MUCH grumbling accompanied the start on March 4th of this year’s season of the Chinese Super League (CSL), the uppermost tier of professional football in China. Managers of its 16 clubs have been gnashing their teeth at a change of rules which was suddenly announced just a few weeks before the first matches. Teams are now allowed to field a maximum of three foreigners.The clubs would have preferred more notice. Many of them have only just acquired even more foreign players. All now have at least four, the previous maximum per side in any CSL game. (One of them, a Brazilian called Oscar, is pictured in a CSL match—he was transferred to Shanghai SIPG from Chelsea, an English club, for £60m, or about $75m, in December.)
Last year China spent more than $450m on footballers, the fifth-largest such outlay by any country.
But all this money has not improved the dismal state of Chinese football. The men’s national team ranks 82nd in the world. In October an embarrassing 1-0 defeat to war-torn Syria triggered protests by hundreds of fans in the city of Xi’an where the match was played. Local media say the Chinese Football Association announced its new rules on orders “from above”. They impose a levy on big transfers and demand that one-sixth of clubs’ spending must be on youth training.
Officials have also been trying to curb the buying of stakes in foreign clubs—Chinese investors shelled out about $2bn on them last year. The government says this is part of an economy-wide clampdown on currency outflows. But it also wants to make the point that foreign talent won’t necessarily help China’s. The government has recently scuppered several investment deals. A Chinese consortium bought AC Milan, an Italian club, for $825m in August, but has been unable to move money out of China to complete the purchase.
Rather than simply moaning about the new rules, clubs have been devising ways of dodging them. Teams must now field at least one Chinese player under 23 each week. Some coaches simply replace them early in the game with older hands.