China has imposed a new “100% tax” on transfer fees for foreign footballers – signalling a possible end to big money signings.
Under the new rules, loss-making clubs will have to pay the same amount again into a domestic development fund, effectively doubling the cost of importing talent from abroad.
The Chinese Football Association (CFA) says the money will be used to train young players, and warned Super League clubs to “consider the healthy development of Chinese football” and “invest rationally”.
The move is thought to be an attempt to tackle the fashion for multi-million pound signings of foreign players in recent years, and the perception that the country’s football spending was spiralling out of control.
Carlos Tevez moved to Shanghai Shenhua on a reported £71.6m deal in December, with Chelsea’s Oscar signing for rivals Shanghai SIPG for an estimated £52m.
“There’s a lot of money, excessive money, being spent on these foreign imports,” Mark Dreyer, founder of China Sports Insider, explained.
“It’s not really helping Chinese football, so the intention is to stop that extraordinary spending.
“The intentions behind the rules are pretty good, and pretty honourable, it’s just the way that they have been implemented is going to cause a lot of problems that could have been foreseen.”
He said clubs were already finding ways around an existing rule, requiring them to start at least one Chinese under-23 player every match, by substituting them after a few minutes, and would likely take the same approach to the new regulations.
From next year, Super League sides will have to field as many under-23 domestic players as foreigners in each game, if a further CFA proposal comes into force.
“One of the problems is that (these rules) are coming from the top, they’re coming from above the Chinese Football Association, from people who don’t really understand how football works,” Mr Dreyer said.
“So they’re thinking – we’ve got to stop the spending, we’ve got to get younger players involved – rule A, rule B, but it’s not quite that simple.”
China’s president, Xi Jinping, a self-avowed football fan, has said his ambition is for the country to host – and ultimately win – the World Cup.
But on current form, it would be a huge achievement just to qualify for it, with the national team currently languishing 82nd in the FIFA world rankings, below Benin and the Faroe Islands.
Rowan Simons, who founded the Beijing grassroots network, Club Football, has been trying to build a football culture in the country for the last three decades.
“China came to this very late,” he said, “It started with a professional league, but it didn’t do any of the development work that took over 100 years of building up a football culture, it still needs to do that.
“China has to start the same way every other country did – and that’s kids coming out to play, falling in love with the game, and then contributing to it by their participation throughout their lives.”
Another problem for Chinese football to overcome is persuading parents that, despite the academic pressure on their children, football is a good use of their time.
Watching his six-year-old son, AK, playing in the Club Football tournament, Shinyi Yang said: “I think football is important.”
“It’s not just about skills and how fun, how cool it is, it’s about discipline, and about spirit.”
We asked AK what his favourite part of the day had been.
“I won a medal,” he replied proudly.
There are no such shortcuts to World Cup glory, but if China is serious about its footballing ambitions, it will need many more events like this.
As we watched, the children raced around on an exuberant, high-fiving victory lap, cheered on by their parents and coaches.
Each young player took home a medal, and, the organisers hope, something no amount of top-down initiatives can instil – a genuine love of the game.