The latest developments in Chinese football – well thought-out or void of any logic?
We’ve followed the Chinese Super League closely over the preceding years, with several articles looking at its development, financial sustainability and whether or not it is a ticking financial time bomb.
Just as the CSL appeared to be running relatively smoothly after a seemingly successful domestic season, a recent announcement by the Chinese Football Association (“CFA”) has significantly rocked the boat and led to serious questions about this apparent success.
On 2 October 2018, the CFA announced that 55 Chinese players who fall in the “Under 25” age category and playing in the CSL would be mandated to attend a two month, military style training camp. This news, which came entirely out of the blue, means that the majority of clubs in the top two divisions will be missing key players for crucial matches at the end of the season; including domestic cup semi-final and final matches as well as key relegation battles.
Quite unsurprisingly, the news has been met with utter disdain and outrage from fans of the CSL. Some have referred to the decision as being “the day Chinese football died” and there is an inherent inability by fans, and indeed experts, to ascertain any logic in removing young players from competitive football at a pivotal stage of the season and placing them in a training camp.
This apparent lack of logic is enhanced by the CFA’s decision to focus on an “Under 25” age group; an age group which does not compete at any level within China or other footballing countries generally. The CFA have in recent years focused predominantly on its home-grown players by introducing rules on the number of Under 23 players that must form part of each match day team, and its decision to now divert its attention to a newly-formed age group which is not represented in footballing countries is truly bizarre.
Notwithstanding this, the CFA has sought to distance itself from the imposition of the ‘boot camp’, denying any involvement in setting it up or being consulted on its creation. Given the high level of government involvement in Chinese Football following President Xi Jinping’s love and ambitious vision for turning China into a football powerhouse both on a domestic level and internationally, this is not altogether surprising. The obvious inference therefore is that the training camp was a decision taken by China’s General Admin of Sports through its Chairman Gou Zhongwen, which does elicit some (albeit limited) sympathy for the CFA.
But what exactly is the purpose of introducing the training camp at such a key stage of the domestic season in China? The general consensus is that the 55-man squad will become a second/feeder team for the Chinese National Team (currently managed by Marcello Lippi). Another suggestion is that the training camp has been introduced to form an ‘all star’ CFA team, made up solely of the best young Chinese players which will then compete in the league next season. Despite these suggestions, there has been no express justification from the CFA or the China’s General Administration of Sport as to the key purpose of the training camp or why it believes it is appropriate and in the best interests of Chinese football, which, in the face of severe criticism, is somewhat surprising.
In summary, whilst this is a bold and unannounced move, the developments and events in Chinese football over recent seasons means that the imposition of the boot camp does not come as a total shock. Instead, this appears to be another ill-thought out attempt by the powers responsible for Chinese football to speed up the development of the sport domestically, without any true consideration and regard for the consequences. The chosen 55 “Under 25” players, who were just this week pictured watching China’s international friendly match against India in military camouflage clothing from what appeared to be military-style barracks will no doubt be kept away from the media whilst the training camp takes place over the forthcoming two months. However, one would suspect that FIFA will be monitoring the situation very closely given its track record of discouraging government interference in domestic football. Indeed, the arbitrary and mandatory nature of this training camp which is seemingly incontestable by players and clubs means that China will be very much on FIFA’s radar.