East Asia China

Jiangsu and Tianjin Go Bust – How the CSL Bubble Has Bursted

Shocking news emerged out of 2020 Chinese Super League champions Jiangsu FC. Club owners Suning Group – a retail giant within China – has announced on Sunday that they will cease operations of all Jiangsu teams underneath their ownership. This include the Jiangsu senior team in the CSL, Jiangsu’s women’s team, as well as Jiangsu’s youth teams. Suning’s shocking announcement came after weeks after weeks of financial uncertainty within the team, with the same uncertainties spelling the end of another CSL side, Tianjin Tigers, a week before Jiangsu’s closure. The imminent demise of the two clubs are the latest sign in how the financial bubble of Chinese football – which saw CSL clubs signing star players from overseas en masse – have well and truly burst.

Both Jiangsu and Tianjin were yet to be dissolved despite them ceasing operations, but should they fail to find new investors before the start of the 2021 CSL season, they will join the 16 Chinese clubs that have gone bust in 2020, which included Tianjin’s city rivals Tianjin Tianhai and Liaoning FC, the first Chinese club to win the AFC Champions League all the way back in 1990.

“Even though we are reluctant to part with the players who have won us the highest honors, and fans who have shared solidarity with the club, we have to regretfully make an announcement,” read a statement posted by Jiangsu on their Weibo page on Sunday, which was understandably met by sadness and disappointment from the club’s fans, “From today, Jiangsu Football Club ceases the operation of its teams.”

And while Suning blamed the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic for causing the retail corporation to cut off their investment in their non-retail ventures (which included Italian Serie A giants Inter Milan, which they reportedly are considering selling), in reality the money has started to dry up within Chinese football before the pandemic started. COVID merely serves as a catalyst that accelerated the destruction of the financial bubble within Chinese football.

It was only in 2016 that CSL clubs were at the forefront of the global transfer market, bringing in stars from European leagues into their teams as they seek to make the CSL “the best league in the world.” President Xi Jinping have called for a “football revolution” that would see China emerge as a footballing powerhouse not only in Asia, but in the world. And while money has been invested in youth development, facility improvement, and building new stadiums, local tycoons backing CSL clubs are also pouring cash in bringing in star players to strengthen their teams.

Jiangsu Suning led the charge in 2016 by bringing in Ramires from Chelsea and Alex Teixeira from Shakhtar Donetsk, with the latter being closely linked with Liverpool before joining Jiangsu of all teams. Shanghai SIPG accepted Jiangsu’s transfer challenge by bringing in a superstar of their own – Hulk was drawn from Zenit Saint Petersburg to the Shanghai Stadium, having been linked with a number of European teams back then.

Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao, another CSL giant, drafted in Jackson Martinez from Atletico Madrid, while Hebei China Fortune brought in Ezequiel Lavezzi from Paris Saint-Germain and Gervinho from AS Roma. Beijing Sinobo Guoan joined in the fun with Burak Yilmaz from Galatasaray, while Shanghai Greenland Shenhua, having brought in Demba Ba in 2015, flexed their financial muscle by bringing in Obafami Martins. Last but not least, Graziano Pelle and Papiss Cisse were brought into the CSL by Shandong Luneng Taishan.

The spree continues in 2017, as Chelsea were once again raided, this time by SIPG, who brought in Oscar. The likes of Carlos Tevez, Axel Witsel, Alexandre Pato, John Obi Mikel, Jonathan Soriano, and Odion Ighalo were also brought into the CSL, with the players having made their names for themselves in the European leagues prior to their switch to China.

Not only players, a number of reputable head coaches are also being brought into CSL clubs steer them to glory. The likes of Sven-Goran Eriksson, Andre Villas-Boas, Fabio Cannavaro, Fabio Capello, Gus Poyet, Gregorio Manzano, Felix Magath, and Luiz Felipe Scolari were some of the notable head coaches that had taken charge of a CSL team during their transfer boom period.

However, it was soon noticed that corporations behind Chinese clubs are not spending money towards their superstars for the purpose of developing Chinese football. While the arrival of stars from established European and South American leagues is good for attracting new fans and growing interest from the grassroots level, in the end the interest that CSL clubs are showing by bringing in these established players are merely for short-term successes and making headlines. Realizing that the football boom within China is heading towards unsustainability, the government began implementing measures that would curb these big-name transfers.

The first of these measures is by implementing taxes on player transfers, which was implemented in 2018. A 100% tax will be applied in transfer for players worth more than $7 million, which would discourage tycoons from going the instant route and bring in expensive signings in favor of investing their money in the local game.

