Is China’s Soccer Boom Going Bust?

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Chinese teams embraced ambition and over-expenses in what was once a bold attempt to reshape their game. Now they don’t even play the game.

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For months now, there has been a plethora of emails and letters complaining about unpaid salaries.


Some claim damages in the thousands of dollars. Others want to fix a lot more. But some of the arguments reaching the Zurich offices of football’s global governing body FIFA, such as those involving some famous South American players, are in the millions.

However, FIFA officials collecting the claims have noticed that a surprising number are coming from one place: players and coaches at clubs in China. And they are afraid that the flow is going to be bad.

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China’s top soccer league – debuted as the sport’s new frontier not so long ago thanks to an era of half a decade of powerful backing, ambitious owners and unaccounted spending that lured top players with extravagant salaries There is an existential crisis. Companies that once spent tens of millions to acquire players can no longer pay their bills. The Chinese president, who once championed the sport, now faces far more serious priorities. And the country’s top division, the Super League, hasn’t played a game in months.

“Certainly, some issues like this have happened before,” said David Wu, a sports lawyer in Shanghai. “But not this size.”

The bad news swept away in waves. In February, China’s defending champions, Jiangsu Suning FC, were abruptly shut down by the electronics retailer, which had less than four months to win the Super League championship.

In the time it took to issue a news release, one of the country’s biggest clubs has vaporized, leaving its players unpaid and drawing unwanted attention to a project that seeks to transform China from a soccer backwater to the president. It was one of the cornerstones of Xi Jinping’s efforts. One of its superpowers.

Jiangsu’s downfall appears to have become more troublesome. league season is frequently interrupted China national team’s World Cup qualifying schedule to adjust, and will no longer resume until December. Until then, clubs will have little or no access to their best players.

Recently, doubts have been raised about the continued viability of China’s most successful team, Guangzhou FC, as the cash crunch at its parent company, real estate conglomerate Evergrande, is so severe that it threatens to contaminate the broader economy.

Last week, team agreed to part company With his coach, Italian Fabio Cannavaro, one of the highest paid managers in world football. Officials and players from other teams have also agreed to terminate long-term contracts with the understanding that they will be paid due salaries.

Fernando Martins and Renato Augusto, two Brazilian stars who agreed to such a deal at stakes worth millions of dollars, are among a growing list of players filing complaints with FIFA. Each was released from his contract by his former club, Beijing Guan, and was expected to make his first payments in August.

The players say that the money never came.

Officials at FIFA’s dispute resolution cell say they are analyzing the facts. They have the power to suspend clubs in any country from registering new signings until they settle unpaid salary debts. Some Chinese teams already seem to be subject to such restrictions: a recent report in China stated that Wuhan FC, which is owned by another asset group, the Wuhan Zall Development Holding Company, is seeking new players. has been suspended from

Yet the penalties and transfer restrictions may not be enough to help others understand what they are owed. Brazil defender Miranda was owed more than $10 million when Jiangsu Suning was laid off. His lawyers face the daunting task of navigating China’s complex legal system in an attempt to recover lost income.

At least 37-year-old Miranda is able to continue her career: she quickly landed a position – and a prosperous new contract – Sao Paulo, a team that plays in the top division of Brazil. Such an outcome is unlikely for the dozens of Chinese nationals who have gone unpaid or have been fired by their clubs in recent months.

“These are players who have little access to the international market,” said Jonas Baer-Hoffmann, general secretary of the global players union, FIFPro. “If his club goes bankrupt, his chance of finding work as a footballer is very low. So it effectively puts him out of work.”

The prospects for the Chinese league are unclear. Markets for top-shelf foreign players, and their desire to move to China have disappeared amid stories of unpaid wages. And the fortunes of clubs and others operating in China’s football economy rest on the whims of local football officials, who have been known to change rules frequently and abruptly, and the financial health of the league’s primary investors, in particular. Originally the real estate business, which led to the league being colloquially known as the Real Estate League rather than the Super League.

The days of eye-catching paydays are surely over. Carlos Tevez, a striker, once earned $40 million for a single unproductive season From Shanghai Shenhua, a team owned by the real estate company Greenland Group. Top Brazilian players like Hulk and Oscar received luscious paydays, but others also cashed in: at one point, the salary of a petty Argentine striker, Dario Conca, reportedly made him world’s third highest paid player.

In recent years, the league has attempted to curb massive overspending by issuing new rules, including taxes on imports and customs, on foreign players. It also introduced rules this season that prohibit companies from associating their brands with teams they own, forcing businesses like Evergrande and Greenland. Reluctantly to change the name of their clubs.

“It’s a very bad situation, and it will take some time to adjust,” said sports lawyer Wu.

Adding to the league’s evils is the uncertainty that hangs over its schedule. In July, the national federation announced that it would reduce the number of match rounds from 30 to 22 – another blow to teams desperate for revenue – and to accommodate the requirements of the national team’s qualification campaign for the 2022 World Cup. will adjust the schedule.

“If a league is flexible enough that it can stop and start according to the national team’s schedule, you can see where the priorities are,” said director of Red Lantern, a sports marketing company for Top European Works in China, said. football teams. “It’s definitely not with the league anymore.”

China has qualified for the World Cup only once, in 2002, only to lose all three of their games without scoring a goal. Building a capable national team that does more than just qualifying for future tournaments remains a key component of China’s blueprint for football, and supercharges investments in the Super League’s overseas players, foreign coaches and lavish facilities. was seen as a method.

But for all their expenses, the results have been disappointing, for the hope that the arrival will improve the quality of the domestic players. The national team is at the bottom of their World Cup qualifying group, having lost two of the three matches they have played so far.

“I’ll stick my neck out and say it’s worse than ever,” Gee said.

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