Until recently, ex-Red Devils Fellaini and Dembélé received 10 million euros a year at their club in China. Huge amounts of money for a competition that is barely watched by the general football crowd. In 2019, the Chinese FA launched a rule that should lower those wages. Now it appears that some clubs do not follow these rules too strictly.
Football in China has seen a massive transformation since 2019. Although world-famous players such as Witsel, Carrasco and Oscar left the competition, the Chinese league still calls on the clubs to continue to support the clubs, both to the sponsors and to the fans. The competition has lost a lot of appeal in a few years. Million deals were dropped, clubs lost government support and when current champions Jiangsu FC announced they were pulling the plug, the house of cards fell apart.
When the Chinese government launched a plan to become a football superpower by 2050 in 2015, a whole discussion arose in the football world. The richest teams have invested billions in infrastructure and players (such as Guangzhou FC) and have also achieved quite a few good results in recent years. Logically, there were also a lot of teams that did not have the financial means and therefore camped at the bottom of the rankings.
It can be compared quite well with the way things are done in the western football landscape. There, the richest clubs (Manchester City, PSG and Bayern Munich) are also dozens of times more prosperous than other clubs in their league, taking almost every prize that can be won year after year. The only difference is that those European clubs earn a lot more from TV rights, merchandising and tickets. The Chinese clubs earn much less in that area, and therefore generally lose a lot more. In extreme cases, this concerns expenditure that is 10 times greater than the income.
Since the reforms in 2015, there has therefore been a lot of prestige for players from the European competition. Not only are they players who sport better performances, they also provide extra attention to the general public. A player like Carrasco or Oscar, who are quite well known in the football world, thus ensured that many more tickets were sold. With the downside that these players are also paid much better than the Chinese football players who provide much less publicity. Oscar earned twenty million euros a year at Shanghai Port FC while his Chinese teammate had to make do with 500,000 a month.
Those superstars were the biggest source of income for the clubs, but they also cost up to 70 percent of the annual expenditure of the club. Although most clubs now have the money to invest in their own youth academies, most of the money still goes to foreign players.
Since almost all clubs rely on the financial support of their investors, their success was also dependent on the investor’s financial situation. So tragedy struck for Chinese champions Jiangsu FC, because although they had won the league, they had no resources to continue to fund the club and were forced to quit. Nobody was interested in a club completely in the red and when the best players left for rival clubs, the lights went out.
In 2019, the Chinese football federation tried to put a stop to the financial joust. The famous ‘four caps’ had to put an end to endless expenses, financial injections and transfers. Foreign players should earn a maximum of 3 million euros per year and domestic players 641,000 thousand euros. The ‘wage gap’ between national and foreign players is thus much smaller.
In theory, this would be a good start to make the competition fairer, if the clubs followed the rules anyway. Yet many new clubs do not adhere to the rules, without concrete consequences. It will certainly take time to see real results from the new rules, but it is clear once again that the lack of clarity about the rules is quickly misused by the richest teams.