Chinese clubs’ penchant for spending money on footballing talent has garnered increasing attention over recent seasons as club owners set their sights ever higher on the footballing ladder.
From the star signings of Dario Conca or Frederic Kanoute just a few years ago, now CSL and China League One sides are able to pluck players from the very top shelf of the transfer market. In doing so, a new expectation of salary level has been set.
China, in football terms, is operating under entirely different economic conditions to the rest of the world. A bubble has formed and has since been growing exponentially.
Limited Local Supply in China
With footballing success a priority for many of the investors to have entered the league in recent seasons, and quotas in place regarding the use of Chinese players, the price of local talent has ballooned beyond all recognition.
Not only are clubs paying exceptional fees for players—CL1 side Shenzhen recently purchased one-cap international centre-back Cui Min for in excess of $10million—but salaries have also rocketed.
In such a market, foreign players are seen as a relatively inexpensive way to add real quality—even at inflated prices. When a top level Chinese player will cost in excess of $10million, why not offer the likes of John Obi Mikel or Carlos Tevez significant salaries to make the switch.
Indeed, the recent regulations aimed at cooling the market may only serve to further intensify the imbalance. With Under-23 players now an enforced part of the matchday squad, the few high-level talents available are now incredibly valuable.
If the aim was to reduce ridiculous spending on foreign talent, it has perhaps simply created an even bigger problem amongst local players.
Whether rising salaries and comfort for China’s top talents will assist the long-term aim of producing a national team capable of competing with the world’s best also remains to be seen.
Inefficient recruitment techniques
The majority of CSL scouting remains based upon agent recommendation, with clubs lacking in-house departments focused upon ensuring the most efficient recruitment policies.
As a result, much money is wasted through not only intermediary payments but also lack of intensive negotiation of either salary or transfer fees.
The priority for most clubs to secure the player they want—a premium on top is not considered too great an issue given that to bring players away from major European leagues invariably involves overpaying to a fairly large degree.
Then there is the more opaque side of the industry:
“Most players stay for a season or a little bit longer, but the agents who are working with the clubs also have an incentive to want to bring in new players because then they get a bigger cut,” Wild East Football editor Cameron Wilson told The Guardian in January.
Until clubs set up high level analysis and scouting departments, inefficiencies will remain—and for the moment there has been little sign of a concerted effort to improve in this aspect.
Priorities, it would seem, lie elsewhere.
Clubs with expanding budgets year upon year
One thing is for certain, there will be no reduction in the prices offered for players to make the leap to China while club-owning companies continue to pump in ever-increasing amounts of money in search of footballing fame and glory.
For as long as Guangzhou Evergrande retain their cast iron grip on the CSL title, their rivals will continue to invest in order to catch up with the Cantonese giants.
As the CSL grows in publicity and, eventually, earning power, sides in China League One will also loosen their pursestrings in search of the riches the top flight have to offer.
Whether it be through a publicity-craving owner, a local government hoping to bring CSL football to their region or a new influx of sponsorship, it appears that Super League sides will only grow their expenditure over the next decade.
Indeed, over the past five years, there has been an enormous increase in spending across the board—not just at the very top level.
The CSL bubble may reach some kind of equilibrium, but it would appear extremely unlikely to pop. The potential resources available are enormous.
Even at current spending levels, especially if increased efficiency can be brought about, the CSL is set to be a major player globally in the sport for the foreseeable future.
The task is to relieve pressure on the market and that will only occur when greater numbers of Chinese talents are produced. It is only then, perhaps, that the recent splurge in football spending will have been justified.