After years of big spending, Chinese soccer goes quiet

JOHN DUERDEN
Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — In the 2017 winter transfer window, the Chinese Super League outspent the English Premier League by $422 million compared to $315 million. A year on, England or Spain is set for the top spot and Chinese soccer officials are perfectly happy.

Alarmed by the amount of money heading into the pockets of foreign players, clubs and agents, authorities in Beijing moved to slow down the market and it seems to have worked.

"The relative lack of spending in the Chinese transfer window reflects the ongoing moderation of the market for players by China's state authorities," Simon Chadwick, professor of Sports Business at Salford University in the United Kingdom, told The Associated Press. "Following several high-value deals over the past two years, several regulatory interventions were made."

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The two most influential came into effect in 2017. Just before the season started in March, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) reduced the number of foreign players that could be named in a matchday roster from five to three, reducing demand. In June, a so-called 'transfer tax' was introduced which stipulated that any club which was in debt and was signing a foreign player, had to pay an amount equal to the transfer fee in a soccer development fund.

Last summer's transfer window was especially quiet with the only signing of note that of French striker Anthony Modeste joining Tianjin Quanjian for $43 million in July. So far this winter window, there has also been a lack of big moves, despite plenty of rumors.

Earlier this month when it was reported that Beijing Guoan and Guangzhou Evergrande were engaged in a bidding war for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Borussia Dortmund, that could cost $86 million, the CFA reminded the clubs of the rules.

"Recent reports claiming two Chinese Super League clubs will compete on price for a foreign player have attracted a lot of attention," a statement said. "The Chinese Football Association . has sent a letter to the respective clubs to ask for an explanation. The CFA will deal seriously with any violation of its regulations."

The national team has only qualified for one World Cup, back in 2002. Sports authorities announced in 2016 a plan with the target of making China one of the strongest nations in Asia by 2030, and, 20 years later, in the world. This success that would be built on the development of more and better home-grown soccer players.

A first round exit at the 2018 Asian U-23 Championships on Monday, despite China hosting the tournament, showed that there is still a long way to go.

"One suspects that an even greater emphasis will be place upon the development of domestic talent," Chadwick said. "This squad is likely to form a basis for the team that will seek to qualify for the 2022 World Cup. Given recent performances, such qualification seems unlikely which implies that the earliest China might qualify for the World Cup could be 2026."

Before that target for the national team, there is another set by Guangzhou Evergrande, the team that has won the last seven Chinese Super League titles, and started the major investment in foreign players.

The club has distanced itself from the chase for the in-demand Aubameyang, reportedly now bound for England, and reaffirmed its desire for an all-Chinese team by 2020.

"We will stick to the Evergrande model of building a fully linked youth system to realize our vision of fielding a fully Chinese squad by 2020," the club said in a statement released on January 11.

"Since 2017, we have set out clear principals to sign foreign players who compliment Chinese football and we refuse to pay a premium for any player," Guangzhou added. "Neither will we join in bidding wars in the transfer market as we are now switching our focus to youth development."

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