Thanks to a bizarre loophole through baffling Chinese Super League player eligibility rules, it has emerged, on April 1, that Jiangsu Suning registered five goalkeepers to help them pick better outfield players.
For the past couple of seasons, rules state CSL clubs must start at least one u23 player and use a total of at least three by the end of the match.
However, an exception to the rule was implemented last year right in the middle of the season. For every player called up to a China youth squad, the requirement for CSL clubs to feature an u23 player is reduced by one. So if a club has one u23 player away on international duty, they are only obliged to start one u23 player and bring on another one as a substitute, instead of two.
Similarly, if a club has three or more u23 players away, then all age-related selection restrictions are dropped for games during the national call up.
Therefore, with four such Jiangsu Suning players absent for national duty, at the weekend, this allowed Cosmin Olăroiu to do something CSL football managers are normally unable to do – select the best 11 footballers in their squad to start a football match. Jiangsu lined up against Wuhan with no u23 players starting the game and won 2-1.
Whilst most experts agree Chinese football’s focus on developing youth is well intended, many policies introduced over the past few seasons have had unintended consequences.
Knowing that having players called-up to youth level enables the u23 rule to be relaxed, Jiangsu named a whopping five goalkeepers in their 30-man first team squad this season. Included were two China youth team keepers currently on duty – Qi Yuxi with the u18 squad, and Huang Zihao with the u19s. This year, Jiangsu’s youngsters look set to be called up regularly, with the Asian u23 tournament taking place not long after the end of the season, and various military training camps at other youth levels scheduled. In other words a lot of games where Jiangsu may benefit from the rule exception whilst other teams do not.
By registering two China youth goalkeepers hardly likely to see first team action thanks to the presence of three other keepers in the squad, head coach Olăroiu was free to name a stronger starting XI against Wuhan than he would have done as he was able to pick whoever he wanted instead of being obliged to pick a certain number of u23 players.
Advocates of sporting integrity, and Wuhan, were left to wonder how the match would have went had it taken place during a round with no youth international activity, which would have forced Jiangsu to pick their team according to the same rules as their opponents.
The weekend just before April 1 also saw further player eligibility confusion as Gabonese midfielder Qian Jiegei (aka Alexander N’Doumbou) and British fullback Nico Yannaris finally made their debuts for Shangahi Shenhua and Beijing Guoan respectively. Both renounced their previous nationality and successfully obtained Chinese citizenship before the season started in order to be registered as domestic players.
However, less than 24 hours before the first game of the season kicked off, it emerged that naturalized players would be forbidden from playing during the first two rounds of the season.
This last-second change hindered teams who had spent their entire close season refining their first team in the belief naturalized players would be permitted to play. Indeed, one such new signing, John Hou Sater, aka Hou Yongyong, had already appeared for Beijing Guoan without any issue, in their China Super Cup clash against SIPG the week before the CSL started.
In particular, Shanghai Shenhua’s plans were thrown into disarray on two counts, contributing to the Hongkou side losing their first two games of the season including a 0-4 Shanghai derby thumping at home to SIPG. The CSL’s policies meant head coach Flores not only had to deal with the abrupt and unexpected absence of Qian, who had featured as a regular first pick in pre-season friendly matches, but also key youth players who were actually first team regulars.
Unfortunately, due to the bulk of Shenhua’s recent domestic signings being lower division journeymen, the club was not able to take advantage of the u23 rule exception. Shenhua’s three called up youth players are generally in the first team on merit rather than as beneficiaries of the u23 rule, so their over-age replacements arguably weakened the team.
The missing youth players were Shenhua’s best defender, 18 year old Zhu Chenjie, and promising pair Liu Ruofan and Jiang Shenglong. All of whom, nearly a month ahead of China’s u23 side Asian Cup qualifying matches, were called up for a training camp.
Flores was also denied the services of highly-rated youth forward Zhou Junchen, who, for unspecified misdemeanours committed in Thailand whilst representing his country during a u19 game last September, was banned for a year from playing for his club, Shanghai Shenhua.
However, going back a few weeks, just as the season was kicking off, the lack of an official announcement from the CFA on naturalized players left fans and media in a state of confusion – it was still not known if naturalized imports would appear.
Since there was no official word – was it just a press rumour?
No. Unfortunately it transpired that the CFA purposefully kept fans in the dark about which players they could expect to see take to the pitch in games they had paid to watch, as no naturalized players played until this past weekend – the third round of the CSL – after the CFA finally announced “provisional” rules to allow them to appear.
The rules also stated an individual at each club would be responsible for submitting a monthly report on naturalized players’ progress in studying China-related matters, including Communist Party history.
Elsewhere, in a rough weekend for sporting integrity, other peculiar non-footballing factors prevented full-strength teams from appearing, as seven-time CSL winners Guangzhou Evergrande continued their own unique player selection policy.
In a bid to regain the CSL title it surrendered for the first time in eight years last season, the club announced in February it will deliberately not start its strongest team for any CSL match. Evergrande continued its policy this past weekend of only starting two foreign players in each game instead of the maximum permitted three, in a narrow 0-1 victory away to Dalian Yiteng.
Commenting on the timing of the publication of this story, Wild East Football founding editor Cameron Wilson explained:
“At WEF we have had a long tradition since our founding in 2010, of publishing April Fool’s stories, including the infamous Xabi Alonso / Beijing Guoan post.
“Unfortunately, developments in recent years in Chinese football have become so bizarre that they have overtaken anything our imaginations can produce – Chinese football is living proof of the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction.”
“As as result, we are now simply reporting factual news stories on April 1 such as this one to highlight the problems the game is facing in China.”
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