Chinese protectionism

Damiano Benzoni

Be the best forever: that is the motto on their crest – a tiger rising from the flames, its blades showing. “At all costs”, someone might be tempted to add, as the team we’re talking about – China Soccer League’s reigning champions Guǎngzhōu Evergrande, who have just secured Marcello Lippi as a manager – is doing anything possible in order to bend CSL rules and increase its domination on Chinese football. In June the team proposed boundaries on the number of foreign players for each team to be loosened. Such a proposal was accepted and ratified by the Zhōngguó Zúqiú Xiéhuì, the Chinese FA, in a formula seemingly devised on purpose to help Lippi’s team.

Before the new rule was approved, the ZZX admitted a maximum of five foreign players – including at least one from Asia – to be registered for any club. On the pitch, it would be “3+1”: three non-Asian players and a non-Chinese Asian. After Guǎngzhōu Evergrande bought Bundesliga champion and Paraguay international Lucas Barrios, though, the team has infringed the roof by owning other four South American players: the Brazilians Cléo, Muriqui and Paulão and the Argentinean Darío Conca. Instead of giving up one of them, the club committed to “legalising” the signing of the former Borussia Dortmund striker. Club President Xu Jiayin’s proposal – which devised the increase of the foreign allocation up to seven slots in the roster, without any modification on the “3+1” rule and the call-up roof of five foreigners – was accepted by the ZZX and, according to Andrew Crawford of When Saturday Comes, included a questionable clause. The increase of the foreign allocation will only be allowed to the teams still involved in the Asian Champions League. The only team who’s still playing the continental tournament, though, is none other than Guǎngzhōu Evergrande which, after beating FC Tōkyō in the round of sixteen, in September will take on the Arabs of al-Ittihad in the quarter finals.

Not only the ZZX allowed Guǎngzhōu to bend transfer rules so easily – even approving personalised clauses for the Cantonese team – but the Chinese FA did so in favour of a team who was demoted by office following a match-fixing scandal which had caused the arrest of the FA president Nan Yong. Starting from the second division and thanks to the new ownership by the Evergrande Real Estate group, Guǎngzhōu got back on its feet, finishing at the top spot and winning the following top league championship as a newly promoted team. How could the ZZX – and the other CSL clubs – be so condescending? The answer is indeed very simple: ever since Liáoníng’s 1989 triumph no other Chinese team has put its hands on the Asian Champions League, an exploit which Marcello Lippi’s billionaire Guǎngzhōu seems able to achieve.

The goal of the CSL – which approved the proposed modifications with a 43 vs 16 majority – is to raise the profile of the Chinese game and increase the public of the league also thanks to sensational transfers such as the move of the Ivorian Didier Drogba – European champion with Chelsea – to Shànghǎi Shénhuà. The CSL and the ZZX, though, seem to disregard the consequences on the technical value in the long run, as is underlined both on When Saturday Comes and by the blogger B.Cheng on Wild East Football. If the “3+1” rule on the number of foreign players on the pitch hasn’t changed, it’s also true that the decrease of slots for Chinese players in the roster could weigh on the possibilities of young promising players on which Chinese football should work in order to increase its level. Foreigners can indeed raise the profile of a league both technically and in terms of followers, but a certain degree of protectionism seems necessary in order to allow for the growth of home players. Thailand understood this, and its FA recently passed a law decreasing the foreign allocation in the roster from seven to five slots.

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