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Can the recently introduced tighter restrictions on foreign players in the Chinese Super League create a better Chinese national football team in the short-term whilst improving the quality of the domestic league or will they damage the growing attractiveness of the League and ultimately result in a stagnation for both the league and the national team? Richard Pike has his say.
Rumour, speculation, gossip, hope that there may be just one or maybe a few high-profile transfers of players between clubs. Transfers that get fans and pundits both excited and intrigued, filling up pre-match debates. In many cases though, the winter transfer window is often a story of all talk and no action. Many of the elite European clubs choose not to do any business, completely understandable taking into account buying a player and then having to adapt your club’s style and tactics mid-season to ensure such a player fits into your long-term plans. Not to mention the huge fees that clubs charge for their players, which puts off even the very elite clubs. Often, the only noteworthy signings are made by clubs stuck at the lower reaches in a country’s top division desperate to preserve their top flight status, or a club in a division below with a chance of winning promotion to the elite league going for broke in an attempt to do so.
However, in both the winter transfer window of 2016 and the current one in 2017, one league has suddenly warmed up the lips of all fans and pundits around ready for discussion with a flurry of activity. That league, is the Chinese Super League. Halfway through the last European season during the winter transfer window, there was a mass recruitment of well-established players playing in the European leagues, some of whom played for high-profile European clubs by Chinese clubs. The transfer fees to recruit such players have been breath-taking, Chelsea’s Brazilian midfielder Ramires swapped Stamford Bridge for Jiangsu Suning for a fee of GBP 25 million, Atletico Madrid’s Colombian international striker Jackson Martinez signed for Guangzhou Evergrande for GBP 31 million and finally Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk’s Brazilian attacking midfielder Alex Teixeira signed for Jiangsu Suning for a then record fee of GBP 35 million beating English club Liverpool to the signing in spectacular fashion. The winter transfer window of 2016-17 proved that this is no flash in the pan, Belgian international midfielder Axel Witsel swapped Russian club Zenit Saint Petersburg for Tianjin Quanjian, Chelsea were raided for a second time in a year, this time, another of their Brazilian contingent, midfielder Oscar was snapped up by Shanghai SIPG for an eye watering fee of GBP 60 million but the largest sensation of all was Shanghai Shenhua signing former Argentine international striker Carlos Tevez from Boca Juniors on reported wages of around GBP 610,000 per week.
This wave of spending by cash rich Chinese clubs has set alarm bells ringing amongst European clubs as Chinese Super League teams are trying to build up squads capable of gradually matching those in Western Europe tying into Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambition to make China a football superpower and its national team to win the World Cup in the next 15 years. However, just as European clubs were recovering from the impact of such transfers, a new Chinese Football Association law came into force in the Chinese Super League which now restricts Chinese clubs to no more than 3 non-Chinese players in their matchday squads, down from the previous rule of 4 non-Chinese players. A huge announcement by the Chinese FA, but will it work for both parties? Will it enable the Chinese national football team to have a better chance of achieving President Xi’s ambitions to win a World Cup within 15 years alongside improving year-on-year the quality of the Chinese Super League?
It is impossible to ascertain an exact event which has led to the tightening up the restrictions on foreign players in the Chinese Super League, however, if you were to hazard a guess, a good one occurred just recently. On Thursday 6th October 2016, China’s national footballing team lost a 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier at home to Syria 1-0, in the immediate aftermath of the defeat, angry and disgruntled Chinese football fans took to social media to lay into the performance of their players and even more noteworthy demand the resignation of the President of the Chinese FA, Mr Cai Zhenhua. Protests were not just solely consigned to social media either as large groups of fans also protested directly outside of the headquarters of the Chinese FA.
Put the two events together and the decision to install tighter restrictions on foreign players in the Chinese Super League seems to be a perfect way to try and appease the protesting fans. There are some very understandable reasons for a tightening of the foreign players quota, the masterplan initiated by the Chinese President to make the country a footballing superpower should not solely just consist of having a high standard domestic league brought to such a standard solely by a mass influx of foreign players. It is also important that the Chinese national team is prioritised too. Big money is being spent at the moment, but nearly all of it on overseas signings and the Chinese FA is probably concerned that Chinese clubs are not doing enough to develop local talent. Finally, there is the common argument trotted out by many fans in all countries which goes along the lines of “The more foreign players that are bought by a country’s clubs, fewer domestic players get regular exposure to first team football, which in turn harms the current performance and future development of a national team.”
