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China signs up local talent to hit national soccer goals

Demand for star foreign players falling as clubs shift to sustainable growth

French striker Anthony Modeste, previously with FC Cologne, recently joined China's Tianjin Quanjian under a deal worth around $40 million.   © Reuters

SHANGHAI -- China's 2018 soccer season is likely to see a continued slide in spending on high-profile foreign players as clubs focus more on developing local talent, with the ultimate aim of making the country an international force in the game.

Chinese Super League teams spent $450 million in the winter transfer window from December 2016 to February 2017 -- over $100 million more than clubs in the English Premier League, the second-highest spender. But in the summer transfer window from June to August, the only major signing was French striker Anthony Modeste, who joined Tianjin Quanjian for around $40 million.

"The spending dried up, effectively, because of concerns that Chinese national interests were not being addressed by the existing transfer regulations," said Simon Chadwick, professor of sports business at the U.K.'s University of Salford. "The country, in everything it does, seeks to enforce a 'Chinese first' agenda."

Two rules introduced in 2017 had a major impact. In 2016, each team could sign five foreign players, four of whom could be on the field at any one time, with the other on the bench. From February, only three foreign players could be named in the match day roster, leaving two to sit on the sidelines.

In May, the China Football Association introduced a so-called "transfer tax," which meant that indebted clubs wanting to sign a foreign player had to pay a sum equivalent to the transfer fee to a youth development fund.

In recent years, the bulk of Chinese spending has taken place in the winter months. It remains to be seen if that will be the case ahead of the 2018 season. However, Chadwick said there will not be a return to former spending levels, predicting that clubs will complete future signings solely for competitive reasons, ignoring the fame, glitz and glamour that new players can provide.

"Wild excesses"

"I don't envisage there being anything like the wild excesses of the last two years during the next transfer window," Chadwick said. "Chinese football has moved on from the hype to being more strategic and sustainable."

According to Chadwick, Chinese clubs are likely to focus more on promoting talented young local players. "The aim of this will be to accentuate the 'Chineseness' of Chinese football, while preparing these players for international-level football," he said.

Marcello Lippi, the coach who took Italy to World Cup victory in 2006, has led China's national team since October 2016 and notched up improved results in qualification matches for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. But China still failed to reach the final tournament.

Having better Chinese players will benefit the national team, which will help Beijing meet its official goal of being a leading soccer power by 2050.

In February, Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao co-owner and property tycoon Xu Jiayin -- also known by the Cantonese version of his name, Hui Ka Yan -- said he wanted the club to field an all-Chinese team by 2020. The target was restated at the end of the season.

"The goal of Evergrande in entering the football business was to contribute to the development of Chinese football," Xu said. "Our investment in introducing foreign players was relatively big. Starting next year, our investment should focus on youth training."

Guangzhou is not there yet. Helped by foreign stars such as Brazilians Paulinho and Ricardo Goulart, and led by Brazil's 2002 World Cup-winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, Guangzhou strolled to a seventh successive Chinese Super League title.

Shanghai SIPG finished second, but eliminated Guangzhou in the quarterfinal of the 2017 Asian Champions League clash, the first time that two Chinese teams had reached the last eight of the annual continental competition, which features 32 of Asia's best club teams.

Getting stronger

Shanghai SIPG striker Hulk was signed for around $60 million in the summer of 2016 and enjoyed a successful 2017. The Brazilian scored 17 goals in the league and nine in Asia. "We have made progress this year," Hulk said. "We have become a better team, and came close in China and in Asia. Next season we will be stronger, I am sure, and Chinese football is getting stronger too."

Hulk could not prevent SIPG from losing the FA Cup final to city rivals Shanghai Shenhua in the traditional last soccer action of the domestic season in November. SIPG coach Andre Villas-Boas, who previously led two English Premier League teams, quit on Nov. 30. 

The knockout tournament may not rival the prestige of the Chinese Super League, with its 16 teams playing each other home and away over the course of a grueling eight-month campaign, but Shenhua's triumph was celebrated in the half of Shanghai that backs the team.

For the first leg of the final at Shenhua's Hongkou Stadium, fans spilled out of bars and hotpot restaurants that surround the arena just to the north of the city's downtown. Crowd chants continued nonstop through the game and most of the 24,000 blue-clad Shenhua fans turned to taunt the small red pocket of SIPG fans when Nigerian striker Obafemi Martins scored the only goal of the first leg. Shenhua later lost the second leg 3-2, but won overall having scored the most goals away from its home ground.

"It has been a bad season for us," said Shenhua fan and Shanghai resident Zhang Li. "But winning the cup means we end it feeling good, especially as the game is against SIPG. Shenhua is the only real Shanghai team and we are happy to prove this again."

Andre Villas-Boas, center, then coach of Shanghai SIPG, talks to the press after the first leg of the China FA Cup final on Nov. 19. (Photo by John Duerden)

Shenhua finished fourth in 2016 but sank to 13th in 2017, despite adding Argentine star Carlos Tevez to its roster. Tevez, formerly of England's Manchester United and Italy's Juventus, is reportedly one of the highest-paid players in the world, but failed to impress in his first season. Tevez is said to have headed back to Argentina on the day of the final, and it is uncertain whether he will return.

Shenhua may have struggled in 2017, but its home games nevertheless attracted an average attendance of almost 20,000. This was below the league's overall average of nearly 24,000 -- down slightly from 2016, but still the highest in Asia.

Shenhua coach Wu Jingui, appointed in September to succeed Gus Poyet after the resignation of the Uruguayan due to poor results, felt that the final was a good advertisement for Chinese soccer.

"I think standards are improving around the league, and the fans have responded to that," Wu said. "You can see the atmosphere here today."

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