Ambitious owner Jiang Lizhang apologises for not signing Andres Iniesta but rules have led to sorry state of Chinese Super League

Success at Serie A-bound Parma and bold goals for Granada suggest that Chongqing Lifan project would have legs if lawmakers eased up on restrictions

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 May, 2018, 12:05pm
UPDATED : Monday, 28 May, 2018, 2:54pm

Last week Andres Iniesta pulled on his first club football shirt that wasn’t branded with Barcelona’s badge, although it did share the same number on the back and sponsor across the chest.

That the 34-year-old opted for Vissel Kobe of the J.League, rebuffing overtures from the Chinese Super League, has been put down to the involvement of his friend Hiroshi Mikitani, the CEO of Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten and owner of his new club as much as the comparative quality of life on offer in Japan over China.

Within hours of his unveiling in Tokyo, disappointed Chongqing Lifan boss Jiang Lizhang was at his own press conference where he apologised for not completing the signing of the Spanish schemer.

“We expected to take Chongqing Lifan to a new level,” he said.

“In July of last year, I brought Iniesta to Chongqing and he was preparing the groundwork for his move.

“I was very much looking forward to this happening, but it was not possible and I’m sorry, just like everyone else.”

This was revealing as it was at odds with the statement put out by the club earlier in the month where they distanced themselves from a move for Iniesta, carefully refuting media reports.

“Recently, the media reported that the Spanish star Iniesta will join the club on a high salary,” wrote club president Jiang Lizhang, before outlining his commitment to developing domestic talent.

Many people took that to be not so much a denial as an insurance policy, an indication that the club was trying to get Iniesta to sign but also acutely aware that the financial climate of the Chinese Super League has changed over these last couple of seasons, and perhaps a willingness to be creative with the accounting department in order to get him on board.

Where the Brazilian invasion of Hulk, Oscar and Alex Teixiera was part of a shopping spree that put the English Premier League in the shade, the last window was frugal by comparison.

If not for Beijing Guoan stumping up a record fee for an African player when they signed Cedric Bakambu from Spanish side Villareal – once it included the “transfer tax” on top of his 40 million (US$46.9 million, HK$367.7 million) buyout – the majority of deals were conveniently priced under the tax threshold.

The curbs on spending have come from on high, as part of a wider move to rein in spending at home and abroad.

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It’s clearly harder for the clubs with the increased scrutiny on their balance books but the continued pressure of delivering on the pitch.

Interestingly, the owner used his press conference to confirm that he would not look at sacking manager Paulo Bento despite the club’s recent run of poor form, the one manner of spending that chairmen seem willing to continue.

Jiang is clearly ambitious and trying his best to bring the club to the level he wants.

On Sunday his Parma side celebrated promotion to Serie A, their third promotion in a row.

It’s the first promotion since Jiang took a 60 per cent stake in the club last summer and he has immediately delivered on his stated aim.

“Parma will rise again like a giant to take back its rightful place in Italian football. I hope we can soon celebrate Serie A with the team and the fans,” he said – and celebrate they did on Sunday.

Jiang’s other European interest are not delivering on his promises yet. When he took over at Spanish side Granada from the Pozzo family he declared that he wanted to get the club in European competition by 2019.

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They are about to finish their season in mid-table of the second tier so there will have to be a rethinking of the timetable if not the priority from the boss, who also became the first Chinese minor investor in an NBA team when he bought 5 per cent in the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The current conditions in the CSL are stifling and while the fans might get hot under the collar at the lack of star quality being brought in, the blame doesn’t fall at Jiang’s feet.

The current dream that the league will become a hothouse for young domestic talent seems some distance away as clubs pay fortunes to older domestic players and continue to pick them.

Maybe it needs Jiang to come through on another rumour that he denied last week.

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Manchester City owners City Football Group are purported to be interested in getting their first club in China and the talk is that it will be Chongqing.

Jiang says it is just a rumour but based on his ambition and what happened with Iniesta, he might just be keeping his cards close to his chest.

The Chinese Super League returns to action after the Fifa World Cup.