On May 24th 2017, the Chinese Football Association released two new controversial policies designed to aid the development of young Chinese football talent. These reforms included notice on adjusting the appearance policy for the players under the age of 23 (U23) in the Chinese Super League (CSL) and China League (CL) and notice on limiting the introduction of high-priced foreign players, which has caused much debate in recent months due to the large sums involved in foreign transfers. While their intention is clear and could be argued as being beneficial to the long term gain of the national game in China, industry professionals and fans were shocked by the drastic nature of these two policies and have expressed their concerns about the reforms.
The notice on adjusting the appearance policy for u23 players in the CSL and CL stated that to further enhance the practice of bringing through young players in the professional football league and encourage football clubs to step up efforts to develop young talent, from the 2018 season onwards, the accumulated appearances of Chinese domestic U23 football players (except Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan players) in each match of the Chinese Super League, China League and CFA Cup, must be the same as that of collective foreign player appearances in each match that season.
Prior to this directive, the CFA had previously announced in February 2017 another U23 policy, which required the CSL and CL teams to include four U23 players in their 27-player roster and have one U23 player in the first team squad and another U23 in their 18-player match day squad.
However, this policy came across obstacles in its implementation. Since its introduction, some U23 players such as Wei Shihao delivered some good performances, but unfortunately most players could not reach the standards required for making the CSL team lineups on merit. As a result, the quick substitution of U23 players often happened in the last few months to ensure teams could remain competitive.
Many therefore feel the new U23 policy is an upgrade designed to counter such actions and to strengthen the initial version announced in February and, ensuring young players receive full opportunities on the field.
CSL Clubs have remained quiet on this issue but there has been a lot of public criticism. People worry that the new policy could lead to the weakening of CSL’s competitive strengths and in turn, a decrease of fans ,enjoyment of the matches, inflated transfer fees and salaries of U23 players, and a lack of development opportunities for young players at 24 or over 24 years old. Some speculated there could be potential negative impacts with commercial partners of the leagues, i.e. If CSL and CL games were not as exciting as they would otherwise be, match attendance and broadcast audiences could drop, which would have a negative effect on the ability to attract and retain media partners and sponsors of the leagues.
Many feel that for Chinese football to continue its growth, a strong CSL is essential and that without it the government backed objective of training young players to be prepared for the FIFA World Cup will never be realized.
The second policy is notice on limiting the introduction of high-priced foreign players. It requires clubs that are not in profit to pay an amount equal to their transfer fees for international players to the CFA with the payment to be used for Chinese youth football development.
As there are few Chinese football clubs in profit, the policy would apply almost universally. So the clubs would essentially need to pay twice the money for whichever international players they bring in. Clearly it would be a burden and a restriction for any clubs who plan to add international players to their rosters. Some English media commented that it may well call a stop to the CSLs high spending on foreign players.
Not long before the announcement of the CFA policies, high-ranking Chinese government officials also noted publicly that there was a need to scale down the spending on foreign players by CSL teams.
If we look at the two policies together, it is clear they are both designed to promote the development of young Chinese football talent and that they believe a dependence on international players in the domestic league would be detrimental to this. Clearly if CSL teams are made up entirely of foreign players and Chinese players aren’t given the chance to play this will be bad for the Chinese national team – in the same way the English national team is suffering now because of the dependence on foreign players in the Premier League. However if we look at the same example of the Premier League – would the likes of Gerrard, Lampard and Scholes have been as good as they were if they weren’t playing with the likes of Xabi Alonso, Zola and Cantona? If the CSL, in trying to create opportunities for Chinese players, reduces the quality of the league then how can the best Chinese players be expected to improve to an internationally competitive standard?
Whatever the critics say, the two policies are a clear expression of the government’s focus on developing youth football. The Ministry of Education itself reported it would be able to finish selecting 20,000 football schools ahead of plan this year. Under the supportive attitude of the government, the private sector sees numerous parties involved in this area, including both Chinese and overseas football clubs alongside football training companies. Among them are many well-known names, such as FC Barcelona, Wanda Group and so on. Yutang Sports have personally come across a number of such middle and small companies as well as SMEs in this field .
Only time will tell whether these policies will negatively affect the growth of the CSL – the rising star of professional football leagues – and therefore with it, the growth of football in China or whether they are strict but necessary measures to ensure the government’s objectives for national football success. What is clear is that China is looking to address a problem being felt across the football world, the balance needs to be struck between providing opportunities for young Chinese players to play and ensuring that opportunity is at a high enough level for them to improve enough to challenge on the international stage.