How the Chinese Super League bubble burst

On Sunday, it was revealed that defending Chinese Super League (CSL) champions Jiangsu FC would cease operations -- the latest in a string of developments demonstrating the rapidly shifting face of football in the world's most populous country.

Owned by retail conglomerate Suning, who purchased Serie A leaders Internazionale in 2016, the announcement represents rock bottom of a rapid descent in fortunes for a club who had, as recently as the summer of 2019, attempted to sign Gareth Bale from Spanish giants Real Madrid.

Despite being unable to land Bale, Jiangsu's squad that secured the 2020 Chinese title featured Brazilian Alex Teixeira, who sensationally spurned interest from Liverpool to make a €50 million move in 2016, and had previously fielded another Brazil international in Ramires, who signed from Chelsea in 2016 for a reported £25 million.

In hindsight, 2016 perhaps represented the peak of the CSL's rise as the competition threatening to tilt the balance of world football; then-Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger warning that the wages on offer threatened to disturb previously unchallenged-European hegemony over top talent.

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"That's the danger, that the Chinese offers become the benchmark for Europe," he said at the time. "You cannot compete with that."

Recovering after a series of gambling, match-fixing and corruption scandals and a subsequent crackdown rocked the league, Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka joined Shanghai Shenhua in 2012 as one of the first hints of the CSL's growing power, while Seydou Keita linked up with Dalian Aerbin, and Lucas Barrios and Yakubu joined Guangzhou Evergrande and Guangzhou R&F respectively. On the touchline, Takeshi Okada, Sergio Batista and Marcello Lippi all arrived as coaches.

In 2013, David Beckham became the first global ambassador for the league and Guangzhou Evergrande became just the second Chinese side to win Asian Champions League -- a feat they would repeat in 2015.

Teixeira, Ramires, Alexandre Pato, Paulinho, Oscar, Carlos Tevez, Hulk and John Obi Mikel all headed to China in the years that followed, as did coaches such as Fabio Cannavaro and Luiz Felipe Scolari. The CSL was not just a competitor in the transfer market but, at its peak, was the preeminent spending force.

But with the league proving no more immune to the economic slowdown wrought by COVID-19 than any other footballing competition, the cracks that have emerged in recent years have been impossible to ignore over the past 12 months.

Teixeira refused to sign a new contract following Jiangsu's title-winning campaign and Suning -- which is embroiled in a legal battle with the Premier League after losing the rights to broadcast the competition in China -- told staff in February that the conglomerate would be shifting its focus away from its non-retail businesses.

"We should focus our main battlefield, initiate subtraction, redraw the battle line," Titan Sports quoted owner Zhang Jindongas as saying. "We will focus on retail business resolutely, close and cut down our business irrelevant to retail business without hesitation."

Chinese FA Cup winner Shandong Luneng was formally expelled from the coming AFC Champions League three weeks ago due to "overdue payables" and, should Jiangsu be unable to find new investment, they too will need replacing. Shandong has already been swapped out with Shanghai SIPG, who finished fourth in the 2020 CSL campaign.

Elsewhere, Tianjin Tigers are reportedly at risk of total collapse after parent company, State-owned conglomerate Tianjin Teda, pulled funding. The club, which reportedly owes its players 10 months salary, has been in the Chinese top-flight since 1999.

Just last year, Tigers' local rivals Tianjin Tianhai, who at one stage had Cannavaro as coach and Pato and Axel Witsel on their books, declared bankruptcy and folded after being unable to financially recover from the arrest and imprisonment of former owner Shu Yuhui.

Though now competing in the lower tiers, the first Chinese side to win the ACL, Liaoning FC, also folded in 2020 due to consistently failing to pay debts.

In the face of the upheaval and despite some resistance from some fan groups, Chinese football authorities have taken steps to stem the flow of money in the CSL; decreeing that professional clubs will be required to remove corporate sponsors from their names and crests ahead of the 2021 campaign to deflate business influence and spending.

That move follows on from December's imposition of new spending limits on players throughout the game to prevent bubbles and boost the development of Chinese players, which has lagged despite Chinese President Xi Jinping's dreams of China dominating the sport by 2050.

Foreign player salaries in the CSL are now set to be capped at €3m under the plan, with domestic players capped at 5 million yuan (US$765,000) before tax. Clubs can spend no more than 600 million yuan (US$91.74 million) on total wages, with a cumulative €10 million (US$12.1 million) limit on foreign player salaries. A 100% tax on large transfers has also been in place since 2017 -- with the money raised sent to youth development programs.

"CSL club expenditure is about 10 times higher than South Korea's K-League and three times higher than Japan's J-League," CFA president Chen Xuyuan on the introduction of the spending restrictions. "But our national team is lagging far behind. The bubbles not only affect the present of Chinese football, but also its future."

The moves by the CFA to curb corporate influence and rampant spending seem to indicate the golden era of cash that marked the peak of the Chinese Super League has come to an end -- a decade of excess petering out in the face of existential questions and forks in the road.

But will Jiangsu's collapse prove the highest-profile example of the inevitable pains associated with slowly deflating the bubble that had grown beneath the surface of the Chinese game? Or a warning sign that the steps that have been taken came too late and weren't enforced enough to prevent it from bursting? Only time will tell.