League table this weekend after beating Tianjin Teda 4-0 and they had Gao Lin to thank. The Chinese forward set up the opening goal for Yu Hanchao before adding a brace to put the game beyond doubt.

It goes to show that for all the money being lavished on superstar foreign signings, the Chinese players remain key for teams who want to win silverware.

Gao is Guangzhou Evergrande’s record goalscorer and is currently top of both the goal and assist charts with five goals and four assists in six league games this season.

The Chinese Super League has rules in place to limit the number of foreigners in a squad and on the field at one time. The 3+1 rule means you can play three overseas players plus one from another country in the Asian Football Confederation.

This has led to a domestic transfer bubble according to Ian Walker, the former Tottenham Hotspur and England stopper who is now goalkeeping coach for Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Shanghai SIPG.

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In his latest column for That’s Shanghai, Walker points out that Chinese players are overvalued in the Chinese domestic transfer market because of their importance and that it’s the team with the best Chinese players that win the league. Gao and his Guangzhou teammates, the five-time champions of China, are all regulars in the national team squad.

New school strategy to realise China’s dream of becoming global soccer superpower

Walker thinks that necessity may be the mother of invention, with clubs investing heavily in the grassroots game in order to create rather than buy talented local players. That may be the case in the future but for now the grassroots game is being developed from the top down. The very top, in fact.

It’s well documented that Chinese president Xi Jinping’s dream is for the country to win the World Cup but this month’s statement from the Chinese FA listed the goal to become a “world football superpower” by the middle of the century.

They plan to do this by creating 20,000 football training centres and 70,000 playing fields by the end of this decade, with the goal of getting 50 million playing by then. This is a nationwide programme that goes down to the county level, which will tackle one of the major problems that Chinese soccer currently faces.

Historically the game has been the preserve of the northeast of the country and right now professional football is concentrated on the country’s eastern seaboard. The Chinese Super League teams are all located in the east of China with the exception of Chongqing Lifan based in the municipality that was formerly in the southwestern province of Sichuan.

The Chinese second tier is similar, although it does have the very notable exception of the Xinjiang Tianshan Leopards, who play in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region in the country’s far west.

As the Guardian’s Tom Phillips pointed out in a recent profile of the Brazilians plying their trade for the club, the city is almost 1,500 miles closer to Kabul than Beijing.

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Even with widespread investment from billionaire club owners and the top-down development of a countrywide infrastructure, spreading the game across the country is not going to be an easy task.

Details such as China’s single time zone, which means that the kids in Xinjiang will have less daylight to train in than those in Shanghai, are going to come into play. And then there’s the vastly different climates and weather across the country. Ask Arsene Wenger, who strongly believes that wind is the reason that English footballers are less technically gifted than their counterparts on the continent, about that.

The winds of change may be blowing into Chinese football but in the short-term players such as Gao Lin are worth their weight in gold.