If Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo were thinking of a year or two in China before hanging up their boots, they can forget it. Spending in the Chinese Super League is a fraction of what it was at its height and it is not going to rise anytime soon. The flow of money from Chinese clubs to the outside world has become a trickle with headlines now more focused on clubs that are struggling financially rather than big name arrivals.
Just four years ago, the league was the biggest spending domestic tournament in the world, splashing more cash even than the English Premier League. In the 2016-17 winter transfer window, clubs in China shelled out £331 million (US$468 million) compared to the Premier League’s £215 million (US$304 million) on stars such as Carlos Tevez and Oscar.
Some in Europe did not welcome the rise of a new financial football power. When Oscar left Stamford Bridge for £60 million to go to Shanghai Port (then Shanghai SIPG), Chelsea coach Antonio Conte issued a grave warning. “The Chinese market is a danger for all,” said the Italian. “Not only for Chelsea, but all the teams in the world.”
Yet while coaches saw China as a threat, executives in Europe saw the country as an opportunity — a welcome option for big clubs to sell unwanted or aging talent at high prices. “It is very difficult to predict the impact [Chinese spending] will have,” said Manchester United CEO Ed Woodward. [It could be a] useful market if we are looking to sell any players.”
It was easy to see why European eyes were lighting up. The spending had started in 2010 and had continued to grow over the years. It did not come from out of nowhere. The Chinese government, led by Xi Jinping, felt that the world’s most populous nation continually underachieving at the world’s most popular game had to stop. Money, from private companies, though with close ties to government, and state-owned enterprises started to roll in.
Evergrande, a real estate giant was the first, taking over Guangzhou in 2010 and started investing in top-class Chinese players and, most noticeably, talented foreign players. Other clubs such as Jiangsu, backed by retail giant Suning, and Shanghai SIPG, owned by Shanghai International Port Group, followed suit.
Some signings made a huge difference. The influx of stars meant that the Chinese Super League became Asia’s best in terms of attendance and standards improved. Guangzhou Evergrande became the first Chinese team to win the Asian Champions League in 2013 and then repeated the feat two years later. Broadcasting revenues increased and a new deal in 2015 was worth US$1.2 billion, a 25-fold rise. This helped local salaries also rise considerably, an important development in a country where football was often not seen as a viable career choice.
But it is incredible now to look back on the huge amounts of money wasted on players – Jackson Martinez, for example. Atletico Madrid could not believe their luck when Guangzhou Evergrande paid $50 million for the struggling Colombian. There were other high profile flops such as Tevez and Nicolas Anelka and many more who were not as well-known but still far from cheap.
The Chinese government, always concerned about capital leaving the country in large amounts, began to take notice amid rumours of Wayne Rooney being offered more than $130 million to up for China. Beijing moved to reduce the flow of currency overseas and in 2017, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) imposed the so-called transfer tax. This meant that clubs which did not make a profit (i.e. pretty much all in China) had to, when buying foreign players, pay a sum equal to the transfer fee to a local development fund.
“To benefit the healthy and steady development of professional football leagues and curb the irrational spending on players, those clubs which are in the red should pay the same sums of money as they are spending on buying players to the Chinese Football Development Fund,” the CFA said.
Spending levels did fall, though clubs searched for loopholes, and in 2019, a salary cap was announced. This was tightened ahead of the 2021 season.
Foreign players could not be paid more than $3.6 million with domestic players limited to around one fifth of this amount. In tidal, clubs had to stay within a total salary cap of $90 million, half the average amount spent in 2019.
In December, Liu Yi, the General Secretary of the CFA explained why this was happening. “In the last three to five years, everyone understands the CSL has been growing fast in terms of its brand identity and brand value,” Liu said. “But the overspending is something off the track. Out of the $180 million [the average amount spent in 2019], 70% to 80% goes into the pockets of the players. And of that, about 70% is the salaries of international players.”
Such paypackets are not going to tempt the big stars –Carlos Tevez reportedly earned the new annual limit in a month. And there is little prospect of change as more and more Chinese teams are struggling financially. Just three years ago, the city of Tianjin had two thriving teams with stars such as Alexandre Pato and Axel Witsel. One went bankrupt in May 2020 and another is set to follow. Jiangsu Suning won their first title last year but the owners, who also run Inter Milan, shuttered the team after efforts to looking to offload the club cheaply failed due to substantial debts.
European clubs that were looking to raise some money in these trying times are finding that China is no longer an easy and lucrative option. Messi and Ronaldo, and other big names, will have to look elsewhere if they fancy a year or two outside Europe before they retire.
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