Clubs need shake-up from youth schemes
Published: Jan 23, 2024 09:59 PM
Illustration: Liu Xiangya/Global Times

Illustration: Liu Xiangya/Global Times

 Chinese striker Wu Lei apologized to the fans following the national soccer team's 0-1 defeat to Qatar in their last group game of the Asian Cup on Monday night. Wu admitted that other teams in Asia have made significant progress while Chinese soccer still has a long way to go. Goalless China finished the group stage of the Asian tournament with a historic low of one loss and two draws. 

Meanwhile, the Shenzhen Football Club in South China's Guangdong Province announced its dissolution via an official statement on Monday, stating that the club failed to secure entry for the 2024 season of the Chinese professional soccer league due to financial issues. Founded in 1994, Shenzhen won the inaugural championship of the Chinese Super League in 2004.

Days earlier, another club, Dalian Pro in Northeast's China's Liaoning Province, also ceased operations after failing to pass the admission for the upcoming season due to historical debt.

The club was once coached by Spaniard Rafa Benitez, who had won the UEFA Champions League with Liverpool in 2005, and featured former Napoli captain Marek Hamsik and Salomon Rondon among their star-studded lineups.

The club dissolutions and the national team's shameful performance in the international competition offer us a glaring portrayal of the current Chinese soccer landscape.

You reap what you sow. Clubs that found themselves unable to function effectively are paying the price for their imprudent investments in high-profile foreign coaches and players years ago. The misguided focus on instant success, at the expense of fostering sustainable development, has led Chinese soccer down a perilous path with no promising outcomes. 

It was the sheer disregard for the natural law of soccer development that has burdened the clubs with devastating debt and left stakeholders behind bars. The blind pursuit of short-term victories has closed the door for the long-term growth and prosperity of the sport in China.

And it could be worse. As fans are chastising the current players for their embarrassing performances in the national team, they were alarmed to find that these veterans could not be replaced by better young talents after the veterans retire in the near future. 

Without a healthy youth development scheme, the clubs have no foundation to build upon as heavy debt weighs them down and will definitely lead them to plummet to new depths.

The chances of another club Guangzhou FC in South China's Guangdong Province staying alive in the professional league are hanging by a thread. The former eight-time topflight champions have started a crowdfunding campaign by selling club products through livestreaming and leasing club trophies to pay off its various debts. 

Confronted with a historical debt amounting to tens of millions of yuan, current revenue falls significantly short of extricating the club from its financial predicament.

Over the past five seasons, seven clubs in China's topflight league have folded. Since 2020, a total of 39 Chinese professional soccer clubs have shut their doors, according to media reports.

Jiangsu FC in East China's Jiangsu Province ceased operations in 2021, just months after winning the Chinese Super League title, while Guangzhou City, Wuhan Yangtze and Hebei FC were all forced to shut their doors ahead of the 2023 season.

Bankrolled by real estate investors, many clubs attracted some of soccer's A-list stars, including World Cup winning coaches Marcello Lippi and Luiz Scolari, who masterminded Guangzhou to the Asian title in 2013 and 2015, respectively.

While some clubs might have achieved short-term impressive results, the financial strain caused by the pandemic and the real estate crisis have led investors to step back one after another. In the larger context of Chinese soccer, abandoning the burden is indeed an understandable choice.

The clubs' momentary prosperity cannot conceal the vulnerability lurking behind it and the success was dwarfed to insignificance as the national team was constantly handed reality checks at international competitions. As Chinese soccer slides on a downward spiral, what will be the last straw that finally leads to a redress of woes?

Relying solely on investors is evidently impractical for a soccer club to survive.

Century-old clubs like Real Madrid, Manchester United, and even those unheralded ones, all possess the capability to independently generate revenue. Through broadcasting rights, fan loyalty, and consistent operations, European clubs secure a sustained source of funding. A robust financial foundation, coupled with a healthy youth academy development system, lays a solid groundwork for teams' prospects not only for a particular season but also for future decades.

Whether it is the club's closure or the ongoing anti-graft campaign, Chinese soccer cannot get back on the right track until it forsakes a myopic approach and conforms to the natural law of soccer development. 

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.