Football in China: Can they have it all?

The Chinese Super League (CSL) has been making headlines around the globe in recent years because of the influx of household names, both in playing and managerial roles. The seemingly neverending debate as to why these superstars would move to China burns brighter than ever as attendances at CSL games slowly increase and the teams get slightly stronger each year. The national team however has suffered in recent years and is yet to replicate the relative success that they enjoyed between 2002 and 2004. Is it possible for China to have a flourishing domestic league and a successful national team? Can they really have it all? 

It must be said that the Chinese FA (CFA) are very serious about having a well respected and professional league. The CSL was only formed in 2004 as the CFA looked to implement a more professional top league that demanded more from the clubs participating, including a youth development program at every club. The CFA will admit that part of their goal with the CSL was to attract more overseas players and coaches to the country but surely that cannot be seen as a bad thing and can only help to improve the skills of the home grown players.


In 2010 the CSL, just six years old, hit a rocky patch as it was hit by a scandal involving the CFA. The government intervened, arrests were made and the image of the league had improved by 2011 when attendances increased to the highest the league had seen since its inception. 2012 brought with it the first real signs of big name players opting for China. Although previous seasons had seen the likes of Carsten Jancker and Damiano Tommasi provide a touch of class to the CSL, arrivals such as Didier Drogba, Seydou Keita and Nicolas Anelka were starting to put the league on a new level.


The influx of players has grown and grown and 2015 was the first season where CSL matches had an average attendance over 20,000, a tribute to how much investment the sport has seen and the growing popularity of the domestic league in China. Today, players including Demba Ba, Graziano Pelle, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Hulk, Alex Teixeira and Jackson Martinez all play their club football in China. The list of overseas players in the CSL is astounding and many of them could easily get into the team of a top European side. This is not a league where those close to retirement complete a well-paid lap of honour as MLS was once seen. This is a league attracting star players, many of which are still in their prime.


Despite these major transfers, there have been controls put in place that will prevent the CSL becoming similar to the English Premier League for example. Clubs are only permitted to have five overseas players in their squad, or rather it is a 4+1 rule. This rule states that clubs may have four players in their squad from anywhere in the world plus a further overseas player that must be from the AFC region. It is this addition of a fifth overseas player from the AFC region that has seen many players from Australia and South Korea also opt for the CSL.


It is often said that the problem with the England national team is that there are too many foreign players in the Premier League. The argument is that as success is demanded almost instantly, clubs would rather spend millions of pounds on a player from overseas rather than try a youngster from their youth academy. The dangers of using academy players are obvious, their inexperience and sometimes their lack of physicality can leave them looking out of place in the Premier League and fans then lambast the manager for throwing a kid into the team before he is ready. Of course if you can find a Gianluigi Donnarumma like AC Milan or a Raheem Sterling like Liverpool did, then the manager is praised for giving youth a chance.


If you consider the big clubs in England and ask yourself who their three best players are, the chances are they are all foreign with one or two exceptions such as Tottenham Hotspur. The same can be said in China, I am sure fans of 2016 CSL Champions, Guangzhou Evergrande, would say that their three best players are Ricardo Goulart, Alan Carvalho and Jackson Martinez. The difference is that whilst clubs such as Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea could all quite easily field a team with 11 overseas players, Guangzhou Evergrande are not allowed to do so. Seven of the starting lineup must be Chinese in the CSL. It is this fact that means that the CSL will never be as competitive or as high quality as the Premier League but it will also protect the development of Chinese players as clubs need them just as much, if not more, as they need the foreign players. It is in the clubs best interests to produce top quality Chinese players as they will make up most of their squad.

I am not for a moment saying that the Premier League should introduce a rule as drastic as the 4+1 rule but it is an interesting point of view. In the CSL you have squads where 80% of the players are Chinese and they are being coached on a weekly basis by Luiz Felipe Scolari, Andre Villas Boas and various other managers from different corners of the earth and training with a handful of superstars. We will not see the benefits of this rule, if there are any, in the national team for at least a decade as it takes time for these big names to stamp their mark on the next generation of Chinese football.


The national team has historically struggled to make an impact on the world stage. Despite their vast population, China have only qualified for a FIFA World Cup on one occasion. This was the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan where they lost all three group games and failed to score a single goal. Although this may sound like a poor showing, managing to qualify for a World Cup is, to date, their greatest achievement and they arguably had their ‘golden generation’ at that time.

Sun Jihai was playing for Manchester City and Fan Zhiyi was at Crystal Palace during the qualification campaign whilst Yang Chen was playing for Eintracht Frankfurt. After the World Cup players such as Li Tie and Li Weifeng moved to Everton and Shao Jiayi was signed by 1860 Munich. Chinese players were starting to be noticed and the CSL hadn’t even been formed yet. Surely the only way was up? Well it was, at least for a couple of years anyway as the 2004 Asian Cup proved to be one of their best to date.


China were the runners up in 2004, which equalled their best ever showing at the tournament. Beaten by a strong Japan side in the final, this tournament would signal the end of what had seemed like an ever improving Chinese national team that could become a footballing world power. As their domestic league has flourished in the last five years or so, the national team is still struggling along and their chances of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup look bleak at best.


Marcelo Lippi and his band of Italian men are now in charge of the Chinese national team having taken over in October 2016. The appointment of Lippi shows that the CFA are not only serious about having a strong domestic league but that they want a strong national team too. Whether this is possible or not may also depend on the willingness of Chinese players to move overseas and experience different styles of football and different cultures. In Lippi’s first selected squad, all but one of the 25 play their club football in China and there is certainly an argument to say that this could have a detrimental effect on the team. Surely having a handful of players plying their trade in other leagues around the world can only be of benefit?


Zhang Yuning is just 19 years old and in 2015 was signed by Vitesse Arnhem. As the only current Chinese international player overseas, he could well prove to be the key to the national team and set an example for other youngsters. Already making appearances in Eredivisie, Zhang Yuning is the first product of that CFA youth development program rule to look like a future star.


The conundrum as to whether it is better to keep the best Chinese players in the CSL or try to push them out to European clubs will remain unsolved for the foreseeable. A mixture of both is likely preferable and it will be interesting to see how many Chinese players take the leap of faith and leave home. The CSL is getting stronger and more popular every year and the CFA are trying to drag the national team along with it. It will be a long and tough road as international success is incredibly tough, but with the right coaches and effective youth development programs, we could just see China at another World Cup in the next decade.