Chinese Super League in disarray after sudden rule changes take force
The Chinese Super League (CSL) has been splashing the cash on high-profile players -- Oscar and Carlos Tevez to name but two -- but the league's ability to sign such stars is about to change.
With just six weeks to go until the start of the 2017 season, 18 major alterations to selection rules -- including warnings against under the table payments, use of unofficial agents and excessive transfer fees -- have been enforced by the Chinese FA, leaving many clubs' plans for the season up in the air.
The most headline-grabbing of all: only three foreign players may play in any given CSL match, while one Chinese Under-23 player must also appear from the start.
While officially issued by the CFA, it is widely known that the new regulations have come from a higher authority: the government. There is no recourse for objection or appeal.
Recent reports regarding excessive transfer spending have garnered attention from government officials currently clamping down on corruption and excessive capital outflows. Football is now very much under the microscope.
For the clubs, though, the sudden implementation of new rules has caused major inconvenience. With several sides having already ploughed ahead with recruitment, alterations to foreign player limits have left many out of pocket with big salaried players now unable to take to the pitch -- such as Guangzhou who have three Brazilians (Alan, Paulinho and Ricardo Goulart) and a Colombian (Jackson Martinez) to fit in.
"Unbelievable" was the one word response to ESPN FC from a director at a leading CSL side, while another made clear that his club -- as yet -- had yet to fully figure out how the changes would affect planning. But, so far, nobody has yet been willing to publicly criticise the new regulations.
Indeed, the closest any official has come to complaining was from Shu Yuhui. The Tianjin Quanjian owner proceeded to list a string of high profile names he would have signed but for the new directives -- Diego Costa, Edison Cavani and Falcao among them. The CFA may just have saved the herbal medicine billionaire a fortune, at least by his own reckoning.
Those most affected by the sudden change are undoubtedly the Shanghai duo of SIPG and Shenhua -- punished for the early signings they made ahead of the AFC Champions League qualifiers. With clubs often criticised for their short-term approach, actions such as this only justify such thinking.
With only three foreign players able to take the pitch in any one game, clubs must now weigh up the need to have more than that in their registered squad.
The second major choice involves the previous AFC player quota. With no need for a player from another Asian nation this season, the futures of many Korean and Australian players is now up in the air.
For many clubs, the requirement to play an Under-23 player could also prove a major difficulty. Combined with the increased number of Chinese players required on the pitch and the inability to bring foreign players off the bench, the bubble in valuation of local players is only set to increase further.
In the week when second division Shenzhen paid £10 million for one-time international centre-back Cui Min, the well-meaning policies may inadvertently have shifted major spending in another direction. The depth of a club's Chinese squad is now set to take on increased importance.
Governing by sudden policy is common across all industry in China, yet does little to bolster the international reputation of the league. If those in charge are serious about international credibility, they need to make sure clubs are afforded time to come to terms with the changes.
The publicity football brings is a major factor behind China's pursuit of greater prominence in the sport, but it is already proving to be a considerable inconvenience with their missteps broadcast to a global audience.
Muddled thinking and the demand for immediate results remain Chinese football's greatest obstacle, it is now simply that the financial losses are higher. Now these changes have been made, they must be afforded time to work.
Chris Atkins is based in China and writes for ESPN FC about the Chinese Super League. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisAtkins_.