The aforementioned reasons above about the tightening of quotas does have some understandable reasoning, however, scratch beneath the surface and it is not quite as simple as the arguments implied above. The first strong argument against is that whilst it is important that young Chinese players do get the opportunity to improve with exposure to regular first team football, of greater importance is that the quality of the league that they are playing in improves as well. This recent large scale recruitment of foreign players by Chinese clubs will bring the standards and quality of the league substantially higher in an instant, it is still a long way behind the standard of the elite European leagues like the Premier League and La Liga, but, it is probably now around the same level as a league ranked 9th or 10th in Europe like the Belgian or Turkish leagues taking into account UEFA’s club coefficients. This rise may well be attributable solely due to the presence of foreign players, but the league getting better will also bring out better performances and gradual improvement in local Chinese players who now have to adapt to playing against many more higher quality opponents every week.
Furthermore, growing the league’s quality massively in the short term, could yet result in even more greater benefits for Chinese clubs in the short term and both Chinese clubs and Chinese players in the long-term. Short-term a higher quality league could see more Chinese clubs record higher attendances and eventually sell out their stadiums. More fans in the country could see a local Chinese Super League game as a credible alternative to filling their “football cravings” on a weekend than ignoring their domestic league and watching the Premier League or La Liga instead. More full stadiums instantly makes the league more attractive to TV and large corporate sponsors, which in turn could further increase the wealth of Chinese clubs. Even more cash could likely result in better youth development and even better young Chinese players for the national team in the future.
The key issue here though is that the only real way to improve the league at the moment is through the recruitment of foreign players due to the low ranking of the Chinese national team and their poor performances in World Cup qualification. The tougher quotas mean that all 16 clubs in the league will have to find 16 local Chinese players of a similar quality to fill the slot of a foreign player they can no longer field. Currently, they cannot replace such quality and as a result, the league’s overall quality will drop. This could have a damaging effect on the competition in upcoming years. The reported eye-watering sums of money being offered to players to play for Chinese clubs is the major reason for the league’s growing attraction for players, but the very fact more and more good quality foreign players are heading over there is also attributable to a better quality of league. If the quality of the league suffers due to tighter restrictions on foreign players, it could deter some players from wanting to go and play in China. Furthermore, it could also have a detrimental effect on good quality coaches wanting to come to China as well. A major reason the Premier League managed to attract high-calibre coaches like Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola to its shores this summer was because of the high standard of the league, the tough, intense games you get most weeks and the challenge of winning the league title in England as a result of the two aforementioned points.
Damaging the quality of the league in the short-term is a strong argument as to why restricting the numbers of foreign players in the Chinese Super League is a mistake, but it can also affect the quality of domestic Chinese players in the long-term as well and I will illustrate this point with two further examples.
For the first example, one needs to cast a glance at the situation in two of the better ranked European leagues outside of the Big 5 leagues of England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France, these two leagues are the Russian and Ukrainian leagues. At the recent 2016 European Championships in France, all but one of Russia’s 23 man squad was based in Russia, with only England possessing a higher number of domestic-based players in their squad. Ukraine’s squad also consisted of mainly domestic-based players with just 5 of their party of 23 plying their trade overseas. Whilst both the Russian and Ukrainian leagues are not of the elite level of those like the Premier League and La Liga, some of their top players who play for their national teams are well-paid, earning comfortably what some players in the top 4/5 clubs in some of the elite European leagues are likely paying their players.
One example of this is Dynamo Kiev’s 27 year-old Ukrainian international Andriy Yarmolenko, who it was recently revealed in an article from Eastern-European specialised football website Futbolgrad is the highest earner in the Ukrainian league with a salary of USD 5 million a season before tax, which corresponds to roughly GBP 4 million using current exchange rates or around GBP 80,000 a week. What is also notable about that article is that were a club from a better standard Western European league like the German Bundesliga to try and sign Yarmolenko, they could have to pay him a staggering figure of around USD 10 million a season before tax (Around GBP 8 million a season/GBP 160,000 a week) to match the wages he is earning at Dynamo because of several factors, amongst which include a lower tax rate in Ukraine for high earners than in Western Europe. A salary that high means only elite clubs like Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid or Barcelona could afford to sign him. The problem Yarmolenko has is that because the Ukrainian league is a much lower standard than the Big 5 leagues and Ukraine have never in recent memory had a strong run to the latter stages of an international tournament, top European clubs are unsure of just how good he is and as a result are unwilling to gamble such a high sum of money on him.
