I was very sceptical when I first heard about the sudden changes in regulations regarding the number of foreign players and, even more so, the bizarre rule stating that all teams were required to start each match with at least one Chinese player born on January 1 1994 or later. I can’t say the first 15 out of 30 rounds of the CSL has done anything to convince me I was wrong. Leaving the ridiculous notion that limiting the amount of foreign talent would raise the quality of either the league or the Chinese national team (just look at how Russian football has plummeted in quality since the government decided to enforce similar regulations a few years back to improve their chances when hosting next year’s FIFA World Cup) aside, I’ll take a closer look on how the clubs have dealt with the U23-rule so far. It’s especially interesting as the CFA recently announced that the rule will be adjusted in the future to somehow force teams to match the number of foreign players used in any match, with an equal number of domestic U23-players.
For coaches in China, silence seems to have prevailed. The CFA is practically a government organisation (run by officials considered not fit for more important positions, and certainly something that FIFA would have a look at, if they had any intent of enforcing their own laws and principles) and therefore caution is observed in regards to criticism of their decisions (Hulk and Wu Lei being suspended for two matches for a vague protest of Oscars 8-match ban, and their manager André Villas-Boas receiving the same punishment for standing near them during the process is a good example of what may happen if one decides to speak out). However, displeasure has been evident in how most coaches have made use of their required Under-23 player. The most common practice so far is substituting the U23 early on, often during the first half, to bring on a more qualified player, with the most flagrant example being André Villas-Boas’ treatment of defender Zhang Huachen. The 19-year old has started 10 in of SIPG’s matches (the first 10) so far in the CSL and averages less than a quarter of an hour on the pitch, with a whopping 30 minutes during the opener against Changchun Yatai reduced to a mere 8 in his latest appearance in the derby against Shanghai Shenhua. In addition, he has still to be selected, even for the bench, in the AFC Champions League. Does anyone seriously believe that this is helpful to his development as a footballer? Perhaps he is insanely strong mentally and relishes the challenge but my guess is, most young players would have some serious work to do, confidence-wise, in such a situation. Zhang is in no way alone, Chen Ji has been in Jiangsu Suning’s starting eleven 7 times and has had just over 20 minutes per match to show his worth, about the same goes for Liaoning Kaixin’s Sun Zhaoliang (although he’s played one more match than Chen) and Yang Liyu who’ve played about 25 minutes on average in his 12 starts for Tianjin Teda. These players are obviously not considered good enough to even be given an honest chance by their managers and putting them out on the pitch as token youngsters is of no benefit to anyone.
There are some U23-players who do get sufficient playing time, Nan Song has been substituted in all of his 13 appearances with Chongqing Lifan but normally plays for more than an hour, Zhong Jinbao has started an equal number of matches for Henan Jianye, including playing the full 90 minutes five times and averaging 75 minutes on the pitch (down to 71, if counting twice coming on from the bench). Zheng Dalun has been named in Tianjin Quanjian’s starting line-up 9 times and, with 2 full 90 minute appearances, his mean playing time is over 82 minutes (64 minutes, including 5 times a substitute).
The difference between the two groups of players are that the latter all belong to teams not troubled by the new rule, as they use more than one player meeting the requirements anyway. Hence, a qualified guess is that they would get just as much playing time without the new regulations. Even including these players, the average playing time for any starting U23-player substituted is still less than a full half. If the managers have so little faith in their young players, it constitutes a serious problem for Chinese football, but that alone should provide motivation enough to make an effort to develop them better in the future. Rules like this, especially in combination with limiting the number of foreigners, will only mean that Chinese clubs, just like Russian ones, end up overpaying average domestic players. When young players get paid big money simply for showing up, they tend to get complacent and think they’ve arrived although they’ve barely started moving. I can’t even begin to count the number of English players that looked very interesting at 18 but simply stopped learning once they became regular in the first team.
Also, the CSL-clubs must realise that to be competitive in the long run, they need to be able to bring players up through the ranks because, even though they may be able to offer wages that scare off competing clubs in Europe to 3-4 great players, they will never be able to match wages of the squad players keeping standard of football in the big leagues so much higher. To be perfectly honest, 23 is a high enough age that it should be easy for any team in the league to find at least one player good enough to keep a regular spot in the side.
Method and source
The numbers I’ve accounted for are gathered from match reports published on http://us.soccerway.com. I’ve simply looked at the players substituted in every match and recorded the playing time. However, I’ve only recorded the numbers of the first U23-player substituted for each side in any given match, meaning, the average numbers stated for all matches are approximate. I believe that this doesn’t affect the relevance as it only excludes substitutions made by teams starting with more than one U23-player. The specific players named are some of those I’ve taken a closer look at, based on the frequency they appeared in the overview. When computing average playing time for a player that has played full matches, I only counted the regular 90 minutes of each such occasion. But, when factoring in the times the player came on from the bench, I used a standard estimation of 3 minutes of stoppage time.