February 26, 2024

Chinese Super League: from bidding for Bale to selling the team bus

Hulk smiles as he walks through a busy airport, holding a bouquet of flowers while wearing a Shanghai SIPG scarf
Hulk, who had had fruitful spells at Zenit St Petersburg and Porto, was a major signing for Shanghai SIPG

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In June 2016, hundreds of fans gathered at Shanghai airport to watch one of the world’s most famous footballers make the city his home.

Hulk, a 29-year-old Brazilian international at the peak of his powers, was signed by Shanghai SIPG manager Sven-Goran Eriksson for more than £46 million and is said to earn a reported wage of £320,000 per week.

As he walked through the arrivals hall, a welcome bouquet of flowers was placed in his arms and a Shanghai SIPG scarf was draped around his neck.

Over the next three years he was joined by other big names, signed for even bigger price tags.

Chelsea star Oscar arrived six months later. The transfer fee was around £60 million, while his wages were believed to be £400,000 per week.

Carlos Tevez, who had won the Premier League with Manchester United and City, reportedly earned even more when he joined.

Paris St-Germain star Ezequiel Lavezzi,Liverpool are targeting Alex Teixeira And Colombian striker Jackson Martinez were also lured with astronomical transfer fees and huge pay cheques.

The rise of the Super League paralleled that of President Xi Jinping want to turn the country into a football country. In 2011, he announced plans to qualify the men’s national team for a World Cup and for China to eventually host the tournament.

When the Chinese Super League began spending large sums of money, its ambition to turn the nation into a football superpower began to seem very real.

“The Chinese market is a danger to all teams in the world, not just Chelsea,” Blues manager Antonio Conte said at the time when he saw Oscar heading east.

“China seems to have the financial power to move an entire European competition to China,” said Arsenal colleague Arsène Wenger.

Less than a decade later, however, the movement is in the opposite direction: the bubble bursts and players leave.

Short presentation gray line

Jack Sealy was not one of the great newcomers. The son of former QPR striker Tony Sealy, he signed for CSL’s Changchun Yatai in December 2015.

Sealy, then 28, was playing in Hong Kong and was attracted to the Super League by the big names, the higher level of football and the money that came with it.

“I went there when the plant was still growing, so it was very exciting to be there,” he told the BBC.

“People had heard of it before, but no one really knew about it. And as soon as you said to anyone who knew football, they said, ‘Oh wow, you’re going to the Super League.’

“I don’t regret it at all. It was great.”

Sealy, in white, chases Oscar in a match against Shanghai SIPG in March 2017
Sealy, in white, chases Oscar in a match against Shanghai SIPG in March 2017

Amazing, but also strange.

“You just have to completely forget who they are,” he added of some of his major opponents.

“I made the step up or they made the step down, whichever way you see it, and you just have to see them as equals and do the best you can. But it was pretty surreal.

“Oscar – I saw him play at Chelsea – and obviously playing FIFA you know all the players. It was quite incredible.”

By 2019, the competition had become so big that Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale – at one point the most expensive player in the world – was tipped for a move to Jiangsu Suning on a three-year contract worth £1 million per week.

Less than two years later, Jiangsu Suning ceased operations because their financial situation was so bad that they even auctioned off the team’s bus for cash.

How could the Chinese football scene implode so spectacularly?

Things went downhill when the Chinese Football Association did already introduced a ‘luxury tax’ that allowed large money transfersexternal link prohibitively expensive and forbids sponsors to name teams after themselves, announced a salary cap in December 2020.

At the time, the CFA said it hoped this measure would “curb money football” and create an “investment bubble” in the Chinese national team.

China’s sports administration had been wary of the league’s spending for some time. In 2017 it pledged to curb spending and control “irrational investments”, accusing clubs of “burning money” and paying foreign players with “excessive salaries”.

The salary cap certainly had the desired effect. The cap meant that foreign players would only be able to earn a maximum of £52,000 per week, much lower than the contracts previously offered to star names.

Some teams needed such restrictions because they had built up debt through their big spending.

The problems of a large number of clubs have also been exacerbated by the growing problems of their owners in the Chinese real estate sector Several housing construction giants are experiencing cash flow problems.

On top of that, the Covid pandemic hit.

