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Chinese Super League

Have shock new rules on foreign players burst Chinese football’s transfer bubble?

Chinese Football Association confirms tough new restriction on overseas players, in a sign that government has had enough

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 January, 2017, 11:22am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 January, 2017, 11:00pm

The Chinese Football Association has imposed surprise new rules on the number of foreign players allowed in the Chinese Super League, just weeks before the new season begins – and midway through a transfer window in which top clubs have already shelled out massive sums of money on overseas stars.

And in a further sign that government authorities have decided enough is enough in China’s wild football market, the CFA said it would introduce “a series of measures and initiatives to regulate the operation and management of clubs” after recent “irrational investment”.

The CFA had previously consulted with clubs over limiting the number of foreigners, but the shock announcement was tougher than expected, and caught clubs by surprise.

In recent weeks, state media has issued increasingly strident criticism of clubs’ spending, which this month has seen the likes of top players Oscar, Axel Witsel and Carlos Tevez move to China for reported weekly salaries of between 300,000 to 800,000.

The CFA confirmed that in the coming season clubs will only be allowed to field three foreigners per match.

Previously the rule was “4+1” – four foreigners of any nationality plus one Asian in a matchday squad – with 3+1 on the field at any one time.

Now only three foreigners, Asian or otherwise, will be allowed play per match.

The move was being made “in order to carry out the requirements of the ‘Overall Plan for Reform and Development of Chinese Football’,” said the CFA’s announcement.

“It is conducive to the development of Chinese football and the training of local players, which is conducive to the promotion of the national team and the healthy, stable and sustainable development of a professional league.”

Teams will also be required to name two under-23 Chinese players in their matchday squads, with at least one in the starting XI.

At the end of last year, the CFA had told clubs it was considering reducing the squad quota by one foreign player, but the surprise change is even tougher, effectively devaluing Asian foreign players and putting a premium on talented under-23 Chinese players.

The CFA said it would be cracking down on so-called “yin-yang contracts, signature fees and other illegal activities”.

‘Yin-yang contracts’ refers to under-the-table agreements where buyers and sellers understate the value of assets to avoid tax.

A standardised club financial system would be introduced, said the statement, including “third party audits, the development of club financial standards and much other supporting work to help clubs to achieve an independent and healthy operation and enhance their management and operational capabilities”.

Some Chinese media outlets reported that the rule changes had been imposed by the state government, which would be a breach of Fifa’s rules if true.

Fifa did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In 2015, the above-mentioned “Plan for Reform and Development of Chinese Football” notionally separated the CFA from state control, a long overdue move to conform with Fifa’s regulations.

The government has been keen to promote football, but it seems those in power have become increasingly concerned at the vast sums of money being spent on foreign players.

Some speculate that the sums being spent could be a means of capital flight or money laundering, while the inconceivable wages reported may cause unrest in a country where the average annual salary is about a hundredth of what Tevez will supposedly earn per week.