How Guangzhou Evergrande got their way
5 July ~ Rather than bring an end to the transfer madness in the Chinese Super League (CSL), Didier Drogba's move to Shanghai Shenhua in June has been followed by a fresh wave of players from Europe. In the last week alone Freddie Kanouté and Yakubu have joined the league. However, the most significant signing of this transfer window has to be Lucas Barrios' move to the current CSL champions, Guangzhou Evergrande, from Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund. At 27, the Paraguayan international exemplifies Guangzhou's policy of recruiting overseas players in their prime, rather than acquiring ageing big names.
Barrios will still not come cheap – besides his £5.5 million transfer fee, he will make £4.8m annually during his four-year contract. Signing players for huge amounts of money isn't a big deal in Chinese football these days, but what Guangzhou did next was. At the time of Barrios' arrival, CSL clubs were allowed to have a maximum of five foreign players in their squad. Guangzhou already had their full overseas allocation and would have had to sell one before they could register Barrios.
The current champions tried to get out of their predicament by proposing a scheme to increase the amount of foreigners in each team, meaning they could keep all their non-Chinese players. The current "3+1" system, which allows each team a maximum of three non-Asian players and a non-Chinese player from Asia on the pitch would stay, but the amount of foreigners in each clubs' squad would increase by two.
The Chinese FA passed the proposal. While it was bizarre enough that other CSL teams would allow their richest rival to effectively dictate league policy, the association then announced a significant clause – only teams in the Asian Champions League can use the new overseas player quota this season. China's only remaining participant in the Asian Champions League is Guangzhou Evergrande.
Guangzhou and the association argued that more big-name foreigners will raise the profile of the Chinese game and boost attendances, which in the short term might be true. Interest in football, and therefore the CSL, is at an all-time high in China after a well-received European Championship and blanket coverage of the Drogba transfer.
However, critics have attacked the rule change, arguing that not all clubs can afford top drawer overseas players and that smaller clubs will lose out while bigger ones stockpile the best foreigners available. Money that would have been used for youth development will now be spent on additional overseas signings. Under the old system, an injury to a foreigner would allow playing time for a local Chinese player, now that opportunity is lost as one foreigner comes in for another.
There is also concern at the manner in which these changes came through. Guangzhou knowingly exceeded their quota but instead of being forced to sell one of their star players at a knockdown price, lobbied their own FA into making an ad-hoc rule change that benefits only them for this season at least.
This is indicative of the ambitious, if often incompetent, association, who have shown little self-awareness about their sudden cosy relationship with a club they relegated to the second division less than three years ago for match-fixing. Fuelled by enormous levels of funding from the Evergrande Real Estate group, Guangzhou represent the best chance any Chinese team has of winning the Asian Champions League for the first time since 1990, hence the association's willingness to accommodate the reigning CSL champions.
It will take several years before it is clear whether the loosening of the overseas player quota improves the fortunes of Chinese football at home and abroad, or simply dilutes the talent pool further and stunts the development of local players. Drogba's name is dominating the headlines right now but it may well be Barrios' that stands out in the history books. Andrew Crawford