SHANGHAI (AFP) - China's Chongqing Lifan denied making a big-money move for Andres Iniesta as Spanish media said the Barcelona captain could now be headed for Japan or Australia.
Reports in China and Spain have linked Chongqing with the 33-year-old Spanish World Cup-winner, who is leaving Barcelona after two decades of success.
Chongqing said Iniesta would not be joining "as a player" but left the door open to future cooperation with the midfielder, who has promotional and marketing links with the city.
Chongqing added that they wanted to support the "healthy development of Chinese football" - a reference to China's clampdown on heavy transfer spending and focus on homegrown talent.
"Our club will never violate the development prospects of Chinese football and we are determined to make due contributions to the healthy development of Chinese football," a statement said.
It added: "The other sports industry sections of our club's controlling shareholder have in-depth cooperation with Mr Iniesta in sports brokerage, sports marketing, and youth training and education.
"We don't rule out that in the future there may be more in-depth cooperation between the two sides in the Chinese market, but this does not mean that Mr Iniesta will join the club as a player."
Japan's Vissel Kobe, named in Spanish media as a possible next club for Iniesta, had no comment on Tuesday (May 8) when approached by AFP.
Football Federation Australia also made no comment after Spain's Sport website named the A-League as Iniesta's "preferred destination".
Chongqing, in southwest China, had emerged as a surprise contender to snare Iniesta - one of the finest midfielders of his generation - despite not being a traditional heavyweight in Chinese football.
Their only major success was the FA Cup in 2000, but Iniesta has travelled to the city of 30 million people in the past for promotional events and worked closely with the sports marketing agency Desports.
Desports was founded by Chinese businessman and Chongqing chairman Jiang Lizhang, who was said to have been spearheading attempts to lure Iniesta.
Chongqing are the second Chinese club to rule out a move for Iniesta, after Tianjin Quanjian threatened legal action to quash reports linking them with the player.
A skyrocketing series of expensive deals was brought to a halt last year when the Chinese Football Association introduced a 100 per cent tax on foreign transfers over 45 million yuan (S$9.45 million), with proceeds going into a fund for youth development.