Subdued market highlights Chinese football's new normal

Michael Church
·4 min read

By Michael Church

HONG KONG (Reuters) - When Shanghai Port announced Ante Majstorovic's signing from NK Osijek on Tuesday, reports of his arrival at the former Chinese Super League champions barely caused a ripple.

Yet the capture of the Croatian defender by the 2018 champions for a modest 3.3 million euros ($3.98 million) fee could prove to be a landmark moment in a league that had become a byword for the largesse of 21st century football.

After a boom that saw big spending clubs lure some of the game's brightest talents to China, Majstorovic is the most expensive player purchased from a European club ahead of a 2021 season that will make headlines for entirely different reasons.

The Suning Group, owners of defending champions Jiangsu FC, announced on Sunday the club would cease operations, less than four months after winning their first-ever title, as their parent company seeks to focus on their core retail business.

Club closures and middling transfer fees are a long way from an era when the league had the biggest names in the game looking over their shoulders, but the new campaign is set to usher in a less extravagant era when it kicks off in April.

"Over the last year the COVID pandemic made things difficult for the private companies who own the clubs in China," respected football journalist Ma Dexing told Reuters.

"They have no money so it has been impossible for them to spend like they did three or five years ago and the pandemic has given them a good excuse to stop spending."

As a result, the current mood is vastly different to a time when, fuelled by the deep pockets of the country’s private sector, Chinese clubs were shaking up the global transfer market.

From 2012 to 2017, the headline-making sums being thrown at players in their prime as well as World Cup-winning coaches was making the football world take note.

"I think the Premier League should be worried about China," said former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger in February 2016.

"They seem to have the financial power to lure every player from Europe to China."

Wenger's concerns were justified when Shanghai SIPG – Shanghai Port's name until a recent rebranding - forked out some $150 million in a six month period to sign Brazilians Hulk and Oscar, from Zenit St Petersburg and Chelsea respectively.

The moves ignited a scene that had, over the previous four years, been dominated by Guangzhou Evergrande, the club that established the template for success in China.


Guangzhou's acquisition of Argentine Dario Conca for a then-record $10 million spurred the club to the first of their seven consecutive league titles in 2011 and owners Evergrande, one of the country's leading property developers, wanted more.

Marcello Lippi was hired as coach and took Guangzhou to the 2013 Asian Champions League title and, two years later, Luiz Felipe Scolari repeated the feat.

The big names rolled in elsewhere too before Shanghai SIPG blew the lid off the market.

The glut of signings was such that the rumour mill was in constant overdrive.

Speculation grew that Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi would join the exodus from Europe, the rumours fuelled by super agent Jorge Mendes meeting the owner of big-spending Tianjin Quanjian.

Officials in China acted to cool the market and dampen speculation, though, imposing a 100% levy on foreign transfers worth over 45 million yuan ($6.95 million) in mid-2017 and insisting clubs operate within sustainable budgets.

The moves slowed the transfer market, but failed to stifle it completely as clubs attempted to find ways to circumvent the rules.

The spending slowed and clubs started to struggle.

Tianjin Quanjian, previously home to Alexandre Pato and Axel Witsel among others, closed their doors in May last year soon after the coronavirus pandemic hit, forcing clubs to play the 2020 season in empty stadiums.

"The problem is the Chinese Super League is not really a professional league," Ma added.

"It's more like a corporate league, the same as they had in Japan before the J-League was set up. Football needs to do a lot in China before it can change."

($1 = 0.8299 euros)

($1 = 6.4705 Chinese yuan renminbi)

(Reporting by Michael Church, editing by Nick Mulvenney and Christian Schmollinger)