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China can learn from Major League Soccer and be home to Asia’s finest talent

Josef Martinez celebrates a goal for MLS newbies Atalanta United alongside Miguel Almirón and Carlos Carmona. The Georgia-based club has sought to sign exciting South American talent as opposed to famous European veterans.

Fresh faced Major League Soccer (MLS) outfit Atlanta United might seem of distant relevance to rapidly developing Chinese Super League (CSL) clubs, however, the manner in which Gerardo Martino’s side built a roster prior to its inaugural season around promising, young South American talent rather than international superstars might serve as an insightful pointer for China’s ambitious football minds.

In February, the Georgia-based club signed 23-year-old Josef Martinez on loan from Torino, a deal that followed in the footsteps of Héctor Villalba and Miguel Almirón. Typically, such players have been catapulted straight to Europe, moves that often prove detrimental to their development on account of limited playing opportunities and life adjustment difficulties. With a reputable manager, world-class, and the promise of regular first team football, Atlanta’s model offers unpolished South American talent an alternate route to Europe. China should be trying to achieve the same for Asian footballers.

While the differences between MLS and CSL are stark, as China’s premier league seeks legitimacy on the world stage and CSL clubs continue to invest heavily in academies, it seems logical that becoming a breeding ground for Asia’s top talent would be hugely beneficial.

In fact, prior to the CFA’s drastic rule changes in January 2017, which eliminated an additional spot for an Asian Football Confederation (AFC) player, it can argued many CSL clubs were actively pursuing the continent’s best available talent. Although the league’s desire to protect the opportunities of Chinese footballers and reduce the number of mercenary money chasers is admirable, it’s inaccurate to believe AFC quota players were hampering the prospects of domestic talent.

Rather, denying clubs an incentive to sign high quality Asian players merely prevents the CSL from becoming the epicenter of Asian football. Furthermore, if the idea behind signing peak career international players – think Oscar, Ramires, Axel Witsel – is to raise levels of professionalism and skill across league squads, what is there to suggest that attracting the cream of Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam wouldn’t have a similar effect?

The issue seems particularly relevant given the FIFA U-20 World Cup currently being hosted by South Korea. Despite China’s failure to quality for FIFA’s premier youth competition, a record spanning back to 2005, the AFC is as well represented as any other confederation and includes longtime Asian powerhouse Japan, a Vietnamese side enjoying its first major competition, and the hosts South Korea. One could expand the CSL’s potential catchment area further to include Iran, so dominant at the senior level, and New Zealand, admittedly a nation with CSL connections far weaker than its neighbor Australia.

Yet despite the likely presence of CSL scouts at the competition, it is highly improbable that we will see Asia’s hottest young talent being signed to Chinese teams on account of CFA restrictions.

The CSL’s Asian catchment area can be broadly divided into the already established (Japan, South Korea, Australia) and the developing (predominantly Southeast Asian and Central Asian nations). The challenge for CSL clubs in acquiring players from these distinct groupings differs due to perception; players of established Asian nations may need to be persuaded into seeing the footballing benefits of moving to CSL, while players from developing nations may be less appealing to Chinese clubs on account of the historical pedigree of their national football teams.

Indeed, with Barcelona currently boasting two U20 South Koreans internationals and talented young Japanese players frequently moving to clubs across Europe before the age of 20, China must seek to poach talent by offering its relative advantages; first team football, an easier prospect of acclimatizing, and competitive salaries. These factors twinned with the mass import of footballing expertise and investment in state-of-the-art training facilities could see clubs emulate the success of MLS teams such as Atlanta in acting as a springboard to Europe. After all, who could have foreseen Paraguay’s most promising attacking midfielder moving to the United States a few years ago?

While some may deem the level of player from so-called minnow nations to be subpar, many of the continent’s domestic leagues are undergoing rapid development, a factor that has filtered through to national team improvements; Thailand, Cambodia, and Philippines have improved 13, 15, and 18 positions respectively since May 2013.

If the footballing advantages of harboring Asia’s top talent and becoming a shop window for European clubs fail to entice the CFA, perhaps the monetary benefits will. In the past two years lucrative deals have been struck to broadcast the CSL in France, Italy, Germany, and the UK, and there is an opportunity for the league to stretch its reach further across Asian markets. One imagines that a sizable Thai audience would be compelled to follow the fortunes of young star Chanathip Songkrasin or that the Japanese would take more interest in the CSL if Keisuke Honda was playing on a weekly basis.

Those with the development of both Chinese football and the CSL at heart should hope for a swift CFA rule change that encourages the signing of AFC players. While the road to rivaling the hegemony of European club football is a long and fraught path, the CSL must be allowed to start signing talent closer to home and hope that come FIFA U-20 World Cup 2021 we will be talking about the products of Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing academies.

Inhabits New York. Consumes football. Runs marathons.

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