In 2011, the Chinese Super League title went to Guangzhou city for the first time, just a year after the club was bought out by Evergrande. Funded by the giant real estate developer, Guangzhou won seven more titles and two Asian championships over the next eight years.
In 2021, however, Evergrande is in debt of $ 305 billion (€ 261 billion) and the club’s future is uncertain. It’s a story that reflects the roller coaster ride of Chinese football in general over the past decade.
Guangzhou has spent a lot on famous imports like Brazil international Paulinho and coaches like Marcello Lippi and World Cup winner Luiz Felipe Scolari. Other clubs, funded by owners perhaps influenced by the Chinese government’s desire to make the world’s most populous country a force in the world’s most populous game, have followed Guangzhou’s lead.
It peaked in the winter transfer market of 2016-17 when, within two months, the Chinese Super League became the world’s biggest spend, splashing a total of € 388 million on players in just two months.
In December 2016, when Shanghai SIPG paid English Premier League club Chelsea more than 60 million euros for Brazilian Oscar midfielder Antonio Conte, the London team coach warned that the rise of the China was a “danger to all the teams in the world”. Established European leagues appeared to be worried about the rise of a rival.
Conte was right that the spending was dangerous, but not in the way he meant. Since 2018, the Chinese authorities, alarmed by the sums of money leaving the country for the benefit of foreign players, clubs and agents, had decided to restrict spending by introducing transfer taxes and a salary cap.
Jiangsu Suning folded soon after winning his first Chinese Super League title in 2021
This was not enough to stop the Suning distribution group, including club Jiangsu FC, winning a debut championship in November 2020, disconnecting three months later.. Guangzhou FC may not go bankrupt, but its days of domination and flagship of Chinese football are surely over.
“The relationship between business and football is too close and poorly governed,” Simon Chadwick, Eurasian sports professor at Emlyon Business School, told DW. “Football in China needs a new agreement, in which the national football association has the power and autonomy to regulate the activity and relations with organizations like Evergrande.”
China’s failures in the World Cup
Much of the motivation behind the spending was to improve standards and ultimately the national team underperforming. In 2016, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) announced its intention to make China an Asian power by 2030 and a world leader by 2050. Returning to the World Cup after just one appearance in 2002 , is considered essential for development as well as for national pride. .
While the influx of foreign stars has raised the standards of the Chinese Super League, it is uncertain whether there has been a lasting advantage for the national team. Ten years ago, China was ranked 69th in the world according to FIFA, six places higher than in September 2021.
China did not start well in World Cup qualifying finals
“It is very difficult for China to qualify for the 2022 World Cup because there is still a big gap between China and the top Asian teams like Japan, Australia, Iran, Korea and the Saudi Arabia, “China’s leading football commentator Ma Dexing told DW. .
In September, China lost to Japan and Australia in the first two games of the last qualifying round for 2022 and reaching Qatar is already looking difficult despite extensive preparation.
To give the national team time to prepare for qualifying in September, October and November, the Chinese Super League was controversially suspended from mid-August to December. “I totally disagree with this idea of stopping the Chinese Super League,” Ma said. “I thought there were much better solutions.”
His concerns seem well founded. The lack of home games has compounded the financial problems facing some clubs. A coach told DW he and his players haven’t been paid for four months with no games and little income. In the football sense, this is also damaging as it means that the vast majority of players in China are hitting their heels and, while waiting for World Cup qualifying to stop, not improving.
Focus on youth development
There is no shortcut. The key to the top lies in producing more and better players. Ten years ago, the Ministry of Education and the CFA launched a vast program to get children to play.
By the end of 2019, 27,000 schools in China were providing special football education to around 27 million students, a figure expected to reach 50,000 and 50 million by 2025. Some 40,000 fields have been built or renovated, and thousands coaches have been trained. .
China focused on developing the next generation of soccer players
Tom Byer, a youth development expert based in Japan, the country whose system China wanted to emulate, was brought to Beijing to help develop soccer education for children and coaches. He believes that progress has been made and that the departure of famous foreign stars is not so bad.
“These top foreigners are in key positions that Chinese players should be in,” Byer said. “Now coaches in China say their best players are younger players and give them more opportunities.”
The Chinese Super League scorer rankings have been dominated in recent years by foreign imports, but now Zhang Yuning and Liu Wenjun are there. We need more. Ma predicts that it will be 10 to 15 years before China begins to consistently produce better players.
“The integration of football into the school curriculum suggests that the flow of benefits from China’s investment in sports will be delivered over a longer period of time,” Chadwick said. “On the pitch, we will start to see progress in the second half of this decade, although it seems likely that it will be at least 2035 before we see China’s steady rise in the football rankings. This of course depends on whether the country succeeds in its strategy.
It remains to be seen, but there is a better chance that it will happen in the next decade than the last, as lessons have been learned.
“What we can say is that China now knows what is wrong and what it should not be doing – for example, paying huge salaries to aging foreign players,” Chadwick said.