It was a daring project from the beginning.
An entire facelift of a sport’s status in any given country is never an easy task, but China were convinced that they could find a way. They had bold end goals in mind, perhaps too much for what they could actually accomplish.
It all started with China’s president Xi Jinping and his reported love for the game, a love that he has apparently held for much of his life. He wants his country to host a World Cup one day, and he even has the audacious dream to one day see them lift the prestigious trophy.
To kick off this journey of at least bringing a tournament to China, Xi Jinping called some crucial shots, introducing a number of initiatives designed to boost the popularity of football as fast as possible.
Looking back, this type of short-term plan of shooting for the stars ultimately held China back from seeing any real progress. In this 20th edition of our newsletter, we take a close look at the decisions that were made, and the reasons why the Chinese Super League never truly amounted to much in the end.
The first of many initiatives came in 2014. Xi began by ordering schools across the country to implement football into their curriculums, exposing the game to hundreds of millions of children. On top of that, billions of dollars were poured into the construction of tens of thousands of fields and full-fledged facilities.
The following year, the Chinese government published a 50-point plan proposing a flood of changes at every level of the national football pyramid. In this plan was the previously mentioned goal of introducing football to as many school kids as possible, but another eye-catching objective was to set up 50,000 soccer schools in the country by 2025.
On the professional side of things, the gears were moving as well. Major companies wasted no time investing in the top clubs of the Chinese Super League, many of which are real-estate companies. As a result, these clubs now boasted newfound transfer market power, and they got straight to work.
Bringing in foreign talent wasn’t necessarily a new feat for CSL clubs, but this new national project certainly increased their odds of securing world-class names. One of the earliest of a fairly short list of stars to have made the decision to try their luck in China was Brazilian striker Hulk.
The former Porto and Zenit man joined Shanghai SIPG in 2016 for a fee worth close to $57 million. It became a record sale for a Russian club and by far the most ever spent on a player by a Chinese club. Hulk’s initial salary was close to $395,000 per week, accumulating to about $24 million annually.
As you can imagine, this made plenty of headlines, but three other players actually decided to head to China just a few months prior.
In the previous winter transfer window, it was Brazil international Ramires who started the trend. In a $31 million deal, he decided to leave Chelsea behind to join Jiangsu Suning. At the time, it was the Chinese transfer fee record, but it was quickly broken less than a week later when Colombian striker Jackson Martinez joined Guangzhou Evergrande from Porto on a $45 million deal.
And just two days later, it was broken once again, with Alex Texeira joining up with Ramires at Jiangsu for a $47 million fee.
These transfers certainly gave the Chinese Super League a push towards the right direction, but in no way was it enough to consider them a real threat to European leagues. Ramires was no longer starting games for Chelsea, Jackson Martinez failed to adapt at Atletico Madrid and Hulk never seemed interested in making a move to the top 5 European leagues.
Carlos Tevez was next to arrive in China in December 2016, but at 32 years of age, he was no longer at the level required to play in Europe.
It wasn’t until the arrival of Oscar that the landscape officially changed.
At 26 years old, the talented Brazilian shocked the world after he made his move to China, joining Hulk at Shanghai SIPG. Like Ramires, he ditched Chelsea, saying “China has incredible financial power and sometimes makes offers that players can't refuse”.
A fee of close to $74 million meant that Oscar’s transfer was now the country’s most expensive ever, taking the record away from Hulk.
The CSL project was finally onto something, and Chelsea manager at the time Antonio Conte recognized it.
“The Chinese market is a danger for all,” the Italian told reporters. “Not only for Chelsea, but all the teams in the world."
He was right, at least for the next 2-3 years. Chinese top-flight clubs would secure more signings over the course of the next few seasons. Here are all the notable names that have signed with CSL clubs, from 2016 to 2019:
These names may look decent on paper, but few of these transfers actually amounted to anything. We lay out the reasons why in the next section.
With the exception of certain players like Tevez, who openly stated that his time in China felt like a holiday and that he had no idea what he was doing there, the reason many of these other transfers didn’t live up much is because of a number of crucial revisions to the way the Chinese Football Association (CFA) operates.
