China is cracking down on the use of pricey foreign players by its domestic league teams just as sides are gearing up for the coming season. Here’s how it happened:
Getting the ball rolling
The Chinese domestic league had been steadily growing by the time President Xi Jinping took office in 2012 and increasing attention was paid to past comments he had made declaring his vision of China becoming a football superpower.
The focus on his remarks is widely cited as encouraging lavish spending on foreign talent by the big businesses that own Chinese Super League teams as well as ramped-up investment in grassroots development.
Hoping to fan interest in Chinese football — and in some cases please Xi — top teams sought to outdo each other with foreign player signings, especially in the past few years.
Last month Chelsea’s Brazilian midfielder Oscar confirmed a record-breaking move to Shanghai SIPG worth a reported 60 million euros (around $63 million) — the fifth time in a year the Asian football transfer record was broken.
Brazilians Hulk and Alex Teixeira, Argentina’s Carlos Tevez and others have also been lured to China for eye-watering sums.
Tevez, for example, is headed to Shanghai Shenhua for a reported 38 million euros per season, which would make the 32-year-old the highest-earning footballer in the world — even more than compatriot Lionel Messi and Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo.
Facing slowing economic growth, China’s government had already been trying to stem capital flight and what it describes as reckless spending and, in that context, the stunning transfer price tags were practically inviting a crackdown.
On January 6, the sports ministry warned it would take action against teams that shell out “irrational” sums.
This week the Chinese Football Association went a step further, cutting the number of foreign players that top-flight teams could field from four to no more than three per match for the coming 2017 season, which starts in March.
Stemming the flow
Since the sports ministry’s edict, only one major foreign signing has taken place: Tianjin TEDA snagged Chelsea’s Nigerian midfielder John Obi Mikel for about 8.5 million euros, according to transfermarketweb.com.
Shu Yuhui, the chairman of Super League side Tianjin Quanjian, told state media this week the clampdown had scuppered his team’s plans to buy Chelsea’s Spanish striker Diego Costa and a host of other Europe-based stars.
The Chinese public and fans appear to be broadly supportive of the new curbs, with hopes that more money will flow into developing the skill level of Chinese players.
China’s national team is currently ranked a lowly 81st in the world, just behind Saint Kitts and Nevis with its population of around 50,000 people compared with China’s 1.3 billion.
Sports industry insiders, meanwhile, have said the astronomical sums had become divorced from business sense and needed to be reined in.
But some fans have complained the official heavy-handedness will prevent domestic footballers learning from top foreign talent and forcing fans to endure boring play as they await the emergence of the hoped-for Chinese football “superpower”.