China’s football dreams: From boom to bust?
With the Chinese Super League finally set to return in less than a fortnight, the top flight in the world's most populous country is in crisis and far from the expectations that were once held.
Four months since being paused, the CSL, founded in 2004, kicks off again on December 12 with a whimper.
Across a 24-day period, 64 matches of rounds 15 to 22 will be played.
As with most delays and postponements in modern life, the pandemic has played its part. But the pause also came so that the China men's team could host World Cup qualifiers abroad amid strict Covid-19 protocols that prohibited them from leaving the country or receiving opponents on home soil.
Time and again, though, damaging tweaks have been made to the league with the well-being of the underachieving national team the main focus.
Yet in 2021, with a first participation at the FIFA World Cup since a maiden outing in 2002 highly unlikely as they sit second from bottom in Group B, neither the best squad of homegrown players across a population of 1.4 billion people nor its domestic championship are in good shape.
The years 2011 and 2016 are pivotal in telling the story of how things went awry.
Guangzhou won their first of seven consecutive titles in 2011, but these days its property developing magnate backers Evergrande are on the brink of collapse while mired in over $300 billion worth of debt.
READ MORE: China Evergrande step closer to default
There have been reports that the state has already taken over the stadium, and the club, who also won the title in 2019, seems set to follow the path of reigning 2020 champions Jiangsu FC.
Jiangsu folded when Inter Milan owners Suning, a retail group, pulled out without them being able to defend their first title.
Learning of such figures automatically triggers accusations of ridiculous overspending on transfers and salaries, which are accurate.
Yet just five years ago, the CSL was in boom times.
On December 23 of 2016, Shanghai SIPG shocked the football world when they shelled out over €60 million ($68 million) for Brazil midfielder Oscar – a regular international and Premier League starter aged 25 – with his former Chelsea coach Antonio Conte warning that the rise of the Chinese posed a "danger for all teams in the world."
"[Chinese clubs] seem to have the financial power to lure every player from Europe," added then-Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger from across London.
"There is a very strong political desire in China to become a big player and we have to be worried."
Former Chelsea midfielder Oscar has arrived in China after agreeing a £52m move to Shanghai SIPG. pic.twitter.com/xCFfRbDrgV— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) January 2, 2017
In that winter transfer window of 2016-2017, Chinese outfits blew a whopping collective sum of €388 million ($440 million), and it seemed like someone of the magnitude nearing Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo might soon make the Far East country his home.
Indeed, the Portuguese's superagent Jorge Mendes once revealed that there was an offer of €100 million a year ($113 million) to his biggest client.
In any event, six days after Oscar joined Shanghai SIPG, Argentine star Carlos Tevez rocked up across town at Shanghai Shenhua and reportedly became the highest-paid player in the world on eye-watering wages of $41 million.
While the South Americans were at least established players with Champions League and World Cup pedigree, deals for relative nobodies made before that in early 2016 were even more reckless and bizarre.
Guangzhou paid €42 million ($47.5 million) for Jackson Martinez and Jiangsu handing over €50 million ($56.5 million) to acquire Alex Teixeira from Shakhtar Donetsk.
Most expensive signings by clubs outside the🔝5⃣ leagues:1 🇧🇷 Oscar ➡️ Shanghai Port FC 🇨🇳 (€60m)2 🇧🇷 Hulk ➡️ Shanghai SIPG 🇨🇳 (€55.8m)3 🇧🇷 Alex Teixeira ➡️ Jiangsu FC 🇨🇳 (€50m)4 🇧🇷 Paulinho ➡️ Guangzhou FC 🇨🇳 (€42m)5 🇨🇴 Jackson Martínez ➡️ Guangzhou FC 🇨🇳 (€42m) pic.twitter.com/SXpvsjwTet— The Sweeper (@SweeperPod) March 16, 2021
Perhaps excluding Paulinho, a Guangzhou legend who impressed so much in his first spell that FC Barcelona took him for a single La Liga-winning campaign before he returned, most of the names on astronomical salaries failed to make an impact, nor appeared to take their task particularly seriously.
