Cash crunch, uncertain future: China's league is no more super

NEW YORK • The e-mails and letters complaining about unpaid salaries have been stacking up for months.

Some claim losses in the thousands of dollars. Others seek to recover quite a bit more. But a few of the pleas arriving at the Zurich offices of Fifa, football's global governing body, like those involving a handful of well-known South American players, are in the millions.

What the Fifa officials collecting the claims have noticed, though, is that a surprising number are coming from one place: Players and coaches at clubs in China. And they fear the flow is about to get worse.

China's top football league - not so long ago heralded as the sport's new frontier thanks to a half-decade of powerful support, ambitious owners and an era of untrammelled spending that lured top players with outsized salaries - is having an existential crisis.

Companies that once spent tens of millions to acquire players now cannot pay their bills. China's President Xi Jinping, who once championed the sport, now faces far more serious priorities. And the country's top division, the Super League, has not staged a game in months.

"For sure, some issues like this have happened before," said David Wu, a sports lawyer in Shanghai. "But not this size."

The bad news trickled out in waves.

In February, China's defending champions, Jiangsu Suning FC, was abruptly shuttered by the electronics retailer that owned it, less than four months after the team won the Super League title.

In the time it took to issue a news release, one of the country's biggest clubs vaporised, leaving its players unpaid and bringing unwelcome attention to a project that had been one of the cornerstones of President Xi's efforts to transform China from a football backwater into one of its superpowers.

The collapse at Jiangsu now appears to have been a harbinger of further trouble. The league season has been interrupted repeatedly to accommodate the World Cup qualifying schedule of China's national team, and now will not resume until December. Until then, clubs will have little or no access to their best players.

More recently, doubts have been raised about the continued viability of China's most successful team, Guangzhou FC.

  • LURE OF THE CHINESE SUPER LEAGUE

  • TOP PLAYERS (SELECTED)

    Oscar (Bra)

    Hulk (Bra)

    Graziano Pelle (Ita)

    Stephan El Shaarawy (Ita)

    Paulinho (Bra)

    Eder (Ita)

    Alex Teixeira (Bra)

    Mousa Dembele (Fra)

    Ramires (Bra)

    Carlos Tevez (Arg)

    Didier Drogba (Civ)

    Nicolas Anelka (Fra)

    TOP COACHES (SELECTED)

    Takeshi Okada (Jpn)

    Sergio Batista (Arg)

    Marcello Lippi (Ita)

    Luiz Felipe Scolari (Bra)

    Rafael Benitez (Esp)

    Sven-Goran Eriksson (Swe)

    Manuel Pellegrini (Chi)

    Philippe Troussier (Fra)

    Fabio Capello (Ita)

    Slaven Bilic (Cro)

    Roberto Donadoni (Ita)

    Jean Tigana (Fra) 

A cash crunch at their parent company, the real estate conglomerate Evergrande, is so severe that it threatens to contaminate the wider economy.

In late September, the team agreed to part company with their coach, Fabio Cannavaro of Italy, one of the highest-paid managers in world football. Officials and players on other teams have also agreed to terminate long-term contracts with the understanding that they will be paid for salaries due.

Fernando Martins and Renato Augusto, two Brazilians on the growing list of players who have filed complaints with Fifa, agreed to such a deal, with millions of dollars at stake. Each was released from his contract by their former club, Beijing Guoan, and they expected their first payments in August.

The players say the money never arrived.

Officials at Fifa's dispute resolution chamber say they are analysing the facts. They have the power to suspend clubs in any country from registering new signings until they have resolved unpaid salary debts. Some Chinese teams appear to be subject to such bans already.

A recent report in China said Wuhan FC, who are owned by another property group, Wuhan Zall Development Holding Co, have been suspended from acquiring new players.

Yet penalties and transfer bans may not be enough to help others claw back what they are owed.

Brazilian defender Miranda was owed more than US$10 million (S$13.5 million) when Jiangsu Suning were closed down. His lawyers face the daunting task of navigating China's complex legal system in their effort to recover the lost income.

The prospects for the Chinese league are unclear.

The market for top-shelf foreign players, and their willingness to go to China amid the stories of unpaid wages, has vanished.

And the fates of the clubs and others who work in China's football economy remain at the whim of capricious local football officials, who are known for changing the rules frequently and abruptly, and the financial health of the league's primary investors, typically real estate businesses, which has led the league to be known colloquially as the real estate league instead of the Super League.

The days of eye-popping paydays are surely over. Carlos Tevez, a striker, once earned US$40 million for a single unproductive season with Shanghai Shenhua, a team owned by the real estate company Greenland Group. Top Brazilian players like Hulk and Oscar also received breathtaking paydays.

Adding to the league's ills is the uncertainty that hangs over its schedule. In July, the national federation announced it would reduce the number of match rounds to 22 from 30 - another blow for teams desperate for revenue - and adjust schedules to accommodate the requirements of the national team's qualification campaign for the 2022 World Cup.

"If a league is so malleable that it can just stop and start according to the national team schedule, you can see where priorities lie," said Zhe Ji, the director of Red Lantern, a sports marketing company that works in China for top European football teams. "It certainly doesn't lie with the league anymore."

China have qualified for the World Cup only once, in 2002, losing all three of their games without scoring a goal. Building a competent national team who do more than qualify for future tournaments remains a key component of China's blueprint for football, and the Super League's investments in foreign players, foreign coaches and lavish facilities had been seen as a way to supercharge that.

But for all its spending, for all the hope that the new arrivals would lift the quality of domestic players, the results have been disappointing. The national team now lie just off the bottom of their World Cup qualifying group.

"I would stick my neck out and say it's even worse than before," Ji said.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2021, with the headline 'Cash crunch, uncertain future: China's league is no more super'. Subscribe