The Chinese Super League: Why the CSL is worth the hype

In the late 70’s, a man named Edward Said came up with a concept which he called Orientalism. It was the idea that European portrayals of the Orient (Asia, the Middle East and North Africa) were patronising.

Said argued that such portrayals were an example of European imperialistic tradition, with Oriental cultures being seen as innocent, mysterious, primitive and dangerous.

Don’t worry, this isn’t some deep complicated assessment of stuff that would send you to sleep if you were in school. But with the rise of the Chinese Super League (CSL) over the past few seasons many of those characterisations have been made of Chinese football.

The CSL has often been portrayed as somewhat sinister; a primitive league that lures ‘our’ beloved European players (even though they’re often South American) with ridiculous wages (as if European wages aren’t ridiculous) to play in a far flung land land full of mystery.

It is true that Chinese clubs have been paying a premium to secure top players from the European leagues, but as football fans we should not fall into the trap of laughing off the CSL or worse, racistly characterising it because while a Chinese club signed Odion Ighalo for £20 million, Bournemouth signed Jordan Ibe for £15 million.

So here is a brief history of the CSL to get you up to speed and in the know.


Origins and format

The Chinese Super League was formed in 2004 after China’s previous professional league’s reputation became irreversibly tarnished with match fixing, betting and corruption scandals.

In contrast, the CSL is a far more professional and demanding league with checks on management, administration, finances and youth development at every club. However, despite its lofty ambitions, in 2010 the League was rocked by a major corruption scandal which led to the arrests of three Chinese FA vice presidents.

Following the scandal an anti-corruption movement has worked effectively to restore the reputation and image of Chinese football domestically. Its growing presence led to more investment and with the signing of foreign stars beginning a few years ago, the global profile of the league has been taken to a new level.

Currently there are 16 teams competing in the CSL and each year two teams are promoted from China’s League One, with two from the CSL being relegated.

The league’s top 3 finishers are entered into the Asian Champions League, as is the winner of the Chinese FA Cup.


Long term goals

Chinese football has grown massively in a short space of time, but while football is watched by many, in terms of infrastructure it remains a long way behind other national sports like basketball, badminton and table tennis.

Nonetheless, the Chinese government and FA have plans to develop football both as a national sport and as a global product.

The government has announced its aim of making China a top tier nation by 2050 and one of the best in Asia within 15 years. With China currently 77th in the world there is clearly some way to go, but considering it was 109th only 4 years ago it is clear that progress is already being made.

And that progress has an international as well as domestic focus. In an interesting proposition, talks are ongoing between the Chinese FA and German League officials over the possibility of allowing the Chinese U20 team to play in the German 4th division. Monaco have also been linked with a scheme to train some of China’s brightest young talents.

To the ignorant eye, Chinese football may look like a joke, with teams paying over the odds for stars to play in a sub-par league in a country that doesn’t even care about football.

Make no mistake though, the truth is very different. Football in China is a long term project and in fact, the signing of major foreign players has so far been its least successful element.


Foreign failures

For all the many European stars who have moved to China, very few have been a success. Paulinho has successfully rebuilt his reputation since his move from Tottenham to Guangzhou Evergrande, but he is one of the few.

Carlos Tevez is apparently ready to give up after a season, while Oscar recently got himself an 8 game ban for kicking the ball at an opponent.

Special mention for biggest failure though must go to Ezequiel Lavezzi who, while earning a reported £798,000 per week, hasn’t scored a goal in 10 games and was recently embroiled in a race scandal when, during a photoshoot he uses his fingers to slant his eyes.

Sometimes there are no words.

In fact, the more successful imports have been lesser known players. The CSL’s best player award, the MVP, hasn’t gone to a Chinese player since 2007, yet none of its winners are what you might consider ‘big names’.

The last two MVPs have gone to Ricardo Goulart, a Brazilian who moved to China from Cruzeiro for €15 million. The MVP before Goulart, Elkeson, also moved from Brazil, but for only €5.7 million.

So while we might have assumed that our beloved European based players would be top dogs in China, in reality the case is quite different.

Superstar signings have raised the global and domestic profile of the league, but have had little impact on the field. Some have argued this is because the standard of football is so low that top level players cannot succeed, but in many ways that is besides the point.

It is clear that the league as a whole needs to develop and the Chinese FA and government have been proactive in making changes.


New rules

Very recently the Chinese government imposed important new rules which will promote the development of Chinese players and limit the extent to which foreign stars will be brought in for astronomical fees.

Firstly the number of foreign players allowed per squad has been reduced from 4 to 3. Secondly, there have been major changes to transfer fees for foreign players. From this July, for any fee paid below €6 million for a foreign player, an equivalent fee must be put into the club’s youth system.

For any fee above €6 million an equivalent fee must be paid to China’s football development fund. In effect, transfer fees for foreign players have doubled and the impact of this rule change has been immediate.

Anthony Modeste has recently moved to Tianjin Quanjian on an initial loan deal costing €6 million, with an option to buy for €29 million. This shows a much more pragmatic approach to spending.

Firstly, the fee paid for Modeste falls on the €6 million threshold meaning Tianjin Quanjian don’t need to pay double, while the loan gives the club the chance to assess whether Modeste actually proves himself worthy of the eventually exorbitant fee they would have to pay.


Improving step by step

Chinese football remains a long way behind the European powerhouses, but it is growing and its progression is and will continue to be genuinely interesting.

Orientalist portrayals of China as a mysterious and dangerous footballing nation, looking to topple European supremacy, should be abandoned and we should not lambast Chinese transfer fees when European fees are just as astronomical.

Furthermore, while major foreign transfers have been key to the CSL’s identity so far, just like they have in the MLS incidentally, transfer rule changes suggest that Chinese talent will be given every opportunity to be developed and to rise.

Can the same be said for English talent in the Premier League? In the end, China’s not as mysterious or primitive as you might think.


Written by Scott Pope

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