The Chinese Super League, or the CSL as it’s known, was formed in 2004 as part of a scheme to rebrand Chinese football away from the original Jia-A League. The idea was to put in place a sustainable structure that would allow China to have their own league which one day would be considered on par with the top European leagues.
The CSL comprises of 16 teams with the top 3 each season qualifying for the AFC Champions League and the bottom 2 being relegated to China League One. The season runs from February to November and January to February is the equivalent of their summer transfer window.
Many noticeable players and coaches have moved to China to ply their trade since the CSL’s inception including the likes of Chelsea legend Didier Drogba and former Brazil National team manager Luiz Fleipe Scolari. However, it was this most recent transfer window in early 2016 that has cast all eyes to the Asian league.
Between them, the 16 clubs spent a colossal £200 million on players with the CSL transfer record being broken no less than 4 times. The biggest transfer fee was commanded by Alex Teixeira (£37.5million) and Ezequiel Lavezzi became the world’s highest earning footballer on a staggering £400,000 per week.
Where has this come from?
When current Chinese president Xi Jinping rose to power in 2013, he had a vision to change the landscape of football in China and put it at the forefront of the nation’s culture. He is a football fanatic and is determined to put his country in a position where hosting the World Cup in 2026 and even winning it someday is possible.
The government has since pumped vast amounts of money into China’s top clubs in the hope that they will attract global, household names. His vision is that if he creates a platform that younger generations aspire to, then the youth production in China will increase in both quality and quantity tenfold.
So far, the first stages of the process are coming to fruition with big players opting to leave Europe in favour of a career in China. Other than the formerly mentioned, players such as; Gervinho, Ramires, Demba Ba and Jackson Martinez have all adhered to this trend.
Spectatorship appears to be on the rise as well with last seasons average attendance of 22,000 predicted to rise to 25,000 this term. Furthermore, the rights to broadcast the CSL from 2016 to 2020 were sold for approximately £1billion.
Will it last?
This is the golden question. We’ve seen various leagues built up to be ‘the next big thing’ on numerous occasions over the years and although there are similarities to be drawn from Major League Soccer and the Indian Super League we’ve never quite seen spending like this.
One limitation for this mass spending is the foreign players rule currently in place within the CSL. Since 2009, clubs have only been afforded 4+1 foreign players in their squads whilst only 3+1 may be fielded per match (+1 refers to another player from an Asian Football Confederation i.e Japanese or South Korean).
This rule was implemented in order for indigenous talent to be able to develop alongside world renowned superstars in the hope of improving the national team. So, although money appears to be no object, the quota for Chinese players currently stands in the way of the league being able to compete on a European scale.
With that all said, I believe the CSL is sustainable and will inevitably be a success thus aiding the production of a generation of Chinese talent. However, in the short term at least, there is no way either the CSL or the Chinese National team can compete with world football’s elite.