The last week of December brought triumph and despair as China’s much-disrupted football season came to a final halt.
Celebrating wildly was Shandong Taishan, which beat Hebei FC 2-0 to claim the league title with three games still to play. But champagne moments have been few and far between for most of the other clubs in the Chinese Super League (CSL), many of which are in an awful financial mess.
Case in point: the South Korean coach of Chongqing Liangjiang was close to tears as he told reporters that his team hadn’t been paid for weeks and almost all of the 16 teams in the league are said to have fallen behind in paying wages to their players.
The canary in the Chinese soccer coalmine was Jiangsu FC, last year’s champions, which went under before a ball was kicked at the start of the season after its struggling sponsor Suning withdrew support (see WiC526). Others have been battling to avoid a similar collapse, hindered by the fact that almost all of the clubs have some form of ownership by property companies – a sector that is suffering a financial winter of its own.
Xinhua reports that 15 of the 16 clubs had ties with the real estate sector when the season began, including Guangzhou FC, formerly known as Guangzhou Evergrande, another club on the endangered list.
The implosion of the team’s property parent has put it in a perilous position, with the Guangzhou government already stepping in to take control of its unfinished stadium (see WiC495), a project that was supposed to cement the city’s leadership of the Chinese soccer scene.Instead, with the money drying up, Guangzhou’s foreign-born stars have headed for the exit and are unlikely to return.
Bear in mind that it was just five years ago that former Chelsea coach Antonio Conte lamented the loss of some of his star players to China. “The Chinese market is a danger for all. Not only for Chelsea, but for all the teams in the world,” he warned (Conte currently coaches English club Tottenham Hotspur).
Instead the influx of foreign players has jeopardised many of the Chinese clubs, which had snapped up the stars with offers of eye-watering salaries. Back in 2017 WiC wondered how Shanghai Shenhua would get much return from the £600,000 a week it was promising to pay Carlos Tevez and he wasn’t even the biggest of the earners, with fellow Argentinian Ezequiel Lavezzi snagging nearly £800,000 a week at Hebei China Fortune for a fantastically lucrative three years in the CSL.
The clubs finally saw the folly of their spending spree, prompted by a new tax on transfer fees for foreign players. Teams also agreed a salary ceiling for new signings that capped yearly earnings at €3 million ($3.39 million). But the damage was already done to their finances, especially at a time when revenues were being called into question by rule changes that forced teams to drop company mentions in their club names (see WiC525). Sponsors soon wanted to renegotiate their financial contributions and the pandemic has also hit hard, forcing clubs to play matches in empty stadiums. Damagingly, the number of games in the schedule was then cut by about half, putting pressure on the CSL’s contract for broadcasting rights.
The bubble burst spectacularly here as well, with Tencent securing a three-year deal for just Rmb240 million this year, about 5% of the sum agreed by China Sports Media for its (admittedly unsustainable) five-year contract in 2015.
Amid all the devastation Shandong Taishan has powered to its first title since 2010 – the season before big spenders like Guangzhou Evergrande began to exert dominance (winning eight CSL championships over the past 10 years.)
Shandong’s team has retained most of its foreign stars, as well as some of the best local players, helped by the fact that its main shareholders are state-owned enterprises from Shandong, that have continued to provide financial support. Its best-known player is Marouane Fellaini, the former Manchester United midfielder, and still one of the top earners on a salary of more than £300,000 a week.
But as far as the domestic media was concerned, there was a more fundamental message for the Chinese football world in the club’s success – especially in how Shandong had taken the longer road to victory by investing in an academy that had launched the careers of more than 120 of the local players in China’s professional leagues this year.
“Only by focusing on youth training and playing steadily can we achieve glory, after the bursting of the ‘golden dollar’ bubble,” Xinhua urged in a recent piece. “This should be a wider truth for Chinese football.”
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