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Editor’s column: U23 rules set to dominate agenda as Chinese Super League Season kick off nears

WEF founding editor Cameron Wilson’s weekly musings on the Chinese game

Hello once again and I’m back after a break for Chinese New Year – the view of the fireworks from suburban Pudong was lovely. And a Happy Year of the Dog to all WEF readers – seems like all I do in this column is offer up festive greetings of one sort or another. Although the holidays have been officially over since last Thursday, it typically takes China a bit longer to get properly up to speed after the spring festival, and there will still be empty chairs in offices all over China for a while yet. However for CSL clubs, particularly those competing in the Asian Champions League, there’s been little time to rest as the CSL kicks off this weekend. And tonight we get the first glimpse of how things are going to be with the China Super Cup between Shanghai Shenhua and Guangzhou Evergrande – it’s going to be all about the new u23 rules. I’m going to talk about that in a minute, but also a significant event before the weekend is the closing of the transfer window on Wednesday. For the league itself, predictions on who will finish where have always been a mugs game in China, but I’m going to make a few anyway, mostly on the podcast later this week so keep an eye out for that but also I’ll give a more purely football-focused, prediction-orientated editor’s column in the coming weeks.

The strangest transfer window ever

First though, the transfer window. I can say hands down this has been the most peculiar transfer window I have ever seen in Chinese football. And I mean, really peculiar even by the abundantly high peculiarity standards of Chinese football. Most teams have had a relatively quiet window, and some top clubs who are usually no strangers to blockbuster signings, such as Shandong and SIPG, have signed absolutely no-one. In the transfer window this time last year, Shanghai Shenhua had just signed Carlos Tevez on a massive deal. And this window? Just a pair of reserve defenders from China League One. Meanwhile, long-time kings of carefree spending, Guangzhou Evergrande, are signing foreign rejects from Tianjin Teda (I’m exaggerating but Nemanja Gudelj isn’t close to being the best player available to Evergrande), and just to make it all really stranger than ever, Beijing Guoan, traditionally one of China’s more fiscally conservative clubs, have bizarrely chosen this moment to splash the cash. The capital side tested the CFA’s resolve to crack down on “irrational spending” by signing by signing Cédric Bakambu for 40 million Euro.

Simply said, none of this is normal at all. Admittedly I am not sure what normal is in Chinese football. But whatever it is, no trace of it can be found by looking at this transfer window. It’s due to “slam shut” as the tabloids say on Wednesday. But I’m pretty sure the bulk of business is done. Dalian Yifang, who have all but been officially taken over by Wanda group, will probably unveil Yannick Carrasco and / or perhaps even Fernando Torres. But none of that will change that we’ve just witnessed the strangest Chinese transfer window ever.

It was always going to be a quiet one after the CFA dreamed up the 100% transfer tax rule last year. Basically the clubs moved very slowly when the window opened. This was a contrast with previous years – usually a lot of deals are already done and there is a glut of announcements in the first few days of the window. This time though the silence was defending as everyone waited around to see how serious the CFA’s new rules were and how could they find a way around them? As all rebellious souls know, rules are meant to be broken, and in China this is taken to an art form. Beijing Guoan were the first to try it on  Bakambu. The new transfer tax rule says any clubs which are not in profit (read: All CSL clubs) must pay a 100% levy on all fees over 5 million Euros. Except to get around the rule, Guoan didn’t pay a transfer fee, Bakambu somehow bought out his own contract for 40 million. Of course this was a laughable attempt to get around the rules. The CFA weren’t buying it (pun intended) and as we speak the transfer is still not officially announced.

The CFA’s reaction was to warn about clubs getting into “bidding wars” over players transfer fees, and to talk about retrospectively applying the rules to the previous transfer window – warning against the “exploitation” of loopholes. But really, the CFA can only blame themselves for leaving loopholes open in the first place. It is astonishing that, in something as murky and corrupt as the Chinese football transfer market, where illegal payments and bungs have always been the normal, that anyone could think agents and club insiders would suddenly start obeying a rule which would drastically reduce their ability to earn big money.

