Chinese Super League missing a trick while everyone is making money off the China market

If the Chinese Football Association really wants to develop youth they must improve playing standards in short the term by allowing clubs to sign more foreign players

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 January, 2018, 10:29am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 January, 2018, 7:24pm

A look at the global football clubs crawling over each other to enter the market, or the most recent El Clasico kick-off time, tells you everyone wants a piece of China – so why doesn’t the Chinese Super League?

The Chinese Football Association seems to be doing everything in its power to hamstring interest in the CSL, both at home and abroad, with a series of regulations harming the product on the pitch.

The transfer rule levied by the CFA ahead of last season, which effectively makes imports twice the price with a 100 per cent tax sent to a central fund for grass-roots development, has resulted in more modest expenditure by CSL clubs.

Clubs are sure to look for creative loopholes to get around the rule. The biggest name to arrive in China last summer was Cologne striker Anthony Modeste at Tianjin Quanjian, but despite a reported fee of 36 million (US$43.4 million) it’s believed to been an initial loan deal with an option to buy, circumventing the tax.

Beijing Guo’an are reportedly lining up the next high-profile foreign import to China in Cedric Bakambu, who has nine goals in 15 appearances for La Liga club Villarreal this season and at 26 should have his best years ahead of him.

The Congolese striker has a 40 million buyout clause in his contract meaning he would in effect cost 80 million, making him one of the 10 most expensive players in world football.

But much like Modeste’s loan, Guo’an may be able to bypass the transfer tax if Bakambu buys himself out of his contract by paying his own release clause and then joining as a free agent.

Signing players likely to perform on the pitch who will feasibly increase in value is what CSL clubs should be doing, be they on loan or permanent transfers. Brazilian Paulinho proved the CSL is no career graveyard, the midfielder having joined Barcelona in the summer.

While the goal of the transfer tax is to develop the next generation of Chinese players, the CFA’s latest rule change could do damage to their development, forcing them into the first-team too early.

This season clubs are allowed to field up to three foreigners in a match, but for each one there has to be a local player under the age of 23.

Even if clubs choose not to play a foreigner – the stated aim of seven-time defending champions Guangzhou Evergrande by 2020 – they will still have to play one player under 23.

This revision plugs the holes in last year’s rule, where some managers ticked the box of having to start each game with an under-23 player before subbing them off as early as 15 minutes, and should help youth development.

But having up to six players on the pitch that are not as good as the three imports or the very best Chinese internationals will not improve the standard of football.

When the league season starts in March there could be up to 48 under-23s playing on the opening weekend – half of whom have already been deemed not good enough for China’s squad at the Asian Under-23 Championship later this month.

While some of the players who will feature shone for Marcello Lippi’s senior side at last month’s East Asia Championships, this is an age group that has never made it out of the group stages.

If the CFA really want to develop youth football in the long term, they must improve the standard of play in the short term by making it easier for clubs to sign more foreign players.

That would also make for a more attractive product. A little over a year ago, the world was watching the Chinese Super League, and Chinese clubs signing more players like Shanghai SIPG duo Hulk and Oscar would have kept up interest. Now it runs the risk of everyone turning off.

Big-name imports drive people to buy tickets and tune in across various platforms on televisions, which in turn fuels sponsorships, broadcast deals and potentially overseas shirt sales.

Foreign signings don’t even need to be huge names with massive price tags if they can deliver – just look at SIPG’s other Brazilian attacker, Elkeson, and last season’s top scorer, Eran Zahavi of Guangzhou R&F.

Developing Chinese youth is the right path long-term but it will take many years to see the benefits at first-team level, not to mention the fortune that must be spent on training facilities and coaches.

In the meantime, the Chinese Super League should aspire to be a league that fans want to attend, watch on television and share highlights from on social media rather than it existing on the internet as a destination for spurious transfer rumours.