The Chinese Super League revisited – an analysis of a record-breaking nine months

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We provide an analysis of the CSL that has undoubtedly put itself on the global footballing map since its inception a mere four years ago.

In July 2016, we took an in-depth look at the emergence of the Chinese Super League (CSL) and whether it was truly becoming a financial powerhouse within the footballing world with the ability to rival the richest clubs and European leagues, or whether it was a ticking financial time bomb set to implode at any moment under the sheer weight of the astronomical investment in a league in its infancy without the requisite infrastructure.

What a difference two transfer windows and nine months makes. Following the high profile arrivals of players such as Brazilian striker Hulk from Zenit St Petersburg, Graziano Pellè from Southampton FC and Papiss Cissé from Newcastle United in the 2016 summer transfer window, Chinese Super League clubs flexed their financial muscle on an even greater scale in the 2017 winter transfer window (which ran from 1 January 2017 to 28 February 2017).

In fact, the total amount of £331 million spent by Chinese Super League clubs during the winter window eclipsed the sums spent in the winter windows of all other leagues across the world. By contrast, the total spend for Premier League Clubs in the 2016/17 winter window totalled around £215 million, which, despite representing a six-year high in the Premier League, was still nearly £100 million less than the total Chinese Super League spend. To put the vast spending by Chinese Super League clubs further into perspective, the total transfer spend of £331 million is over sixteen times more than the money spent by Spanish clubs (which includes global heavyweights such as Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid) in the La Liga winter window, and also more than the sum spent in Spain, Italy, Germany and France combined.

The most prominent 2017 winter window deals in the Chinese Super League were undoubtedly the transfers of Oscar (from Chelsea FC to Shanghai SIPG for a reported £60m), Carlos Tevez (from Boca Juniors to Shanghai Shenhua around £40m), Odion Ighalo (from Watford to Changchun Yatai for around £20m) and Alex Witsel (from Zenit St Petersburg to Tianjin Quanjin for around £18m). In addition to the substantial transfer fees, players are earning salaries which are often more than double (or even triple) the money they were earning playing for European clubs. By way of example, Carlos Tevez is reportedly earning £615,000 per week at Shanghai Shenhua, with Oscar earning a reported £400,000 per week at Shanghai SIPG.

But surely such astronomical wages aren’t sustainable long term? China’s General Administration of Sport (the CSL’s chief governing body) doesn’t seems to think so, having announced plans to cap the spending of Chinese Super League clubs going forward. In January 2017, a spokesman for the General Administration of Sport made a damning statement that Chinese clubs were effectively "burning money", describing such spending as a "grave phenomenon" within Chinese football and promising to "strengthen examination and supervision of clubs" financial affairs, progressively control clubs’ expenditures on first-team players and "ensure favourable financial conditions".

In consequence of this, the Chinese General Administration of Sport has introduced a series of measures (which take effect from March 2017) in an attempt to curb the "recent irrational investments by clubs, high figure transfer fees and salaries paid to domestic and international athletes and other issues". These measures include limiting the number of foreign club players who can play in a match from four to three, as well as requiring that each team’s starting line-up includes at least two Chinese players under the age of 23.

While these measures are a good start to curbing the astronomical spending, it appears as though such measures are more finely focused on achieving President Xi Jinping’s long-term goal of China winning the World Cup by 2050 and turning China into a footballing powerhouse which can rival the long-established European leagues, rather than genuinely attempting to reduce CSL club spending. Although reducing the number of foreign players that may appear in each match may lead CSL clubs to consider buying domestic players (who would, generally speaking, command far lesser wages) over international superstars, this measure has no bearing on the weekly wages of the high-paid superstars. In reality, by reducing the number of foreign players permitted to play in each game, the best foreign players playing in the CSL will become even more sought after by CSL clubs (who may look to monopolise such players) and are therefore likely to command even higher transfer fees and wages.

Despite this, although we are unlikely to see the imposition of a Financial Fair Play model the same as the one introduced in European leagues by UEFA in 2010 (which has been key in contributing to the financial stability of clubs in Europe), the measures introduced by China’s General Administration of Sport so far are promising. It has been suggested that such measures have already had an effect on potential significant transfer deals involving CSL Clubs, with Tianjin Quanjian’s chairman having been quoted as saying that the club withdrew bids for Chelsea’s Diego Costa, Paris Saint-Germain’s Edison Cavani and Monaco’s Radamel Falcao in the winter transfer window as a result.

However, with an increase in high pedigree managers such as Luis Felipe Scolari and André Villas-Boas having made the move to the CSL, it remains to be seen whether other high profile managers such as Arsene Wenger will be tempted to follow suit. Until stringent financial rules, with sufficiently severe sanctions (which China’s General Administration of Sport must enforce) are introduced, players and managers alike will continue to be tempted by the tremendous financial benefit to be gained by making the move to the far east. In any event, the CSL has undoubtedly put itself on the global footballing map since its inception a mere four years ago in 2013 and the world will be watching with interest how this rapidly-growing league develops further over the coming seasons.
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