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The Chinese Super League’s foreign exodus: What does it mean for Chinese football?

The Chinese Super League was for a long time, best known as being a place where big name international players would go when they were looking for an even bigger payday.  That state affairs has now come to an end however, with the CSL now undergoing an exodus of big name foreign players due to new salary restrictions.  The likes of Yannick Carrasco, Eran Zahavi and Hulk have all left the league over the past few months and more will undoubtedly follow.

What will all this mean for Chinese football and its development in the coming years?

It’s important to understand that the new salary cap and subsequent departures of big name foreign players are part of broader move by the Chinese Football Association to try and make the CSL more financially sustainable.

In a recent interview, CFA Secretary General Liu Yi spoke about his desire for clubs to be less reliant on funding from their parent companies and more financially self-sufficient. He outlined a number of different things that would be done to pursue this objective. With the introduction of the salary cap which has triggered the exodus, being highlighted as an important component of this push. The loss of the CSL’s big earning foreign stars can therefore largely be seen as being symptomatic of the direction the CFA now wish to take the league.

In the same interview Liu Yi also expressed his desire for the Chinese Super League to expand its broadcasting rights outside of China. This would appear to be entirely wishful thinking as most of the interest that the CSL has garnered overseas in recent years has been a direct result of the big name foreign players that have playing in it. With these players now making their way out of the CSL, it seems like international interest in the league and quite possibly Chinese football as a whole will start to dry up.

In terms of the on the field impact of the exodus, one of the biggest changes we’ll see in the CSL will be the increased importance of domestic players in the final third of the pitch.

Over the last eight years or so, the sharp rise in the level of foreign talent in the Chinese Super League led to many teams becoming overly dependent on their foreign players for goals and creative flair. This resulted in an increased underutilisation of domestic attacking players which significantly curbed their development.

With many of the CSL’s top foreign players now leaving the league, the overall standard of foreign players will significantly decrease. This will ultimately lead to more teams looking to make more extensive use of their domestic talent when going forward. In the coming years we can expect to see more Chinese names in the assists and goals columns of CSL games and more opportunities for young domestic forwards to find first-team football.

The inevitable decline in the quality of the CSL’s overseas players over the next few years might however be bad for the future development of Chinese defenders. Over the past few years youngsters such Zhu Chenjie and Abduhamit Abdugheni have been able to develop very quickly largely due to the high quality of opposition they have been facing. With a decline in the quality of opposition these types of players will be up against, it’s unlikely that young Chinese defensive players will improve and develop at quite the same pace.

It’s unlikely however that the loss of the leagues big name foreign players will have a huge impact on the fortunes of the national team in the short to medium term. China’s FIFA ranking didn’t change a great deal during years when there was influx of big money foreign signings and so it’s unlikely that there will be an immediate difference in the national team’s performance as a result of them leaving.

We will only really get to know for sure what the impact of the exodus will have been in a decade or so’s time. By then we will be able to see whether or not it did in fact bring about a greater degree of financial stability to the CSL and we will also be able to gauge the extent to which it helped or hindered the development of the upcoming generation of Chinese players. This is of course assuming that the salary cap is going to be a long term thing. Things can change quickly in Chinese football and who knows in a few years we could again be seeing newspapers flood with headlines linking all manner of big name players with an “unnamed Chinese club.”

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