Cast your mind back to the start of 2008 and there was a similar situation surrounding Russian club Zenit Saint Petersburg and their prized asset, Russian international Andrey Arshavin. However, within 6 months, Arshavin had played a huge part in Zenit’s successful 2008 UEFA Cup triumph and then followed it up that summer by inspiring the Russian national team to the semi finals of Euro 2008. Unlike Yarmolenko now, Arshavin had been part of success both for club and country which was brought to the attention of the whole continent and it was eventually Arsenal that signed him in the January transfer window of 2009 from Zenit. Staggeringly though, it was revealed just months later that Arshavin was reportedly earning less money after-tax than he was at Zenit due to the low-tax rate in Russia of just 13 per cent for high-earners in comparison to a 50 per cent tax rate in England. In the case of Arshavin, even if he was earning less after-tax than at Zenit, at the then age of 27, he was never going to turn down a move due to the stature of a club like Arsenal, as such an opportunity would likely never come again.
If a European giant like Manchester United or Real Madrid came in for Yarmolenko, then even if he had to accept a small salary reduction after-tax, he would like Arshavin, more than likely leave Dynamo. The problem though is that Yarmolenko has not had the exposure and success at club and international level that Arshavin once had to warrant a European giant taking a chance on him. A more realistic move is to a club a level below the elite of European football, but above that of Dynamo Kiev like an Everton, who have been linked with the player. However, with the club not being of the same stature as the elite level clubs not to mention having to likely accept a vastly reduced salary after tax, there is little chance Yarmolenko would move to an Everton. In essence therefore, what you have with most Russian and Ukrainian internationals is highly-paid players unwilling to come out of their comfort zone and test themselves in a higher calibre league unless an elite level club tries to buy them. All the aforementioned points could be a factor as to why the Russian and Ukrainian national teams were the two worst performing sides at last summer’s European Championships with Russia only earning one point from 3 group matches and Ukraine losing all 3 of their games.
Another notable point about the Russian and Ukrainian leagues is that of all the countries that participated at Euro 2016, both their domestic leagues were the only leagues where there are limits on the number of foreign players allowed in a club’s starting matchday eleven. Russian and Ukrainian international players are, because of the quotas, important commodities and therefore, to keep hold of them, their clubs will pay them high wages like Yarmolenko, which are an inflation of their abilities considering their lack of success internationally, in the Champions League and the lower standard of their domestic leagues. Instantly, this should act as a warning to the Chinese Super League, another league with quotas on foreign players and lots of money, however, having read another article on Futbolgrad, it is already starting to go the same way as the Russian and Ukrainian leagues when it comes to players being valued far in excess of their actual abilities. As Futbolgrad points out in its article, Chinese international player Chengdong Zhang, who has a market valuation of EUR 475,000 on German football website Transfermarkt recently transferred from Beijing Guoan to fellow Chinese club Hebei China Fortune for a crazy EUR 20.4 million, 50 times his Transfermarkt valuation. It is also worth noting that Chengdong’s transfer was made just days before the new rule on foreign players was established. With Chinese clubs now having to find more domestic players to fill the void and Chinese players now being a prized commodity, expect even more ludicrously priced transfers of Chinese players between Chinese clubs in the future. Furthermore, it has proved hard enough to get Russian and Ukrainian internationals to leave their comfort zone and challenge themselves in a better quality league due to high after-tax salaries, Chinese players will follow a similar path, especially with the Chinese corporate income tax rate being just 25 per cent.
