Mon, Jun 19, 2017 - Page 7 News List

In Chinese soccer, government keeps moving the goal posts

Rapidly changing preferential rules for young Chinese players and a possible new luxury tax have left clubs reeling over how to build winning teams

By Tariq Panja and Jing Yang  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Yusha

Imagine if, along with everything else, the US presidency gave Donald Trump the power to change the rules of his favorite sport.

That would not be so different from the scenario facing professional soccer in China, where the highest officials in the land have made the game a national project.

China threw the vast power of the state behind soccer in 2015, when Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), the game’s most powerful fan, announced a plan to transform the nation into a world beater at the sport he played as a student.

China’s top teams responded by spending hundreds of millions of US dollars to hire foreign stars like Brazilian striker Hulk and Argentinian forward Carlos Tevez in hopes a higher level of play would trickle down to the national team and help build world-class leagues overnight.

However, a sudden spate of policy reversals mandating that young Chinese players fill starting lineups has undermined the value of those investments and put club owners in a quandary over what kind of teams they will be able to field.

It has also forced many close to the sport to openly question whether bureaucrats really know what is best for the beautiful game.

“The government should respect the rules of the market instead of over-regulating,” said Tony Xia (夏建統), the Chinese businessman who made headlines last year when he purchased the English soccer club Aston Villa.

Xia spoke two weeks ago in an interview at a soccer conference in Beijing, where top officials from several teams railed against the rules changes handed down in January, and then again last month.

Soccer’s earliest incarnation was invented in China more than 2,000 years ago as a military training exercise — players kicked a leather ball at a goal while fending off attackers without using their hands — but ancient history has not translated into a winning tradition in the modern game.

The country has been to the World Cup only once in the tournament’s 84 years, in 2002, when the team went winless — and goalless — in all three of its matches.

The national men’s team recently placed 82rd in the FIFA rankings, just ahead of the Faroe Islands, a remote archipelago with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants.

Hopes for a berth in next year’s World Cup were all but dashed this week, when China gave up a goal in the final minute of a qualifying match to finish with a 2-2 draw against a team fielded by war-torn Syria.

However, since 2015 when Xi announced his grand plan to win respectability for China in international soccer, the nation has poured the kind of energy into the sport once reserved for winning Olympic medals in individual competitions like gymnastics, swimming and diving.

Soccer has become part of compulsory education in elementary and secondary schools. Tens of thousands of soccer fields are being built. China Evergrande Group, the real-estate giant, spent a reported US$185 million to build the world’s biggest soccer school, a sprawling campus that looks like a concrete replica of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School surrounded by 50 practice pitches — a four-story tall replica of the FIFA World Cup trophy at the school’s entrance had to be torn down because of trademark issues.

Meanwhile, the nation’s biggest teams answered Xi’s call with an investment binge, offering out-sized salaries to South American and European players to jump-start their programs.

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