China – The new playground for Premier League stars?


Football in China is generally a culture shock for star players who are, it has to be assumed, lured primarily by the generous wages. One of the fundamental differences that the foreign players have to get to grips with is the fact that the season normally starts in late February and ends in December. No hectic Christmas and New Year to contend with in this league, which consists of 16 teams in the Super League and a total of 30 regular season clashes for each side.

They do have relegation and promotion, with the bottom two sides being relegated to China League One and the top two from League one replacing them.  The top three sides in the Super League qualify for the Champions League, no not that one, the AFC Champions League hosted by the Asian Football Confederation. There is ironically a scrap for the final AFC Champions League spot, with the 4th placed team missing out to their FA Cup winner if the winner finishes lower than 4th, so Spurs fans can sympathise with their Chinese footballing brethren.

Despite the economic growth that China has experienced in general, the football league has struggled to obtain and then retain a regular sponsor. As recently as 2005 they failed to find a sponsor altogether and last year it was the Wanda Plaza Chinese Super League, not quite sure what Sky would make of that.

Despite this, professional footballers in China receive higher salaries than a lot of other sports in their country and their wages also compare very favourably to football leagues in many other countries. This understandably has resulted in numerous foreign players being attracted to the league, initially from the South Americas but recently of course, high profile signings from the English Premier League in Nicolas Anelka and then Didier Drogba.

There are rules in place that restrict each team to a maximum of five foreign players in the squad and only four allowed on the field of play at any one time. Admirably these rules are in place in order to promote native player standards whilst improving the quality with star signings. How different our own league would look under a similar arrangement.

The league is still in its infancy as the first CSL season kicked off in 2004 with just 12 teams. Sadly it has to be said that that early seasons were marred by serious scandals with allegations of Match-Fixing, Gambling revelations and various other issues, that had a devastating effect on attendances and general interest in the game, resulting in large financial losses.

It can only be hoped that Didier and Nicolas were not fully briefed on the short history of the league that is home to their new club, that was Shanghai United and subsequently became Shanghai Shenhua after a buyout. The 2008 season suffered a withdrawal of a top flight club in protest at a penalty decision and as recently as 2010 the CSL was again beset by a scandal that went right to the top of the Football League hierarchy.

The good news for the Ex-Chelsea stars is that 2011 heralded a new beginning with the Chinese Government announcing anti-corruption measures. These efforts to visibly improve the image of the game have seen attendances rise and heavy investment in high profile foreign stars, including the appointment of former Fulham FC Coach Jean Tigana being appointed to manage the team in 2012.

Despite the positive mood, it still has to be said that the likes of  Drogba and Anelka are unlikely to have been attracted by the big game atmosphere of matches, with standards obviously much lower in general and average attendances under 20,000, there is more a feel of the Championship about it, but for a widely touted salary of about £200k per week, Drogba is being compensated well enough to cope with the culture shock.

The Premier League clubs like Chelsea and Manchester United have long been  well aware of the commercial advantages of developing their profile in the Far East, but despite the cynicism that sometimes greets the news of pre-season friendlies being played over there and even more so, when an Asian player is signed to play in England, you can hardly blame the Chinese for wanting to develop the game in their country.

For such a large potential audience, the interest is still lower than you would expect, but with stellar salaries, that can hardly be justified by current attendances, the region is certainly likely to attract more foreign stars, albeit in limited numbers due to the league rules.  You could hardly blame the players for taking the cash being offered and in the long term the standard of football in China will improve which goes some way to justifying the investments being made at the moment.

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