Another measure that has been taken by the Chinese government in curbing unsustainable spending on players and staff is by introducing a salary cap. A salary cap means that clubs are required to pay players within a maximum amount of money as regulated by the Chinese Football Association (CFA), and those who pay more than they should are subjected to punishment, ranging from player suspensions to a 24-point deduction. CSL clubs are not allowed to pay their foreign imports more than $3.3 million per year and their local players will also get a cap on their salary too. To compare and contrast, SIPG’s Oscar is paid a handsome $27 million annually.

Last but not least, before the start of the 2021 season, the CFA ordered all Chinese clubs to shed their corporate identity from their names, in hopes that it would encourage clubs to stand on their two feet instead of depending on their corporate backers all the time. This meant that almost everyone in the CSL and beyond are forced to change their names to accommodate themselves to the new regulations. Jiangsu Suning became Jiangsu, Tianjin TEDA became Tianjin Tigers, Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao became Guangzhou FC, Shandong Luneng Taishan became Shandong Taishan, Shanghai SIPG became Shanghai Port, and so on.

The measures of curbing superstar transfers are a huge gamble taken by the Chinese government – in one hand it could potentially kill off growing interest in Chinese football with the sudden halt of star player influx, however in the other hand it will encourage clubs to better develop their local players in order for them to reach the same levels as the aforementioned stars from Europe and South America. And SIPG has proven that developing Chinese players to reach European levels is indeed possible – Wu Lei is currently China’s poster child of football and having scored goals for fun with SIPG, he’s now plying his trade in Spain with RCD Espanyol. It is hoped that investments from club owners towards local players could help create more players like Wu Lei in the future.

Whilst Jiangsu had done well to win the 2020 edition of the CSL, cracks have already showed themselves within the team. Midway through the season reports of wages being unpaid and players refusing to attend training made its way into the media, while Suning are scrambling left, right, and center for anyone who would take over Jiangsu once the season has ended. Enterprises in Suzhou and Wuxi were contacted, with prospects of Jiangsu being relocated to either one of the two cities being floated. However, discussions broke down as Suning were forced to ditch their company identity from Jiangsu’s name.

To top it all off, Cosmin Olariou, the Romanian head coach who won Jiangsu the league in 2020, had alleged that the club has failed to pay his salary, while contract extension talks with star man Teixeira had broken down, with Saudi Arabian giants Al-Hilal licking their lips in the sidelines as they poise themselves to pounce at the Brazilian when the opportunity presents itself.

The regulation that forbids corporations from displaying their names alongside their teams might sound unappetizing to some, however it has been proven that there are corporations who indeed care for the sustainable growth of Chinese football. Chongqing Lianjiang Athletic, formerly Chongqing Dangdai, managed to secure themselves new investors for the 2021 season, according to a tweet from Titan Sports Plus. Greenland Group, owners of Shanghai Shenhua, actually won more fans by removing “Greenland” from the club’s name, as the inclusion of Greenland within Shenhua’s name had alienated groups of fans. As for Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG), the name change from Shanghai SIPG to Shanghai Port was a win-win middle ground as it abides by the new regulation yet at the same time still reflecting on who are the owners of the club.

As divisive the policies curbing corporate dependence and overspending in Chinese football are, in the end it does exposes those who are unable to run their clubs sustainably. A downturn in the economy brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic had forced corporations to abandon reckless spending and encourages them to invest their money smartly, and unfortunately both Suning and TEDA, the latter of whom had owed 10 months worth of wages to Tianjin’s players, were not such corporations.

As noted by Chinese state-run media Xinhua, the deaths of Jiangsu and Tianjin were signs that the worst effect of the CSL bubble bursting had passed and a thorough rethink is needed to bring Chinese football to a brighter future.

“It seems so shocking, but it seems that the dust has settled,” they wrote, “The most important thing is to reload and start again, rather than to get lost in confusion or remorse. To some extent it’s good that the CSL bubble has bursted earlier than expected. Chinese football has ushered in it’s first watershed after a wild period of unsustainable growth. Respect the laws of football, respect the laws of the market, adhere to training the youth and work for the long term.”

The CSL may still have their superstars in Oscar, Marko Arnautovic, Marouane Fellaini, Cedric Bakambu, Marek Hamsik, Moussa Dembele, Aaron Mooy, Anderson Talisca, Paulinho, and a quintet of new arrivals in Junior Negrao (formerly of Ulsan Hyundai), Erik (formerly of Yokohama F. Marinos), Matej Jonjic (formerly of Cerezo Osaka), Leonardo (formerly of Urawa Red Diamonds) and Juan Fernando Quintero (formerly of River Plate), however much work has to be done to invest the “football revolution” money in the right places – to create a new generation of Chinese footballers capable of going toe-to-toe with their Japanese and South Korean counterparts and even go beyond the CSL, just like what Wu Lei did.