Farcical U23 rule overshadows solid kick-off for CSL

By Mark Dreyer Source:Global Times Published: 2017/3/7 23:28:40

Substitutions are an integral part of soccer, and have been ever since they were phased into the professional game more than 50 years ago. But something happened over the weekend in the opening round of this season's Chinese Super League (CSL) - and it was as predictable as it was unusual.

No fewer than five of the 20 CSL teams made a substitution before the second half had got underway, with another four teams making a change before the hour mark. In each case, the decision was tactical, with managers choosing to replace their mandatory starting under-­23 player with a substitute generally regarded as superior.

While some teams were less than subtle about their tactics - Liaoning replaced their ­Under-23 representative after just 17 minutes - the substitutions as a whole make a mockery of the rule, which was only stipulated mere weeks before the season began.

The question many are now asking is whether there will be any punishments, especially when the rule was so blatantly circumvented, though a better question would be why it was introduced in the first place.

So obvious was it that managers would look to replace a weaker player mandated to start in their lineups that fans had been predicting how early the substitutions would be made, with some even joking that the "U23" on the team sheets meant "under 23 minutes."

If the true aim was to give more opportunities to Chinese youngsters, then perhaps the authorities should have made the age limit even lower.

International U21 teams ­often include players who have already represented their countries at senior level, while the U20 FIFA World Cup showcases many of the best young players on the planet.

Unlike some sports where blooding teenagers would pose a serious risk to their health, in soccer the theory has always been "if you're good enough, you're old enough."

Wayne Rooney, whose agent was in China last month exploring some possible options from CSL teams, made his debut for Everton in the English Premier League aged just 16, scoring his first goal days before his 17th birthday.

Meanwhile, China's brightest young hope, Zhang Yuning, made his international debut last year, aged 19.

But in the CSL, many of these older U23 players will play this season, only to be promptly dumped when they are too old to fill the spot next year.

How on earth does that develop Chinese youngsters?

One thing is certain: If the rule isn't changed soon, managers will continue to flaunt it until it is.

Mark Dreyer is the editor of China Sports Insider. A former reporter at Sky Sports and Fox Sports, he regularly comments on China's sports industry in global media. dreyermark@gmail.com


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