Chinese Super League is Losing Super Stars

Stephan Kareem El Shaarawy, an Italian professional footballer who plays as a forward for Chinese Super League club Shanghai Shenhua and the Italy national team, asked to leave Shenhua and hoped to return to Serie A. Although the transfer did not succeed by the end of the window, it’s clear that Chinese clubs are losing world-class athletes.

In July, Sandro Wagner, the former Bayern Munich and Tianjin Teda striker announced he would no longer to play for Teda although the contract was still valid. Wagner refused to come back to China as required but stayed in Germany instead. He soon decided to hang up his boots at the age of 32 to spend more time with his family. In his personal statement, he said it was hard for him to leave his family in Germany and come back to China alone given the spread of the pandemic.

Wagner is not alone. On Aug. 20, Hebei China Fortune F.C. decided to end its contract with Ayoub El Kaabi, a Moroccan national team player. His contract was supposed to run out at the end of this season, but due to the pandemic, Ayoub El Kaabi did not come back to China as planned and Hebei had to remove his name from the list 26 days after the league restarted.

The key reason behind the wave of leaving was the disorder and mismanagement of Chinese football clubs. Eran Zahavi, an Israeli professional footballer who is currently playing for Dutch club PSV Eindhoven played for Guangzhou R&F for four years. In those four years, he was undoubtedly a key player to help the team win. As the Chinese Super League top scorer in 2019, Zahavi had 106 caps for Guangzhou R&F, in which he scored 91 goals. In September, four months before his contract with the Chinese club ended, he left China to represent Israel in the UEFA Nations League matches against Scotland and Slovakia. Given the fact that clubs could refuse to release athletes back to national teams if travel restrictions existed, many media suspected Zahavi’s collaboration with Guangzhou would immediately be terminated. Just as expected, Zahavi never came back to China and joined Eredivisie powerhouse PSV Eindhoven. The transfer process was a mess. Guangzhou R&F refused to release him into the market until FIFA got involved. Once free from his contract with Guangzhou, Zahavi complained in an interview that his bonuses were once in arrears and the management was disastrous. “I never thought I would retire in Guangzhou, although they once raised this idea to me. Even if they could get Pep Guardiola as their manager, I doubted whether they could succeed or not.”

Zahavi’s criticism was not new and he was not the first play to look for the involvement of FIFA for a transfer. Two years ago, Axel Witsel, a Belgian football player requested to end his contract with Tianjin Quanjian and transfer to Borussia Dortmund. His departure from China was not an easy one. Dortmund and Witsel turned to FIFA since Tianjin denied the validity of the exit clause and similar to Zahavi, Witsel claimed his bonuses did not enter his accounts on time. We all know the ending. Quanjian soon gave up trying to keep the Belgian national player. The biggest sponsor, Quanjian group, was involved in scandals and the club was dismantled earlier this year. According to rumors, Witsel only earned half of his salary in Tianjin at Dortmund. A top comment of the news on Weibo was, “If the rumors were true, Chinese football had to consider why those top players would rather cut their salary in half rather than stay in China.”

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Back to the story of Shaarawy. In his latest interview during the UEFA National League, he admitted that his expected salary with Roma would be flexible. Last year, when he decided to join Shenhua, people said this decision was purely financially motivated and he was wasting his talents. It’s true that to attract world-class athletes, Chinese clubs usually provide unrealistic salaries that might be double what they could earn in Europe. Shenhua provided a contract believed to be in the region of €18 million per season after tax, which made him the joint-highest paid Italian player in the world. It was interesting that another joint-highest paid footballer was Graziano Pelle, who was also playing in China. Another example is Yannick Carrasco, a Belgian player who was playing for Dalian Yifang (later rebranded as Dalian Professional). He signed a contract with Dalian that brought him over €10 million per year but he still regretted his big-money contract and transferred to Atlético Madrid for half the salary this year.

Aiming to stop the unrealistically crazy growth of salaries and the unbalanced market, the Chinese Super League decided to impose salary caps starting last December. Under the new policy, any new contracts with international players cannot go beyond €3 million per season after tax. Some clubs caught the last minute to renew contracts with super stars in the team to avoid the impact, including the captain of Shanghai Shenhua Giovanni Moreno and the highest paid player of the CSL, Oscar, who is playing for Shanghai SIPG. However, more athletes, including the ones mentioned above, did not extend their contracts in China.

A few months ago, the collapse of Tianjin Quanjian marked the failure of big-money policies. Today, the wave of contract-terminations underscores the future of Chinese football and its league cannot rely on high-paid foreign players, but will depend on its domestic youth training system. Those world-class athletes might leave whenever they want even if they earn much more than the market price, but the development of the entire football industry would be harmed in the long run.