CFA under fire over sluggish progress in talks to shake up domestic league

China’s soccer reformists are growing increasingly frustrated in their attempts to make the nation’s top-flight league more commercially viable, insinuating that the Chinese Football Association is dragging its heels over the matter.

Since last October, the Chinese Super League’s 16 clubs have been endeavoring to form a new operating company to take control of the competition, promising to make it more professional and market-oriented.

However, negotiations with the CFA have been proceeding at a snail’s pace, with no substantial progress to report so far and the discussions not helped by the postponement of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 pandemic.

Zhang Li, the mastermind of the reforms and the owner of Guangzhou R&F, said the process of establishing the new CSL company is now at a standstill because “nobody wants to relinquish power and control”.

“We studied many cases from the English Premier League, Bundesliga and La Liga to build the new CSL company, and it should not have been this hard,” Zhang told Nanfang Metropolis Daily.

“Logistically speaking, there were no problems. We were confident of having an annual revenue of about five billion yuan ($700 million) and even more.

“We agreed to give the CFA a 10 percent slice of the revenue, so that would work out at 500 million yuan. But nobody wants to relinquish power and control, so it’s tough to make any progress.”

The interview has sparked heated debate on Chinese social media, with many criticizing the CFA’s apparent reluctance to cede power to the clubs, and the governing body responding by insisting the process remains in the works.

“Helping refine the operation and facilitating the healthy development of Chinese soccer clubs have always been the priorities of the Chinese Football Association,” read a CFA statement on Wednesday.

“Since late 2019, the CFA has made adjustments and additions to the original plan, and all parties have reached a broad consensus. Now it remains a work-in-progress. The CFA will continue to facilitate the establishment of the CSL council and the stable growth of the professional league.”

According to Nanfang Metropolis Daily, 12 CSL club investors-including the boss of eight-time champion Guangzhou Evergrande, Xu Jiayin-signed a proposal to establish an independent council to manage the league last June.

The document stressed that it was not financially feasible in the long term to retain the CSL in its current form, and that the proposed operating company would help balance the books at each club.

The plan also proposes that the new entity would be comprised of the league’s 16 clubs and be led by a CSL council.

The CFA holds a majority 36 percent stake in the current league company, which was founded in 2005.

Last year, the CFA agreed that it would not retain any shares in the new entity in order to free the league from administrative interference in all aspects of its operations, ranging from rule amendments, foreign-player policies, salary caps, marketing and broadcasting. However, to date nothing has actually happened.

“We were really active last year. We thought we should establish the new entity as soon as possible, and that it should not happen later than last December,” said Zhang.

“It’s not just my own opinion but a consensus of all the investors. But why has it been delayed this long? I really don’t know the answer.

“I personally think it has to be something to do with the CFA. Maybe they don’t want to lose the big cake of the CSL.”

Whatever the stumbling blocks to change may be, some observers contest that reform of the league is ultimately inevitable.

“Even now, there is no specific timeline of when the new CSL entity will be established, which highlights many problems and difficulties of the issue,” read a People’s Daily commentary on Wednesday.

“This is a matter concerning the interests of multiple parties, and it’s also not a problem that the CFA alone can decide.

“Despite the difficulties, it’s imperative to form a more professional league. The reform will not stop and the change will eventually come.”

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