The stricter quotas imposed on Chinese Super League clubs may not also just lead to future scenarios like the aforementioned ones with Russian and Ukrainian players, but they could also lead to future scenarios that have plagued English football over the last decade. Not only will the increased quotas on foreign players mean that experienced Chinese international players will see their transfer fees soar when they undergo a domestic transfer, it could also see Chinese clubs desperate to keep hold of any talented young players that they have offer them hugely inflated wages before they have achieved anything noteworthy in the game.
This could result in future scenarios that have occurred in English football with young players in what has been termed a “Too much too young” disease by pundits and fans in England. Just recently, Liverpool, one of English football’s richest and most prestigious clubs, perhaps wary of how the “Too much too young” disease has affected clubs in England in the past introduced a GBP 40,000 per year cap on the amount of money a young player under the age of 17 can make at the club. Recent events in China show that like England, the domestic clubs are awash with cash and with big investments to be made into Chinese youth football as part of the plan to make them a footballing superpower over the next decade, there is the fear that young, unproven Chinese players will soon see their wages soar as clubs seek to keep hold of valued assets. The pitfalls of “Too much too young” are there for all to see, it could lead to young Chinese players suddenly believing that they have become stars before they have achieved anything noteworthy in the game. Breaking into the senior side of your first club is only the first step on a journey to the top of the game for any young player, as no player is the finished article at 19/20 years old. Huge wages at a young age could potentially see several young Chinese players lose their focus to continue improving. Talented young players already have the safety net of tighter quotas on foreign players, high wages and a comfortable lifestyle. All this in their teenage years combined with the aforementioned safety net could be a dangerous combination.
Finally, the one thing a tighter quota on foreign players could achieve is potential difficulties in trying to develop a healthy working relationship between the two major governing bodies of Chinese football to enable the country to become the footballing superpower it craves to be. On one side you have the Chinese Super League, an entity whose members have huge sums of money to spend on players, who want their clubs to continue to be able to sign quality foreign players to improve their product and who are probably upset at the decision by the Chinese FA to restrict the number of foreign players its members can use. On the other side you have a Chinese FA, desperate for their national team to start to significantly improve quickly so that they can fulfil the lofty set ambitions of China being able to win a World Cup by 2030, but concerned at the vast increase of foreign players which could lead to less and less playing time for Chinese players and stagnation for the national team. Like the “Too much too young” disease, this potential conflict could mirror the situation in England, where many believe that the creation of the Premier League and the subsequent power and wealth that it has accumulated has damaged the English national team, preventing it from carrying out the much craved desire from both English fans and the English FA of winning the World Cup.
The tightening of quotas on foreign players in the Chinese Super League has both its supporters and its detractors and could lead to interesting developments in how the game in China evolves through the relationship between the Chinese Super League and the Chinese FA. Personally, I think the tightening of the quotas by the Chinese FA is a mistake. I felt that the previous quotas were allowing the league to grow at a good enough rate whilst still allowing a good number of Chinese players to play for each team every week, who gradually will improve due to the experience of playing alongside good foreign players. Should China wish to establish itself as a footballing power, making the league and its clubs a footballing force is easier and a lot quicker to do than the national team. Mr Xi’s ambitions for China to host and win a World Cup by 2030 are very noble and bold. However, I feel that they are vastly overambitious, unrealistic and they have forced the Chinese FA to make a rash decision to impose tougher quotas on foreign players which could harm the league’s improving quality which in turn could harm the development of their national team.
If the Chinese national team pre-Mr Xi’s statement had been regular qualifiers for World Cups over the last 5/6 tournaments, sometimes even in a few of them reaching the knockout rounds, then this target, whilst still ambitious would have been more realistic. However, China have only ever qualified for one World Cup in 2002, where they finished bottom of their group suffering 3 defeats to Brazil, Turkey and Costa Rica. Japan and the United States have ploughed vast sums of money into infrastructure over the last 20 years to try to make them future World Cup winners. Despite both having had a professional league for more than 2 decades and having reached the knockout rounds of past World Cups, you would think they are both at least another 20-25 years away from winning a World Cup and both are way ahead of China at the moment. China has to realise that developing players who will have the capability to win a World Cup takes time. Its finances and population mean it has a decent chance to become a future global superpower in football, just like in certain individual sports in the Olympics. However, success in team sports is a lot harder to achieve than in individual sports and huge sums of money do not necessarily give teams or countries the same advantages that it gives individual athletes.