Tevez, more bothered about playing golf and engineering a return to childhood outfit Boca Juniors, which he did in 2018, referred to his spell there as a "holiday"; even Oscar revealed plans to stick around for just a couple of years before working his way back to Europe.
It has often been thought by those around championships such as the American MLS that having good foreign players will automatically bolster quality across the board, but in the CLS' case, this has not proved a quick fix solution despite standards admittedly improving somewhat.
As is often the case, politics and tinkering behind the scenes played just as big a part in the crumbling of Xanadu than a mere lack of control over the purse strings.
Boca Juniors' Carlos Tevez calls stay in Shanghai a 'seven-month holiday' pic.twitter.com/imwxvzUl9a— Argentine League (@ArgentineLeague) April 24, 2018
Also in 2016, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) announced its plans to transform China into a footballing superpower in Asia by 2030 and a world leader by 2050, as president Xi Jinping made the sport part of the national school curriculum in 2014.
Yet with China 74th in the FIFA rankings, lower than they were a decade ago after world-class coaches such as 2006 World Cup winner Marcello Lippi were unable to improve their lot, there have been several changes in the meantime that only served to the CLS' detriment.
In Oscar's debut season, there was an announcement that only three foreign players could star in one game, and that in every 18-man matchday list, at least two local u-23s should feature with one starting from the offset.
The next season, the goalposts were shifted again with only four foreign players, not five, allowed in the squad and those under contract reduced from seven to six.
Also now, the total number of overseas players could not exceed the total number of Chinese U23 domestic players.
Furthermore, two U23 players must be in the 18-man squad.One U23 player must start. #CSL— China football news (@china_football) January 15, 2017
While these points alone may bear little relevance to the balance sheet, more harmful and related alterations weren't far behind.
To combat the growing perception that money was being squandered on foreign players doing little to justify their lofty pay packets or develop local players, a tax was brought in to guarantee that if any club spent over $7 million on a player from overseas, an equal payment of the transfer fee's amount would have to be paid to the CFA.
In essence, this resulted in double transfer fees, making big-name signings less frequent and therefore drawing a lower caliber of player to the CSL that is a turn off for fans.
Lots of articles and tweets on the foreign exodus from the Chinese Super League after salary cap. I’d be shocked if the new rule wasn’t another opportunity for the CSL’s trademark creative accountancy.— Jonathan White (@jmawhite) December 30, 2019
It would be remiss to deny the impact Covid has had too, and not just on luring good players who are now leaving China in droves as a salary cap of $3.3 million remains fixed.
With no games for four months, financial problems have been heightened. In a recent report, a coach told German outlet DW that staff and players had not been paid in four months with the revenue having dried up.
Like Guangzhou, a number of CSL outfits are or were owned by property developers once willing to spend big due to having the funds in a golden era that has ended in their industry, and to earn favor with the government by investing in football.
Jiangsu Suning FC, Mubarak Wakaso's club in China has been dissolved. The Suning Group announce all their football clubs in China, including Jiangsu, their Women's Teams & teams at all youth levels 'cease operation from today'. Jiangsu won the Chinese 🇨🇳 League only 3 months ago pic.twitter.com/K81MPcpwZG— Saddick Adams (@SaddickAdams) February 28, 2021
Ahead of this season, however, the authorities finally enforced a "de-corporatization" of the names of clubs that had been threatened since 2015, which has, along with the pandemic, quelled ambition to invest more in their outfits amid less visibility.
This was no better communicated than in February when Suning said it would "cut down" any businesses "irrelevant" to retail ahead of folding Jiangsu a fortnight later.
In what is perhaps a football first, a championship-winning team will not defend its crown due to ceasing to exist the following term.
On a wider scale, supporters of others clubs could be discouraged by what the debt-ridden future holds for them amid dwindling quality in the CSL.
By Tom Sanderson
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.