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Is the CSL preventing the national team’s progress?

China isn’t known for lacking goals off the field, but it’s becoming an increasing issue on it. Following the conclusion of another Chinese Super League (CSL) season, WEF focuses on an area the men’s national team appear to be short of and whether the type of players brought in from abroad have anything to do with it.

Former Zenit St. Petersburg striker, Hulk.

Who’s around?
Well, the league rules of 4+1 – four foreigners from outside of Asia and one Asian player outside of China – has seen a flurry of familiar names turn up at clubs most western football fans hadn’t heard of before. Prior to the start of the 2016 season, Chinese football hit the headlines with its influx of expensive foreign players, including Ramires, Alex Teixiera, Gervinho, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Jackson Martinez. In June, Shanghai SIPG signed Lou Ferrigno’s Brazilian lookalike (Hulk) for a reported £46.2m, which ensured a CSL club broke the Asian transfer record for the fourth time in 2016.

Not all foreign players can be on the field at once according to the 3+1 rule imposed on matches. That hasn’t stopped the foreigners from arriving or each team making full use of its squad’s quota.

Where do they play?
One place they can’t play is in goal with another league rule insisting that only Chinese keepers are allowed.

Of the 82 foreign players (five in each of the 16 teams plus Jucilei and Ersan Gulum who have citizenships with Asian countries) amongst the first-team squads, the vast majority are attacking players. Whether it’s a striker, winger or attacking midfielder, these players have been most popular with Chinese clubs due to a superior ability to the local options and/or their recognizable names. It’s like being back at school where the best players are often seen to be the ones scoring or making the goals with defenders getting little to no credit and goalkeepers being the least fit/most crazy. All wannabe strikers will tell you that the laws of the playground aren’t always correct but fans do naturally get more excited about the striker than the sweeper.

Worryingly though, that favouritsm towards form over function has seen attacking players make up 59.8% (49) of all foreigners in the CSL. Only 25.6% (21) are defenders with the remaining 14.6% (12) being either central or defensive midfielders.

PDF: foreign-players-in-csl-11-16

How does that translate to goals?
As a result, the vast majority of goals scored this season in the CSL were by foreign players. Despite them making up no more than 40% of the outfield players at one time, they still managed to end the season scoring 66.9% of the goals. That’s a total of 428 from the league’s 640. Chinese players, meanwhile, only managed 196 (30.6%) strikes with own goals providing the outstanding 16 (2.5%).

In fact, foreign players contributed more than two-thirds of the league’s scoring in 18 of the 30 rounds of matches. And only on four occasions did Chinese players score half or more of the gameweek’s goals during the 2016 campaign. Round one actually failed to provide a single Chinese scorer with foreign players delivering 15 of the 16 efforts that opening week.

PDF: csl-scorers-2016

Impact on the national team
Those who support the men’s national side have felt cheated by recent performances, particularly during the matches against Syria and Uzbekistan which led to Gao Hongbo’s departure.

But after analysing some of the stats above, it’s about as unsurprising as the sound of a horn on China’s roads to learn that the men’s side struggle to score goals.

China scraped past the first group stage of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. Part of the reason was a lack of goals, Bhutan and Maldives aside. China – ranked 84th in the world – only managed one win, two draws and a loss against Qatar (91st) and Hong Kong (140th). In addition to the disappointment of just one win in four matches, The Red Dragons only mustered two goals in total, both of which came in the final must win game at home to already qualified Qatar – who scored six times across the same four matches.

Is it a matter of creativity?
Perhaps. The CSL stats suggest Chinese players have less of an issue with creating chances as they do with converting them. Four Chinese players make up the top five places in the league’s assists charts.

These figures don’t quite match up with what China appears to do, or not do, on the international field. It’s essentially a social dating app where those providing the assists in the CSL are the selfie-taking, Photoshop wizards and the men’s national team is the misleading disappointment that costs you money, time and pride.

And if China’s tepid performances of recent months provided little to no inspiration as a spectator then you needn’t worry about your eyesight or your spectacles. During their last three matches, which also happened to be World Cup qualifiers, the stats exposed the following:


In total, China attempted just 10 shots, finding the target on five occasions and failing to score in any of the three games. Clearly there’s a problem and the recent appointment of Marcello Lippi won’t solve it, regardless of how much he earns.

