BEIJING – In the last three years, Chinese top flight soccer clubs have made headlines by attracting an impressive array of star players through record-breaking multi-million dollar transfer deals that have taken the global football market by storm.
The Beijing government has started looking to curb the spending spree, and clubs have moderated their expenditure, bursting a bubble that led to the inflation of transfer prices across the world.
The January 2017 signing by Shanghai SIPG of Brazilian international midfielder Oscar from Chelsea for 60 million euros beat a record set just a year earlier, when his compatriot, former Zenit forward Hulk, made the move for 55.8 million euros.
But the largest fee paid during the transfer window which closed on Thursday was for Slovakian international captain Marek Hamsik, who moved from Italian Serie A team Napoli to Dalian Yifang for a relatively meager 20 million euro.
The next priciest arrival to the Chinese Super League was Belgian international Marouane Fellaini, who left English Premier League team Manchester United for 12 million euros.
Neither Hamsik nor Fellaini figure among the 25 highest transfer fees paid out by Chinese clubs.
In 2017, the Chinese Football Association approved a 100 percent tax rate on signings of foreign players to avoid prices becoming inflated and to curb clubs’ short-termist approach in favor of promoting youth training and academies.
“The Chinese government has clamped down” on spending on foreign players, Simon Chadwick, an expert in Chinese football and professor at the University of Salford in the United Kingdom, told EFE.
“Clubs have been forced to spend on the development of domestic talent, rather than on the acquisition of overseas players,” he said.
Chadwick believes that the main reason for this shift from high spending is down to Beijing wanting to control or regulate Chinese clubs’ behavior.
“President Xi (Jinping) is a firm advocate of Chinese people conducting themselves in an appropriate way,” the professor said. “I suspect that he sees massive expenditure on football as being ‘un-Chinese’,” he added.
The spending restrictions are an attempt to push Chinese Super League clubs to “spend on achieving the country’s vision (of becoming a leading football nation), rather than on spending on vanity projects,” Chadwick said.
The heavy taxes imposed by the CFA on foreign transfers, as well as rules introducing a minimum of three Chinese players under the age of 23 in each game, demonstrate the CFA’s aim of promoting homegrown talent who can help improve the national team, which has only made one appearance in the FIFA World Cup, in 2002.
“There is a balance to be achieved between developing domestic talent and acquiring overseas talent,” Chadwick said.
Attracting top level foreign talent “is important as it exposes Chinese players to the levels of skills and types of player that they are going to experience when playing in international games.”
The promotion of homegrown talent has led Guangzhou Evergreen, one of the country’s largest and most influential clubs, to win the Super League seven years in a row from 2011 to 2017, to introduce new internal rules on fielding a maximum of two foreign players in each game and setting up a mechanism to evaluate players based on their performances, with the lowest scorers being relegated to the reserve team.
The rest of the league is expected to follow suit, Chadwick said.
“Guangzhou is arguably China’s biggest and most influential club,” the University of Salford professor said.
“No organization is ever more than a step away from the state and its influence. I do think that Guangzhou Evergrande was reminded of its responsibilities by the government, hence the internal rules.”
Other clubs have been mulling other options, such as the temporary nationalization of players with Chinese roots so that they are not counted as foreign footballers.
Despite the range of measures and the recent drop in transfer fees, the Chinese Super League is still home to some highly recognizable global stars such as former Barcelona players Paulinho, and Javier Mascherano as well as erstwhile Atletico Madrid and Belgian international winger Yannick Carrasco, among several others.