Asian Football 101: China

The Chinese have a unique way of capturing the world market when it comes to trade and the likes of industrial productions especially in the realm of electronic gadgets by providing good quality products that are cheap for the consumers and relatively cheap to mass produce. That is why the mighty Apple took a beating in South Asia as the Chinese sent packing a vast majority of those overpriced pieces from the aforementioned market by supplying reliable phones coupled with excellent specs at a cheap price for the common people. As one would have noted the word cheap is a common denominator that have been associated with everything Chinese for over the past quarter of a century. An exception to that Chinese principle are two branches of the Asian superpower, the military and the Chinese Super League, cue communist propaganda music!

China has not been shy when it comes to spending money and by money that could easily amount to international aid on its franchise type football league particularly on foreign imports who are on the José Mourinho implosion stage of their career.

The League

Pyramid league system in the People’s Republic of China consists of four tiers at the bottom of which is the CMCL, Chinese Football Association Member Association Champions League, yeah its abbreviation is shorter than how a normal abbreviation would look like. This tier consists of a whopping 1000 plus teams from all the 26 provinces of Mainland China including Tibet, Taiwan is excluded as of now. Like many Asian leagues the season kicks off in February/March and wraps u around November/December.

City league Provincial champions automatically advances to the second round where the teams are differentiated into eight different groups from which the top two advances to the third round. All the qualified teams are pitted in a two legged play off match to decide the eventual champion. A further three next best placed teams also gain promotion. The 5th and 6th placed teams have an opportunity to gain promotion by taking part in a play off match with the bottom two teams of the China League Two. Hence a maximum of six teams can ideally gain promotion from the CMCL.

Up next is the China League Two, the third tier. This level consists of 24 teams that employs a split system with a Northern and Southern group. It was demoted to level 3 on the pyramid 29 years ago back in 1989 up until which it occupied level 2 since its inception in 1959. Top 4 teams from both groups enter a play off stage after the culmination of regular season. The winners and runners up gain direct entry to China League One while the third placed team goes head to head with the bottom placed team from League One for promotion.

Jia League B was re-branded as China League One in 2004 after the formation of CSL in the same year. Consisting of 16 teams the level two tier incorporates a normal points based league in which every team plays home and away against the other 15 teams. The bottom two teams are relegated to China League Two while the top two teams advances to the Chinese Super League.

From being a semi professional league in 1987 the Jia League A converted to a professional league in 1994 and finally re-branded itself into the money weaving Chinese Super League in 2004 who snares players up into its sticky web by primarily using green paper as its adhesive. Like the second division CSL also accommodates 16 teams in a points system. Two teams, the bottom two, suffers relegation.

Qualification for the AFC Champions League is via the league and the domestic cup competition. Initially four berths were given to CSL starting from 2003 but since 2009 it was redistributed to the top 3 placed teams and the winner of the Chinese FA Cup.

The Players

Over the years a host of players have moved to China as a “next step” in their careers which is a subtle way of saying “I need more money”. While it can be argued that players past their primes move there because clubs in Europe and South America refuse to offer extraordinary wages to players who can barely complete 90 minutes of intense play every game week. There are however odd balls who fly off to Beijing in and well before they hit their primes, few examples of whom are Óscar, Lucas Barrios, Ezequiel Lavezzi who kills off their chances of ever playing for their respective national teams unless you are a Yannick Carrasco, Axel Witsel or Paulinho.

Make no mistake the incorporation of talented foreign players does improve the quality of play and in turn helps the Chinese players to improve their all-round game it just has not yet saturated to the national team. The Chinese national team inspite of their huge talent pool have been to only one FIFA World Cup, 2002, and their best result in the Asian Cup was second place in 1984 and 2004.

Hence in 2016 the Chinese FA reduced the number of foreign players a club can field. Starting from 2017 onwards a club in the CSL is allowed to maintain 4 foreign players in their matchday squads with only 3 of them being permitted to be on the pitch at any given time. Importance on developing youth talents have taken a step up to include two U-23 players in the matchday squad with one of them guaranteed to start. These measures have taken a strong stand to cull the astronomical overspending that CSL clubs carry out which resulted in Ezequiel Lavezzi being paid more than Leo Messi at one point!

The Teams

League football took hold in China in the 1950s and owing to the size of the country a large number of football clubs were created and entered the league system. A total of 17 different teams have won the first division league/CSL at least once. Leading the way with a record joint 8 titles are Liaoning Whowin and Dalian Shide. The former of which now plays in the second division in China League One while the latter is now defunct in a way that it was brought out by the Aerbin group and merged into Dalian Aerbin FC.

Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao has won 7 consecutive league titles and is on course to win their eight successive league title this term if they can fend off challengers in Beijing Guoan, Shanghai SIPG while fighting off Shandong Luneng Taishan who are hot on their tails as of now.

The Verdict

There has been a whole influx of Asian players in the top leagues around Europe over the best part of the last decade. Those numbers are primarily made up of Japanese and Korean players as we have yet to see a Chinese player make a mark in one of those leagues. All the inherent corruption and endemic match fixing scandals has crippled the CSL in the past with the substandard play completing the trifecta of the root causes of dismal performance of the league on a whole.

Match attendances has never been an issue for the largest populous country in the world but as the classic saying goes, “football without fans is nothing” , Chinese FA has to find a way of giving back to the fans a fresher and much improved brand of football that would make every kid kicking a ball from the remote corners of Inner Mongolia to the crowded city streets of Beijing a reason to take up the sport that is loved by the billions around the world.


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