Why China and the CSL won’t rule world football any time soon

GUANGZHOU, CHINA - NOVEMBER 21: Players of Guangzhou Evergrande react by dancing after winning the Asian Champions League Final 2nd leg Match between Guangzhou Evergrande and Al Ahli at Tianhe Sports Center on November 21, 2015 in Guangzhou, China. (Photo by Zhong Zhi/Getty Images)
GUANGZHOU, CHINA - NOVEMBER 21: Players of Guangzhou Evergrande react by dancing after winning the Asian Champions League Final 2nd leg Match between Guangzhou Evergrande and Al Ahli at Tianhe Sports Center on November 21, 2015 in Guangzhou, China. (Photo by Zhong Zhi/Getty Images) /

Each year more and more international-quality footballers move to China in big money deals that have left many fans wondering what is happening in the Middle Kingdom.

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Some have speculated about China’s chances of competing at the top level of international football, as well as why are so many players now interested in playing in the Chinese Super League (CSL).

Jiangsu Suning, who last year lifted the Chinese FA Cup, have splashed the cash to bring in three Brazilians that have connections with the Premier League.

Ramires joined Jiangsu from Chelsea for a reported £25 million, Alex Teixeira was linked with Liverpool throughout January before completing a reported €50 million move, whilst former Everton and Manchester City player Jô joined the club shortly after for an undisclosed fee.

But Jiangsu are far from the first club, or even the only club, throwing money at foreign players.

China’s best club, Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao, have won five consecutive CSL titles as well as a couple of Asian Champions Leagues and Chinese FA Cups since winning promotion back to the first-tier in 2011.

Players such as Elkeson, Dario Conca, Ricardo Goulart, Paulinho, Alessandro Diamanti and even Robinho have spent time playing for the South China club.

But with all of these impressive foreign talents, which includes Australian international and former Everton midfielder Tim Cahill at Shanghai Shenhua, China have still made no real progress on the international stage.

China have not qualified for the FIFA World Cup since their debut appearance in 2002. They finished 2nd in the 2004 version of the Asian Cup, but have only reached as far as the Quarter-Finals once since then.

China’s only successes internationally have come from the EAFF’s East Asian Cup, which they have won twice and finished in the top 3 each time since its inception in 2003.

So will China ever be able to rise up to the high expectations that current President Xi Jinping has placed?

Here are a few of the things that suggest that China is still a very long way away from ever truly challenging on the highest footballing stage.

Locals Don’t Care Much
Football is extremely popular in China, but the local game receives very little interest due to the lack of quality on display.

Walking around streets in China you’ll see multiple European and International team shirts being worn, with the likes of Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Barcelona and Argentina being some of the most notable.

But you’ll be hard pressed to see anyone wearing the local team’s shirt. Very rarely, in the North-Eastern city of Changchun, you may spot the odd person wearing a Changchun Yatai coat due to the below-freezing temperatures the city is engulfed in for up to 6 months of the year.

Only on match days will you see people wearing a Changchun shirt and even then the shirt is usually a knock off that costs the equivalent of £3 or around $4.50, compared to the regular £30/$45 price for the official Nike shirt.

And only those attending the match will be seen wearing a shirt. Outside of that, it’s extremely rare to see anyone representing their local team.

No Grassroots Football
China wants to grow as a footballing nation, but it has no real grassroots opportunities for anyone.

If people want to play football they need to rent a pitch somewhere in the city and the options for those are very limited.

Parks are not suitable for pick-up games between friends and you may regularly see kids just kicking a ball around on paths or concrete basketball courts, as they are the only places close by that can be accessed easily and for free.

There are no local football leagues in China, at least not in the North-East. So people wanting to play football will have to organise things themselves, but that may not be feasible all the time.

Schools provide kids with the best opportunity to play, with them all having pristine pitches that the school’s teams can play on.

But with how intensely the students are required to study, time for sports is reduced each year they are in school.

After graduating at 18, unless they choose to study sports at the local sports university, there are no opportunities to continue developing their game.

If China truly wishes to become a football powerhouse in the future, grassroots football must be invested in heavily.

Clubs in the country have a win-now mentality and would prefer to pump millions into the buying of big foreign names that can help them challenge in the 16-team top league.

With no opportunities for young people to play outside of school, clubs are left with a largely reduced pool of players that can be scouted and signed up to their youth academies.

Ticket Prices
One of the biggest surprises about Chinese football is how cheap it is to watch, considering how much money clubs seem to now be spending on new players.

Changchun Yatai, who won the CSL in 2007 and finished 2nd in 2009, has a starting match day ticket of just £5/$7.5. This increases slightly depending on the area you wish to sit.

The cheapest season ticket the club offers costs £40/$60, for 15 home games in the ‘die-hard’ fan section.

The atmosphere here is fantastic, with fans singing songs and waving flags as much as any club around the world.

But a short glance left or right will show countless empty seats in other areas of the 22’000-seat stadium.

Combine how cheap matches really are with how few people attend them, 10’000 average for a former league champion club, shows a huge disparity in how much money clubs are spending compared to how much money they are receiving in return.

With fans also purchasing knock off shirts from street vendors outside the club’s grounds, the money their club receives could be even less as they are not receiving revenue from sales of shirts.

Foreign Players over Chinese Talent
It has already been mentioned how the country has a severe lack of grassroots/amateur football opportunities, but professional clubs are also placing a much higher value on foreign imports to their own country’s players.

Most clubs hope to challenge for silverware and see having 5 great foreign players, the maximum number of imports allowed at one time, as the way for them to progress and develop further.

Clubs place most of the responsibilities of the team on their foreign players, with them being the stars of their teams.

Tim Cahill for Shanghai Shenhua, Ramires and Teixeira for Jiangsu Suning, Renato Augusto for Beijing Guo’an, Marcelo Moreno Martins for Changchun Yatai and Elkeson, Asamoah Gyan and Dario Conca for Shanghai SIPG.

All of these foreign players are considered the stars of their teams, pushing Chinese players to the background.

Wu Lei, one of China’s most talented and exciting young players, now has to compete with the likes of Conca, Gyan and Elkeson for recognition and while fans love him, they will start to love their foreigners more once they start scoring freely.

So if China wants to truly compete with the likes of Germany, Spain, Brazil and Argentina, big changes need to be made around the country and within the professional clubs themselves.

More and more big name foreign players are moving to China, with multiple England internationals now being linked with moves, and it is getting increasingly harder for Chinese players to make as much impact as their foreign counterparts.

One positive for the Chinese Super League is the fact that clubs can only have Chinese goalkeepers, effectively safeguarding that position from foreign players that could come in and compete at a higher level.

Changes need to be made, otherwise the Chinese national team will remain where it is and clubs in the CSL could find themselves bankrupt if more locals start supporting their local teams.