- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Just when the spending power of the Chinese Super League looked set to make it a major player in football’s transfer market, the country’s recent economic stumbles have emerged as a brake on its ambitions.

In recent weeks, Chinese teams have spent ever-increasing amounts to import stars such as French striker Demba Ba, who has joined Shanghai Shenhua, and Brazilian internationals Paulinho and Robinho who will reunite with coach Felipe Scolari at Guangzhou Evergrande.

China was emerging as a genuine alternative option to Europe and the wealthy Gulf states as a destination for top-line players, but July’s precipitous decline in the nation’s stock market - it fell 30 percent from its peak - now threatens to curtail the spending.

Guangzhou’s co-owner Jack Ma alone reportedly lost $3 billion and investors big and small alike suffered precipitous falls in the value of their investments.

Victor Shih, a Chinese financial and political expert at the University of San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy, believes that the market decline, and new regulations limiting liquidity, means transfer spending faces a major trim.

“It is a general problem for wealthy people in China who are major shareholders in companies,” Shih told The Associated Press.

“The emergency decree issued on July 8 prohibits any shareholder who owns over five percent of a company from selling these shares in the next six months. This is going to be a big problem for some people as they won’t be able to liquidate their wealth, if the shares are listed overseas, they will be OK. In this environment, it is certainly possible that major non-essential spending, like that on a soccer club, could be affected.”

The spending has been considerable so far.

Shanghai SIPG paid a reported figure of around $22 million, an Asian transfer record, to Al Ain of the United Arab Emirates to sign Ghanaian striker Asamoah Gyan. The international star was regarded in the UAE as the country’s most successful foreign star ever. The money on offer was so large however that even one of the richest clubs in the Gulf could not say no.

That offer was too good to turn down, and so too was the one that lured Brazilian striker Eduardo from South Korean champion Jeonbuk Motors to Chinese second-tier team Hebei CFFC, reportedly quadrupling the salary of the former Bundesliga star.

The Eduardo deal received less headlines than those of Gyan, Ba and Robinho, but was more significant. When a lower-league Chinese club can take players from the best team in one of Asia’s strongest leagues, the balance of power in the continent has surely shifted.

The threat from the stock downturn is serious, but there is now underlying strength in the Chinese game beyond the investments of billionaires. The Chinese Super League is easily the best attended of the continent’s regular leagues with an average attendance this season of over 23,000.

South Korea international Ha Dae-sung, who cost Beijing Guoan $5 million in December 2013, had faith in the growth of the Chinese game despite the recent difficulties.

“The atmosphere in Chinese soccer at the moment is fantastic and is not the kind of atmosphere that will end easily. Soccer is the most popular sport and the passion of the players is excellent,” Ha said.

2002 World Cup winning coach Scolari joined champion Guangzhou Evergrande in June and is vying with other big name bosses such as Sven Goran Eriksson of Shanghai SIPG for the title. The league was the third-highest spender in the world in January’s transfer window and is continuing on the same lines this summer.

“There are good coaches and good players coming and every year Chinese soccer is growing and developing,” said Ha. “The passion of the fans is great and the crowds are big and getting bigger. The future for China is really bright.”

Chinese Super League clubs may be spending millions on foreigners but the country still fails to export much talent. Until the country starts to generate its own top-line players, Chinese football is likely to stay outside the global elite.

This week Chinese international Zhang Xizhe returned to Beijing Guoan. The 24 year-old was hailed as one of China’s biggest talents when he joined German club Wolfsburg in January. Yet in half a season in the Bundesliga, the attacking midfielder failed to play a single minute.

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