Closing the window

Chinese clubs aren’t buying foreign football stars


The prodigal son returns

The major revelation in the English football world last week was that striker Wayne Rooney kept a dark secret during his career at Manchester United – he dressed for bed in the pyjamas of his boyhood club, Everton.

Rooney made the admission as he returned to Everton after 13 years in Manchester, putting an end to speculation that he might fancy a final payday in the Chinese Super League (see WiC356).

Truth be told, the Croxteth-born 31 year-old never looked like being comfortable in Chongqing or Changchun, and the chances of Rooney making his way to the Middle Kingdom all but disappeared at the end of May, when the Chinese Football Association announced rule changes for the recruitment of international players.

Any club paying a transfer fee for a foreign player of more than Rmb45 million ($6.63 million), or more than Rmb20 million for a domestic signing, must now put an equivalent amount into a fund for the development of young Chinese players.

So let’s say Jiangsu Suning (bottom-but-one of the Chinese Super League and now managed by Fabio Capello) had offered Manchester United $25 million for Rooney. The same amount would then have been required for the development fund, doubling the cost of the transfer.

The rule – effectively a 100% tax on the signings of international stars – will apply in the top two divisions for all transfers at loss-making clubs – which is pretty much all of the teams in China. And as a result there has been little sign of life in the mid-season transfer window, which closes today.

In the equivalent period at the start of last season Chinese clubs spent more than $500 million on players, confident in the view that they were aligning with the government’s ambitions for a supersized sports sector, fuelled by football’s reputation as Xi Jinping’s favourite sport. Now the mood has changed completely, following criticism earlier this year from the General Administration of Sport – a government body – that the clubs were “burning money” on foreign players.

When the new rules were announced, soccer insiders argued the clubs would find ways around them (more on which later). One suggestion was that teams would get players on loan deals rather than buying them outright and in a related workaround there was speculation that teams outside the country might pay for the players and then loan them into China.

That had potential because a number of European clubs now have Chinese owners (such as Inter Milan), although it would still have been a challenge getting the funds out of China to buy the players in the first place.

However, the football authorities seem to have partially anticipated the ruse by stipulating that clubs that take players on loan will have to make matching payments to the development fund based on the value of the most recent transfer fees for the player concerned.

Out-of-contract players at the ends of their careers seemed to be a more attractive proposition as signings because they can move on free transfers, although activity here has been limited (Chelsea’s John Terry would have been a candidate for this kind of switch, but he opted for a season at Aston Villa instead).

In the event, only one major overseas transfer was agreed before the window closed. It involved the purchase of Anthony Modeste, bought by newly promoted Tianjin Quanjian from Cologne.

The striker was the Bundesliga’s third highest scorer last season but the German press says details surrounding his transfer fee are fiendishly complicated. It appears he is first being loaned out for €6 million with Bild saying Tianjin Quanjian will have an option to buy out his contract for €29 million after the loan expires.

It remains unclear whether the Chinese football authorities will still find a means to levy their development tax on the entire €35 million.

Companies with commercial interests in the Chinese Super League will be less pleased if fewer foreign players means less interest from the general public as well – including media firms that have paid record amounts for broadcasting rights (see WiC302).

The more fundamental question is whether the new regime can raise standards in the domestic game and boost the performance of the national side (China’s hopes of qualifying for the finals of the 2018 World Cup in Russia were all but extinguished by a 2-2 draw with Syria last month).

In popping the bubble in big-money moves for foreign players, the regulations are steering professional soccer in a more sustainable direction, which some say can only be good for the sport’s longer-term prospects. Indeed a concern in the local media is that buying pricey foreign players takes the focus away from homegrown talent and may even make it more difficult for China to build up a roster of national stars.

So in another change that emphasises youth development, officials have stipulated that the number of under-23s from China in league matches must not be less than the number of foreign signings.

This implies that – if a team starts with its full quota of three international stars – at least three under-23 players will play too, when the rule comes into effect next season.

In the meantime, although Rooney won’t be heading east, his new employer has been deepening its ties with China by turning to ICBC, the country’s largest bank, for financial support.

The English press is reporting that it is money from China that is helping to bring him home to Everton, after the Merseyside club arranged a loan facility of £60 million. Some of that cash might head Rooney’s way in his £160,000-a-week pay packet – which is more than enough to cover a few new pairs of pyjamas, at least.

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