The CSL’s joint-top assister, Gao Lin.

Joint-top for assists with 12 is Guangzhou Evergrande’s Gao Lin, an established name in China with 89 caps and 18 goals for his country. The forward has scored just seven goals from 28 league appearances this season for a side that was crowned CSL champions for the sixth consecutive year with a couple of games remaining.

The other three Chinese players have all provided nine assists over the course of the campaign. Chongqing Lifan midfielder, Wang Dong, Shanghai Shenhua winger Cao Yunding and Shanghai SIPG’s, Wu Lei.

Unfortunately for the national team, at 35, Wang Dong’s international appearances are very much behind him. Whereas 26-year-old Cao Yunding is yet to earn his first cap despite a number of eye-catching performances during 2016.

Wu Lei, 24, on the other hand is China’s poster boy. Having made his professional debut before the age of 15, the speedy Xu Genbao graduate has been an ever-present for club and then country. Wu Lei was this year’s highest scoring Chinese player, having finished joint-second in the charts with 14 strikes. That earnt him a fourth consecutive Chinese Super League Domestic Golden Boot – an award created in 2011 such was the dominance of the foreign players.

Hebei China Fortune’s Dong Xuesheng joins Wu Lei as the only other Chinese player amongst the top 20 scorers. Just 10 Chinese players feature in the top 50, meaning 40 foreigners (half of the total allowance) are amongst the league’s leading marksmen.

Are you England in disguise?
Well, there were only 12 English players in the top 50 scorers during last season’s Premier League (2015/16), although there isn’t a foreign quota that’s quite as strict as the CSL’s. There is, however, a real threat that the influx of foreign players will hamper the progress and development of local Chinese players much like many claim to have happened in England. Bringing in big names is understandable as the league looks to catapult itself amongst the more established divisions in world football. But where the English Premier League suffers with domestic players costing a premium, the CSL is preventing a pathway for its local talent by filling attacking positions with, more often than not, second rate foreigners. The development of the league needn’t be to the detriment of the national side.


Guangzhou Evergrande’s Zeng Cheng.

The rule that stipulates only Chinese goalkeepers are permitted has provided the national team with a number of candidates for the number one jersey. Yang Zhi (Beijing Guoan), Zeng Cheng (Guangzhou Evergrande), Wang Dalei (Shandong Luneng), Yan Junling (Shanghai SIPG) and Gu Chao (Jiangsu Suning) are all battling it out to be Marcello Lippi’s first choice keeper.

Competition for the forward spots is more limited. At 19-years-old, Zhang Yuning is having to shoulder a lot of the nation’s hope with the tall striker already plying his trade in Europe with Eredivisie side (the Netherlands top division), Vitesse Arnhem.

Each team can only fill their foreign player quota (those outside of Asia) with one defender, one midfielder, one forward plus one other. Those who play behind a lone striker, be it centrally or wide such as Wu Lei and Alex Teixeira would be classed as forwards.

The theory is that no Chinese team would want to have a striker from a rival Asian nation benefiting from the increased level and exposure of the CSL. So the Asian foreign player allowance is more likely to be used on a midfielder or defender.

Fourteen of the 16 sides who were in the 2016 CSL have three or more foreign players that would be classed as forwards. Immediately, this solution would open up at least 14 spaces for Chinese attacking players which would lead to further emphasis on the development of grassroots programmes.

What’s more, the domestic players, regardless of where they play, will be able to learn from their foreign equivalents as each position apart from the goalkeeper is allowed an overseas player outside of Asia.

This rule would need to be gradually introduced over a couple of seasons to allow teams ample time to offload any players that exceed the new quotas but it’s a start.

Of course, this isn’t to suggest that it’s the only option that can encourage both league and national growth and it is up to the CSL and CFA to explore alternatives. But until they do, China will be in danger of setting goals rather than scoring them.

Peter has lived in Shanghai since October 2011. His interest in Chinese football has grown despite initially being put off by Nicolas Anelka's insistence on taking the worst (and every) set piece during his short stint at Shenhua. Peter has played and followed football since he was a kid and regularly deprives himself of sleep to watch Liverpool. He also has a blog ( which covers both Chinese and English football.



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