Chinese FA tightens grip on CSL and leading clubs, cutting 11 from pro leagues

By Paul Nicholson

May 29 – The Chinese Football Association (CFA) have slashed 11 clubs from their professional leagues, while five others have withdrawn from professional football, including last season’s Chinese Super League (CSL) side Tianjin Tianhai.

Among those kicked out by the CFA are Asian giants Liaoning Hongyun, based in the north-eastern city of Shenyang, and who were Asian champions in 1990, and dominated the top club tier in China the mid-1980s to mid-1990s.

The news comes as the governing body of the game in China has moved to take a stronger grip over the Chinese professional club game. The CSL, not so long ago separated from the CFA and operating mainly independently, is believed to have been brought back under CFA control, including moving its operations back into the CSA’s headquarters.

The CFA under new president Chen Xuyuan (pictured)  has frequently expressed concern over the sustainability of its clubs, particularly in terms of astronomically high player wages and the costs of imported foreign players.

The 11 clubs who have been cut from the pro leagues include four who competed in the second-tier last year and seven from the third-division. “The clubs had wage arrears and couldn’t resolve it, and therefore are being disqualified from professional leagues,” said the CFA.

The CSL was originally scheduled to kick off February 22 but was postponed indefinitely when the coronavirus struck. No date for the start of the 2022 season has been set but clubs are back in training.

The CFA said in its statement: “We hoped that clubs at all levels could pay attention to long-term planning and rational management, so they can protect the legitimate rights and interests of players, coaches and staff, and therefore promote professional football to achieve sustainable development.”

The CSL confirmed that when the 2020 season does start, the league will remain at 16 teams. Shenzhen FC, coached by Italian playing legend Roberto Donadoni, and who were relegated last season, will not retain their CSL status, taking the spot left by Tianjin Tianhai.

The stories of Tianjin Tianhai and Liaoning Hongyun are a major warning for CSL clubs who four years ago became the ‘marks’ for European and South American agents keen to get a slice on the new money that was flowing into the Chinese game. That money has dried up and a CFA-led correction has taken place with limits on the numbers of overseas players a Chinese club can have both in its squad and on the pitch at any one time.

Even so, the wage pressure on clubs has still proved crippling. In 2015-2016, Liaoning were ranked by Forbes as the 10th most valuable team in China, worth $67 million. Dropping out of the CSL in 2017, they ended last season near the bottom of second tier and desperately struggling on playing and commercial fronts.

Former chairman Huang Yan said that none of the players had received payment for the 2019 season and had launched legal action against the club.

Tianjin Tianhai ran into trouble when billionaire owner Shu Yuhui  was arrested and imprisoned for fraud. Without Yuhui’s financial support the club which once employed World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro as coach and famously signed Belgian international Axel Witsel and Brazilian forward Alexandre Pato for $20 million were forced into bankruptcy in early May.

“Given an unsustainable financial situation, the club is no longer able to maintain normal operations,” said a Tianjin press release. “After a period of thoughtful consideration… the club has no choice but to formally announce that Tianjin Tianhai is disbanding.”

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