European Football TrophyOn Monday 16 January 2017, the Chinese Football Association (the “CFA“) announced a raft of measures designed to carry out the requirements of the ‘Overall Plan for Reform and Development of Chinese Football’, as issued by the Chinese State Council General Office in March 2015. That plan had a long term goal to see the CFA and Chinese football become a ‘world soccer powerhouse’ to ‘[achieve] the ‘soccer dream’ for the entire nation’ by 2050.

The CFA made the announcements during its 10th General Assembly in Wuhan with the measures understood to include:

  1. A restriction on clubs fielding more than three non-Chinese players per match; and
  2. Each club’s starting team sheet must include at least two Chinese players under the age of 23.

The previous iteration of point one above was known as the ‘four plus one’ rule: four foreigners plus one Asian player had to feature in the match day squad with ‘three plus one’ on the field at any one time.

The CFA went on to state that the changes had been made as they were ‘…conducive to the development of Chinese football and the training of local players, which is conducive to the promotion of the national team and the healthy, stable and sustainable development of a professional league.

The changes will be effective from the start of the new Chinese Super League (the “CSL“) and Chinese Premier League seasons (the second tier national league), beginning in March 2017 respectively. Notably, the changes are also being made during the international January transfer window, a period in which numerous CSL clubs have attracted global headlines for shelling out record breaking sums of money on player transfers and wages including CSL side Shanghai Greenland Shenhua FC signing Carlos Tevez from Atletico Boca Juniors for a reported £71.6m and a wage package worth £615,000 a week.  CSL clubs could now find themselves in a position where they are unable to field all of the international talent they have purchased at the same time.

Notwithstanding, it is understandable that the enormous investment being made by CSL clubs in overseas talent (understood to be $300m in the winter transfer window to date) might have been cause for concern from the CFA: the presence of leading, global talent in CSL teams will undoubtedly reduce the opportunity for home grown players to gain first team exposure.  This is an outcome that may hamper the nation in moving toward its 2050 aim since the CFA will have to select its national team from a smaller pool of players playing top flight football within the country.  Similar proposals were made in March 2015 by the then Chairman of The FA, Greg Dyke, who sought, through the England Commission, to find ways to improve ‘the chances of young English talent succeeding at the highest levels of the game’ and to tighten the Premier League’s home grown rules.  The current Premier League ‘HGP’ (home grown player) rules require that each club’s Squad List (up to a maximum of 25 persons over the age of 21) must not contain more than 17 players who do not meet the home grown player criteria.

On the other hand, there are arguments to be made that the increased quality of player will drive up the quality of the CSL as a whole and, therefore, increase the level of those Chinese players who do make it into the first team line-ups. Further, the increased media exposure, the presence of global superstars and the rising public interest in the CSL will only serve to increase its commercial revenues and, arguably, allow for greater reinvestment in grassroots.  If sufficient and intelligent investment is made in Chinese football academies they will begin to produce high quality Chinese talent and there will then be greater options for Chinese stars to move abroad to gain first team exposure.

The FA and the Premier League moved to protect home grown talent at a time when the League was already the richest and, arguably, the best in the world. However, such measures have shown little evidence of improving England’s performance at national or international level.  This author would argue that home grown rules are not the solution to international success but that nations should instead consider encouraging their talented youths to gain first team exposure abroad.  The players will learn to adapt to different styles of play, players, fans and lifestyle arguably becoming mentally stronger, better rounded and more independent both on and off the pitch.  Gareth Bale’s move to Real Madrid and his subsequent performances for Wales at Euro 2016 being a prime example.  We delight in the Brazilian, Spanish and German talent playing in the Premier League but fear being drawn against their national sides in the World Cup.  Perhaps we, and the CFA, should look to the example of those football associations rather than seeking to implement or tighten foreign player quotas or ‘home grown’ rules.