There was no reason not to expect clubs to try to find a way around the rules – this is how it works around here and the CFA should know that. The rules should have been thought about a bit better in the first place – again though, like the hastily imposed u23 rule last year which saw young players being subbed off after just five minutes, the CFA is not taking the time to properly consult stakeholders and implement new legislation in a manner which benefits football. Indeed, “retrospectively” applying rules is basically another way of saying the rules are being made up as they go along.

So what does this all mean? It all boils down to the simple fact that the CFA are trying to stop clubs doing something which is completely normal for football clubs all over the world to do – sign the best players available to them. As long as this fundamental truth remains, it will be difficult for the CFA to prevent teams wanting to buy better players than what they have. Particularly now as teams are hamstrung by the new u23 rules – strong foreign players are now absolutely more vital than ever. Unfortunately the end result is, yet again, football is not really the focus, at least from an international perspective. This is particularly unfortunate at the start of the new season. Before all the international media could talk about was big transfers coming to China. Now all they are talking about is how suddenly there are no big transfers coming to China. And you can’t blame them. Because it is a strange state of affairs and no transfer market in the world has fluctuated like this before. It’s true that spending 50 million Euro-plus on the likes of Ramires or Texiera was unnecessary and made Chinese football look a little bit daft when the game is so lacking at grassroots level. But as is too often the case, new rules are over-reaching and damage the fundamentals – that is, getting the best players on the pitch. Truth is though the transfer fee tax is more about preventing capital flight than anything else – in other words, it’s not really about football. And its difficult to cultivate the development of football culture if there is always a competing alternative narrative, and if football is seen as being a tool or subservient to something else. Football starts at the very bottom, grassroots level. Or as my friend Tom Byer, head of the China schools football program, is so keen to remind everyone, football starts at home. But there’s enough barriers to this becoming so in China already, the game here can ill afford to do anything which gets in the way of the message – football for football’s sake. The grass roots and the top domestic league in any country both have to be focused on the game and delivering fun and entertainment at the end of the day. Anything else and people are just doing it because they were told to.

Under-23 selection bingo

I didn’t really want to write about this topic again so soon but I must as this is what everyone is going to be talking about after tonight’s China Super Cup as the new u23 rules will be implemented for the first time tonight. And by the time many of you read this, the CSL will have kicked off and there will a lot of fans, media, coaches and even players scratching their heads trying to work out who is allowed to get on the pitch. To recap, each team must start one u23 player, and the total number of u23 players who feature on the pitch, be it as starters or substitutes, must not be less than the total number of foreigners used. Before I continue though, there are some other selection rules which area already in place which further complicates things. Teams can use no more than three foreigners in each CSL match, and the goalkeeper must not be foreign. Teams can field one player from Greater China (Hong Kong, Taiwan or Macau) – as long as he is not a goalkeeper. But teams can’t field a second player from Greater China without using up one of their foreign player slots. This is despite the fact citizens from these countries are Chinese. Things get even more complicated in other competitions. In the ACL, clubs can field a fourth foreigner in ACL games, but only if he is from an Asian country. And in the CFA cup, teams can only field as many foreigners as the lowest-ranked teams is allowed to field in their league. In other words, if a CSL team meets a CL1 team, because CL1 teams can only field two foreigners in the CL1, CSL clubs can only field two foreigners in cup games against CL1 teams. And when CL2 teams play, they can’t use any foreign players so no foreigners can be fielded by higher league teams who meet them in the cup.

Is all that clear? I feel a little dazed having re-read it.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am a big advocate of using rules to protect the development of local football everywhere. But these new changes go far too far. For one thing, if the purpose is to help younger players get more game time and help their development, it helps if the games those players are playing in feature excellent foreign players. I know that the powers that be are probably thinking three foreign players, instead of 3+1 of previous years is enough. That is not unreasonable. But when you have to use three u23 players then you’re limiting the quality of the opposition even further. Anyway, I believe this argument has been made by myself and other persons already. But this topic is going to dominate the whole season – already my wechat feed has featured more than a few Chinese fans speaking out very directly about the new rule. And none of them have anything good to say about it. Only some very unpleasant remarks about the CFA’s competence. This is only going to continue as the season goes on, and I’m afraid things are going to get worse before they get better.

Anyway that’s it for this week. Hopefully next week will bring us some exciting action on the pitch to talk about, and I’m off out to the China Super Cup game in search of just that. See you next time.

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.

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