A matter of principles

Hu Jin Tao with kids
You’re in

As everyone is aware, there has been a huge sea change taking place in Chinese football over the past two years which has catapulted the Chinese Super League (CSL) in to one of the biggest spenders and most reported upon leagues in the world.

As with other types of development, with any significant change in conditions there needs to be a corresponding change in policy to keep the development relevant and efficient. The Chinese Football Association (CFA) has realised this and has tried to shape the rapid development of the sport inside it’s own territory accordingly. This has lead to numerous significant changes in the rules governing the professional game over the past year or so.

It is of course important to first understand the ultimate goals which supposedly guide the development of football and the change in it’s surrounding policy. As ever in China, the governing Communist Party are central to what’s going on and in this light the government’s publication of a plan for development just over a year ago is widely seen as the motivation behind the ramping up of commercial activity. This plan laid down a road map for development over the short, medium and long term (up to 2050), however, the ultimate goal is for China to win the World Cup.

Following this publication, there has been a huge influx of foreign talent in to the CSL which has changed the face of the League from a one which consisted of domestic players and unknown/over-the-hill foreign players to one which boasts some of the most well known players in the world in the peak of their career. The reasons for this are numerous, but it does tie in with the governments plan for development, including the commercial development of the football industry. It is also widely seen as a way for wealthy club owning groups to curry favour with the government by getting behind the plan and as a way by the same groups to improve publicity.

No country for old men

However, I think understandably, the CFA judged spending record-breaking amounts on bringing in foreign talent is not the right way to go about developing a national team capable of winning the World Cup.

To this end, prior to the beginning of this CSL season the CFA introduced two sets of regulations to come in to immediate effect to redirect development to suit it’s goals. These pieces of regulation followed two principles, one which is to increase the proportion of domestic players, the other to improve youth development.

One piece changed the rule that teams are only allowed to field three non-Chinese (PR China) players in any one game. This dropped it down from the four previously in effect (if four international players, one had to be from another Asian country). The other rule change was the more interesting for me which was that every team had to have an under-23 in their starting line-up in an effort to boost youth development.

Since then we have seen that even if foreign players are slightly fewer, their influence has not really decreased. The best players in the CSL are still international and they form most of the attacking force on show, scoring a disproportionate amount of the goals. We have also seen that clubs are continuing to outspend each other to attract this talent.

The rule change to encourage the use of under-23 players has also not had it’s intended consequences with the common sight of the only young player being substituted off soon after kick-off in a blatant attempt to circumvent the rules.

So, in response to a rule a change which didn’t seem to make much difference, the CFA last week came out with yet another rule change, to come in to effect next season. The rules are somewhat of an extension of those from six months ago, particularly in regards to the principle of youth development, although these seem far more drastic and to my knowledge are unprecedented in their extent.

One relates to foreign players bought in and says that any club making a loss (all but two teams in the CSL) has to match the transfer fees they pay for this talent with investment in it’s youth development schemes. The other states that the amount of foreign players on the pitch for each team has to be matched by under-23 players.

So what effect will these rulings have?

In much the same way as we saw before, I think clubs will try their best to circumvent the rules.

For instance, looking at the rule to match investment in foreign players, with investment in youth development. Despite the fact most of the clubs have very wealthy backers, this rule to effectively double transfer fees will likely create an unacceptable cost for these clubs, if this was the case Shanhai SIPG would have forked out over £100 million on youth development in return for Hulk and Oscar’s services. However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a whole load of players moving to China on free transfers or on loan, which of course don’t have transfer fees. I can also envisage other accounting tricks to get around these rules, such as delaying payment to clubs for payers, “investment” agreements between Chinese clubs and foreign clubs which are proxies for transfer fees or possibly players being owned by third parties and “rented” to Chinese clubs. All this means I am very dubious that the biggest clubs will make youth investment equivalent to a new Etihad campus every two years.

Etihad campus
That’ll cost you a Hulk, a Tevez, a Teixeira and an Oscar.

The rule about playing under-23s seems to be a lot more difficult to circumvent, as the young players cannot be substituted off without also removing foreign players. What happens when an under-23 leaves the pitch through injury or a sending off though is unclear.

But this is the rule which could be the most significant and have a large amount of unintended consequences. For instance, as previously mentioned teams are likely to continue to play their maximum quota of international players (three), this then means that at least three under-23s will have to be on the pitch at any one time, thus meaning teams may possibly only field four over-23 domestic players in a game. This could then quite easily lead to a drop in the average level of domestic player as better quality elder players will be dropped for worse younger ones and the strange situation where by a player that is reaching maturity will actually decrease in value as there is no room for them in the first team.

This of course could have a very big effect on the national team’s progression because if for arguments sake each CSL fields only four over-23s each week, that gives the China national team a choice of only sixty four players, as opposed to the 112 it currently has (they are likely to be better than the under-23s). Common sense suggests the more players of higher quality there are to choose from the better will be the international team, which if you use the old adage, “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough” does not discriminate against players of any age. So, far from the well-intended aim of improving the national team going forward by enforcing participation by under-23s, this ruling could hinder the team going forward.

Why might it be the case that such rulings got passed? One accusation often passed against the CFA is that the people at the top do not have a football background. Most are officials who have had experience in other domains and so cannot deliver insights which are suitable for football. Now I am not saying that they need to bring in a whole group of Chinese football old boys, particularly given Chinese football’s past problems with corruption, but the aid of people who know what it’s like on the coal face would definitely be beneficial. They should also seek more top level guidance from foreign FAs and experts which have overseen similar development initiatives such as the Japanese or South Koreans.

In terms of alternative rule changes that I think could be more beneficial, something to encourage more domestic attackers would fit the bill. As I already mentioned, the vast majority of foreign players are attackers and going forward there could be a shortage of domestic attackers of an international quality. For instance a rule which says that a team can only field one international player in each position in a game (ie. one defender, one midfielder and one striker) would stop the skew of domestic players to the more defensive positions.

Germany World Cup
It worked for us

A ruling similar to that in Germany post Euro 2000 to require all clubs to have a fully operational youth academy in a properly funded league, with quotas of local players could also better aid the future development of players going forward. After all, it worked for Germany, which won the World Cup only fourteen years later.

To finish off, although we cannot see the future, there is good reason to suspect the recent rule change is a bit of an oversight and may not actually achieve what it was meant for. Indeed, if the rule change stays in place (which it may not do) over a few years there may be negative unintended consequences. Although I do not have all the answers, a slight rethink in principles about the best way to develop wouldn’t go amiss and may make the World Cup dream that bit more attainable.


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