Shanghai (AFP) – One Chinese Super League club is on the brink of going bust and a dozen lower-tier teams have already gone to the wall, indicating the problems facing football in China run far deeper than the current coronavirus suspension.

All football in China is indefinitely on hold over the deadly virus, but even before the shutdown a string of clubs had folded in recent weeks and several more are in grave danger.

It is a far cry from the lavish spending of 2016 and 2017 when Chinese Super League clubs, encouraged by President Xi Jinping’s ambitions to make China a force in the sport, repeatedly smashed the Asian transfer record.

Tianjin Quanjian were typical of the largesse that saw the CSL make headlines in attracting foreign coaches and players on world-leading wages.

But now, just a few years later, the club is up for sale free of charge, although it is saddled with reportedly heavy debts.

The near-demise of the team from China’s northeast has provoked introspection about the state of the sport in the country and suggestions that the “football bubble” has burst.

Bankrolled by a traditional Chinese medicine firm, Tianjin finished third in the CSL in 2017 under coach Fabio Cannavaro, the Italian World Cup-winning captain.

They boasted Brazilian international Alexandre Pato in attack, had 20-million-euro Belgian Axel Witsel in midfield and were closely linked with Chelsea forward Diego Costa.

But when the Quanjian Group’s founder was arrested on charges of pyramid selling and false advertising in January last year, the club was thrust into the hands of the local sports bureau.

Thirteen players have left since the end of last season when Tianjin — rebranded as Tianjin Tianhai — escaped relegation by four points. 

“Its business model is typical of many CSL clubs — relying heavily on the investment of owners and unable to generate significant revenue via marketing or endorsements in the same way that elite European clubs can,” said the China Daily, calling it “a bleak winter”.

– Quick profit –

When the communist government said in 2016 that it wanted China to be a “top-class” football nation by 2050, it is unlikely that football-fan President Xi envisaged clubs falling like skittles.

But including Tianjin, at least 15 teams in the top three tiers have dissolved, are facing financial ruin or will not compete in the new season, said Chinese sports writer William Bi.

Teams in China League One and League Two — the second and third divisions — on average lost 20 million yuan ($2.9 million) in 2018, according to state media.

Liaoning Hongyun in League One are still just about afloat, but captain Sang Yifei said on the Twitter-like Weibo that the players were not paid for the whole of the 2019 season.

When Guangdong Southern Tigers, of League One, folded last month, its deputy general manager Wang Qian said too many club owners were out for a quick profit.

“How did foreign clubs grow? They started from a pitch, a coach and youth training. Nurturing players eventually generates income and then they can form teams, starting in low-level leagues,” he told state media.

“But many Chinese bosses bought a first-tier team straightaway and then subsequently invested in youth training.

“Before the youth training could work out, the first-tier team might have already collapsed.”

– ‘No football culture’ –

The Chinese Football Association has brought in measures, including a salary cap for domestic and foreign players, to rein in spending. 

Worried about a glut of players suddenly out of work, it will offer free courses to convert them into coaches at grassroots level.

Bi said investors raced into football in line with the government’s ambitions in the sport, but soon found there was scarce profit to be had.

A downturn in the world’s second-largest economy makes pouring money into clubs even less attractive, he said.

Bi said that while teams similarly lose money in established markets such as in England, “in China, there is no football culture”.

“That’s the root problem of Chinese football,” he said.

“The survival of grassroots football requires love and passion (for the sport), which Chinese people lack.

“Football is not a form of entertainment for most Chinese people.

“And without fans, what’s the point of investment for a hopeless team in the lower league?”