Seemingly contradicting the nation’s plans to grow football popularity, the CFA announced strict rules ahead of the 2017 CSL season that would force clubs to reduce the number foreign players on the pitch. They made so only three foreign players were allowed to feature in one match, and the 18-man squad lists would have to contain at least two U23 Chinese players, one of which had to be a starter.
The decision was designed to give domestic players more regular play time, which makes sense since one of the main goals is for the national team to qualify to the World Cup and, hopefully, win one eventually.
But these rule changes just don’t make any sense in the grand scheme of things. In fact, it completely contradicted the country’s plans of growing their game.
Yes, giving Chinese players more regular football is a good move to eventually improve the national team down the line (since their spots in these clubs may otherwise get taken by foreign players), but at the same time, you kind of need these foreign players to attract attention to your league in the first place.
If they supposedly wanted to grow their top-flight division, then applying these limitations was just an absurd decision.
Unfortunately, more changes were to come the following season.
Previously, the number of foreign players allowed in their roster was five; for the 2018 season, they reduced it to four. The amount of players that clubs were permitted to have under contract also dropped, from seven to six. On top of that, the total number of foreign players appearing in a game could not be more than the number of U23 domestic players.
Furthermore, a sort of ‘tax’ was introduced to prevent clubs from spending large fees on foreign players, with the CFA stating that any club that spends more than $7 million on an overseas player would have to pay a fine equal to the transfer fee.
As you might expect, these rule changes severely halted the flow of stars arriving in China and also caused many pre-existing foreign players to cut their time with CSL clubs short.
But it caused even more problems than that.
With all these limitations, it made it virtually impossible for CSL clubs to sign the players that they want. These teams could no longer offer as attractive a proposition, and eventually attendances fell. Low ticket sales were detrimental to finances, and soon enough certain clubs were in a dire situation.
Wages promised to players were not getting paid, and clubs were struggling to make up their financial debt. The final dagger for a number of teams came in 2020 when the Covid pandemic came around.
Recall that we mentioned earlier in this newsletter that many Chinese clubs are owned by real estate companies. With the market suddenly collapsing because of the outbreak, these conglomerates had no choice but to withdraw funding from their less-important investments.
Football was one of those investments, and one by one, many of these CSL clubs lost their majority financial backing that they depend on.
As a result, multiple teams were forced to fold, notably the 2020 champions Jiangsu Suning, who were unable to defend their title for the 2021 season.
The likes of Hulk, Jackson Martinez, Yannick Carrasco, Axel Witsel, Marek Hamsik and Gervinho, who were signed between 2016 and 2019, have all long since left China.
Perhaps the most awkward detail of all is that Oscar has yet to follow suit. At 32 years old, he is actually a hero of Shanghai Port FC, lifting the CSL title on one occasion, and he’s scored 43 goals and assisted 85 times in 140 league appearances. He’s also captain of the club.
His presence in the league means little, though, because it’s now Saudi Arabia taking over the market and essentially doing what China tried to do from 2016 to 2020, only better. Players are no longer looking to Chinese Super League teams as realistic suitors.
Star names in China are far and few between after their adventurous spending spree that began seven years ago.
Although it played a huge factor, the failure of the CSL project can’t solely be attributed to the unforeseen circumstances brought by the pandemic. As we outlined, the problems began early on, and Covid-19 simply came around to finish off what was already on the brink of premature death.
Looking back to the other aspects of the greater plan to establish football in China as a priority, things have not gone well, either. The national team has seen little improvement, and there just aren’t any prospects breaking onto the scene yet.
Not to say that there won’t ever be, because if the plan is to introduce children to the beautiful game starting from a young age, they obviously still need to grow up and keep improving.
But with the CFA’s rule changes that aimed at getting domestic players more playtime, you’d expect to see at least one player benefit from it and stand out among the rest by now.
Unfortunately, it was nothing more of a gamble, and now Chinese football is facing the consequences.