Folding of champions a massive blow for troubled Chinese Super League

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Just three months ago, Jiangsu Suning were celebrating a first ever championship, defeating Guangzhou Evergrande to win the 2020 Chinese Super League. At the same time, Tianjin Teda were celebrating an escape from relegation. The party has well and truly stopped.

If 2020 was challenging for Chinese football, 2021 is looking worse.

Jiangsu have gone, as owners Suning pulled the plug on Sunday. Tianjin are in danger of going the same way.

Shandong Luneng were kicked out of the Asian Champions League last month for unpaid salaries and this all comes after another Tianjin team, Tianhai, went bankrupt in May.  

Chinese football made headlines for the past decade for big-money signings, famous coaches, and talk of becoming a global powerhouse. Now, the stories being read around the world are different. 

The loss of Jiangsu is a massive blow.

Suning, a retail giant whose massive department stores are a feature of Chinese cities, took over in December 2015.

Stars such as Ramires (from Chelsea) and Alex Teixeria (from under the noses of Liverpool) were soon heading to the city of Nanjing.

In 2019, Gareth Bale almost made the same journey. Fabio Capello had a spell in charge.  

All this meant that the club was losing money but with Suning in charge it didn’t matter.

The group had the funds to buy a majority stake in Inter Milan in 2016.

But then came COVID-19 which hit Suning’s bottom line and it started to think about selling the Chinese club -and there are rumours it will do the same in Italy.

This became clear in a New Year address in February as owner Zhang Jindong announced that Suning would cut down it’s non-retail businesses to focus on the core.  

Yet given Jiangsu’s debts, reportedly around $115 million, and the fact that it was still losing money and unable to pay players and staff, nobody was interested.

Suning literally could not give the club away and when the hoped-for local government help was not forthcoming, the announcement was made. And that is that. 

Tianjin’s situation is slightly different but the end result is the same - an owner pulling out leaving the club struggling to survive on its own.

One of the oldest clubs in China was taken over by Teda in 1998 and have been a mainstay of Chinese football ever since.

This was a team that could usually be found in the top half of the table, a team that sometimes challenged for the title and occasionally the Asian Champions League before getting a little left behind by the league’s spending spree of the last decade. 

Ahead of the new season, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) ruled that there should be no mention of corporations in team names in an attempt to deepen links between clubs and communities.

As a result, Guangzhou Evergrande became Guangzhou FC and Jiangsu Suning became Jiangsu FC and so on. 

CFA Secretary-General Louis Liu said the move was to make clubs less reliant on owners and more self-sustainable. 

"Number one, that has hampered the club management, in particular in generating revenue from the market, because they are in a comfort zone of receiving cash injections from the owner," he said in December.

"Number two, they are not focusing on the community. They're not developing the club brand with the local community, engaging local fans in the city, rooting the brands in the city. 

Yet it has become apparent that clubs are not yet able to stand on their own two feet and have a long way to go to become self-sustainable.

Not only that, fans in Tianjin saw Teda as an integral part of the club’s brand. Protests came to nothing and Teda, unable to have their name in the club’s title, removed their investment. The club is on the edge. 

The massive investment made over the last few years has helped the league become the most-watched and talked about in Asia.

Standards have improved, more opportunities have opened for locals to take up the game and make a fine career. 

It is hard to argue that all the money has been invested wisely, however. Much of the cash headed overseas as the CFA acknowledged when imposing a strict salary cap at the end of last year.  

"In the last three to five years, everyone understands the CSL has been growing fast in terms of its brand identity and brand value," Liu said.

"But the overspending is something off the track." 

He said that on average, CSL clubs spent an average of US$180 million ($232M AUD) in 2019.

"Out of the $180 million, 70% to 80% goes into the pockets of the players. And of that, about 70% is the salaries of international players. Everyone has realized this is not sustainable. It's a bubble and it's going to burst."

With COVID hitting revenues of parent companies and clubs alike, it has burst for Jiangsu and is on the way for Tianjin. It is all, at the very least, a major embarrassment for Chinese football. 

The immediate priority is to ensure that no more clubs go under but in the longer-term, a more frugal Chinese Super League is on the cards.

It may not make as many international headlines but for now, the focus is keeping clubs alive.

Source SBS The World Game