Chinese football's good, bad and ugly

What to make of the current state of Chinese football? Big names drawn to the CSL but the lingering stench of corruption still hangs in the air.

What to make of the current state of Chinese football?

On the one hand, things have never been stronger in the sense that big name players and coaches are moving to the Middle Kingdom, creating waves that are felt worldwide.

On the other, the lingering stench of corruption still hangs in the air – and the leading clubs are seemingly bullying their way towards self-serving mid-season rule changes that threaten to undermine the integrity of the domestic competition.

Firstly, though to the positives.

It would have been simply unfathomable even a few short years ago that the player who scored the equalizing goal and then the winning penalty in a UEFA Champions League final would then turn around and make his way to China – but that's exactly what Didier Drogba's done.

This, despite what you may have read, is not a player who is over the hill.

Drogba is the all-time leading goalscorer and captain of one of Africa's strongest nations, steering Cote d’Ivoire to a runner-up finish barely six months ago at the Africa Cup of Nations.

He also finished ninth in the voting for FIFA's Ballon d'Or less than a year and a half ago – a player who could easily have stayed at a big club in European football if he so desired.

So, why the move to China?

Money seems to be the easy answer and with a reputed salary of some $300,000 a week that's some hefty coin – but it's also worth remembering in the modern guise of football the vast majority of players move primarily for reasons of economics.

The way I prefer to look at it is that Chinese football must be doing something right because even the large sums now being accepted were being declined less than half a decade ago.

Argentine Dario Conca, voted the best player in Brazil in 2009, started things in a serious way 12 months ago with a $10 million move to Guangzhou Evergrande and Nicolas Anelka and Lucas Barrios both followed within the year.

World Cup winning coach Marcello Lippi also found his way to Canton as both Guangzhou and Shanghai announced themselves as serious international players.

On the pitch, Guangzhou reached the quarter-finals of the AFC Champions League and, a third of the way through the campaign, is already four points clear at the top of the CSL – and threatening to run away with the title for a second successive season.

Things have not been so prosperous for Shanghai; the initial circus surrounding Anelka and various coaching dramas has seen it slump to 12th – just three points above the relegation zone.

It's now up to one of the unlikeliest forward lines in recent memory – Drogba, Anelka and Joel Griffiths – to steer it towards an ACL spot over the remaining five months of the season.

The dichotomy of Chinese football though couldn't have been illustrated in a starker fashion over the past week.

Just days before the good citizens of China's sparkling eastern metropolis were toasting Drogba's arrival came the news that two former high-ranking officials had been handed some serious prison time.

Nan Yong and Xie Yalong, both former heads of the Chinese Football Association (CFA), were given identical ten and a half year jail terms for bribery – the former found guilty of doing so over a period of ten years from 1999 to 2009.

Several officials and four players – including former long serving national midfielder Shen Si – were also handed prison terms and hefty fines.

Yet, while several leading figures in the Chinese game were trumpeting those convictions as a sign of progress, the current administration – and indeed many of the other clubs in the CSL - have scored a remarkable own goal with a decision to alter the rules surrounding foreign imports.

Previously China had followed the AFC's 3+1 rule, limiting clubs to three foreign imports plus one from an AFC member nation in the matchday squad (and a total of 4+1 overall).

However, after Guangzhou signed Barrios it led a push for an increase in the quota.

Already with Conca and a trio of Brazilians in Paulao, Cleo and Muriqui (as well as Korean Cho Won-hee), the arrival of Barrios meant the club needed to cut one of the foreign group.

Yet, rather than play by the rules, it decided to re-write them.

Somehow – and this is China, remember – Guangzhou managed to convince the required two-thirds of voting members (including all clubs) to agree to an amendment raising the squad limit to accommodate another two foreigners. Magically all its problems were solved.

The caveats attached to the amendment do little to refute suggestions it was all organised for the cozy benefit of Guangzhou.

The new rules, implemented immediately, only apply to clubs competing in the ACL and there is to be no change to the matchday quota of 3+1.

All of which means Guangzhou (China's sole remaining ACL club) will have the luxury of rotating and resting its highly-paid band of foreign stars with an obvious benefit to its ambitions at home and abroad.

Yet what it also means is less opportunity for young Chinese players – and for the CFA this is now a delicate balancing act.

Is it possible to both promote the local game on a global stage and ensure that the imported talent doesn't devour the small selection of Chinese youth that actually want to play professional football?

Time will tell.