China’s strict containment policy reduced fixture schedules and held all matches behind closed doors for more than two years. Income from broadcasts and sponsorship fell considerably.

Carlos Tevez argues with the referee in a match against Brisbane Road
Tevez, who signed from Boca Juniors to Shanghai Shenhua, later described his year in the Chinese Super League as ‘a day of celebration’

Bosnia and Herzegovina defender Samir Memisevic played for Hebei FC from February 2020, but by his second season at the club he could tell there were problems behind the scenes.

“The second season I thought something was wrong,” he told the BBC.

“After a few months, the financial problems started. Then they had a big problem with the Chinese players: they didn’t pay them for months and I was sure that Hebei would no longer exist by the end of that year.”

Memisevic received and accepted an offer to be loaned to Beijing Guoan, one of the top clubs in the league.

Hebei, who had signed Lavezzi and former Premier League regulars Javier Mascherano and Gervinho during the CSL’s heyday, axed their youth teams in a desperate bid for survival.

Some workers, who were laid off without pay for months, offered to work for free as the club,external link owned by a debt-ridden real estate company, was struggling to pay utility bills.

However, it was all in vain. Earlier this year, Hebei broke up.

“I just feel sorry for Hebei and what happened because they were one of the biggest teams with a lot of big names and money,” said Memisevic, who now plays for Al-Nasr in Dubai.

‘Now it’s just gone.

“It’s really sad, but it’s a thing at a lot of Chinese clubs. I’ve seen Guangzhou and Wuhan disappear too. It’s just very sad.”

“I hope Chinese football will get better because they have invested a lot of money in it. But I don’t think it will be the same as before.”

For John Hassett, the Chinese Super League won’t be the same without his favorite team, Guangzhou City. The club, which has been managed in the past by Eriksson and former Arsenal and Rangers star Giovanni van Bronckhorst, was also dissolved in March.

Every home game, Hassett looked forward to meeting other fans and joining them to cheer on the team.

“For a lot of people the social side was just as important as the football,” he told the BBC.

“We had a little shop outside the ground so we drank there before and after the match. It had also become the meeting point for the local Chinese fan group after the match. It became quite a place.

“We were all gutted. We held a little vigil for the club in our beer shop after it closed. We met a few other groups and had a beer outside the stadium. It was a lot of fun.

“Part of the problem is that none of the clubs have set themselves up to make money.

“The tickets are very cheap. Our season ticket cost £50 or £60. Some student groups bought tickets cheaper than that. Most people don’t buy the official shirts but bought them outside the stadium for £3.

“Generating revenue for clubs is the biggest problem the Super League will have. Where will the money come from if the economy tightens?”

Late last year, as the countdown to the reopening of stadiums to fans began, another question was asked; where has the money gone?

A corruption scandal spread through the highest offices of the domestic game.

Former Everton midfielder and ex-head coach of the Chinese men’s team, Li Tie, was investigated for “serious violations of the law”. with bribery charges filed in August.external link

Chen Xuyuan, former chairman of the Chinese Football Association, is faced similar accusationsexternal link while South Korean midfielder Son Jun-ho, who played for Shandong Taishan, has been arrested since May on suspicion of taking bribes.external link

Now there are only a small number of foreign players left in the league. Those currently playing in China, both local and foreign players, did not respond to interview requests from the BBC.

But despite the problems in the league, there is still demand for domestic football.

When tickets for Beijing Guoan’s first match went on sale in April, they sold out within five minutes.

Beijing Guoan fans sing and jump with their backs to the pitch during a Chinese Super League match
Beijing Guoan is one of the clubs at the forefront of China’s ‘ultra’ football culture

Alberto Doldan, who has worked with La Liga in China and brokered deals in Asia, said the aggressive talent acquisition by top teams in Saudi Arabia currently reminiscent of the peak of the CSL.

But he insists that the Chinese league still has a future, even if it is different from the future that once seemed possible.

“Many teams in China have disappeared due to financial problems,” he told the BBC.

“But I think the future will be better because they have worked with young players. I think in the next five, six or seven years we will get more local players with a higher level.”

“China is still a good place. I think the future lies in the local players.”

With fewer flown-in superstars, the focus is on producing more homegrown superstars to grow the league and improve China’s prospects at the World Cup, a tournament for which they have qualified just once in the men’s competition.

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