As China season starts, famous imports a mixed blessing
After the $300 million splurge on high-profile foreign stars in the preseason transfer window, there was one striking statistic from the opening round of the Chinese Super League.
Of the 16 goals scored, not one could be attributed to a homegrown Chinese player.
The influx of expensive imports has strengthened Chinese Super League clubs and increased attendances at home and the league's profile overseas, but has compounded concerns about the effects of too many overseas strikers in the domestic competition.
Brazilians Ramires and Alex Teixeira cost Jiangsu Suning more than $80 million, and both scored in the first round. Asian champion Guangzhou Evergrande paid almost $50 million to Atletico Madrid for Jackson Martinez, and the Colombian international duly scored for his new team.
The closest there was to a local goal came from Taiwanese international Chen Po-liang. With the array of foreign and creative strikers in the league, the Chinese attacking talent is being crowded out.
''From the perspective of the development of Chinese football, it's a despicably bad thing,'' the Guangzhou Daily News reported.
Dejan Damjanovic agrees. The Montenegrin striker was the third-highest scorer in the 2015 Chinese Super League while playing for Beijing Guoan in a year when only two local forwards finished in the top 15 marksmen.
''This is the problem,'' Damjanovic told The Associated Press. ''In all teams, it is the foreigners who are making the difference and scoring the goals and so clubs are buying strikers and midfielders to help them achieve their aims.''
The problems this creates for the national team are evident.
China needs to defeat Qatar on March 29 to have any chance of progressing to the final round of Asian qualification for the 2018 World Cup. The country has only appeared at one World Cup, in 2002, when China lost all three games and failed to score a single goal.
''Generally, the national team of China is having problems because of this,'' added Damjanovic. ''Chinese strikers when they play, they are not scoring too much. A few of them are doing good jobs but others are struggling. There needs to be improvements. They need to improve their young players and the youth facilities if they want to be one of the best leagues and national teams in Asia.''
Australian midfielder Erik Paartalu, who spent a season with Chinese Super League team Tianjin Teda in 2013, said the issue needs to be addressed if Chinese football is to advance.
''The clubs just want a big name to attract crowds and to make their owners look good,'' Paartalu said. China ''won't have any success at international level anytime soon if it continues because (local forwards) need to be playing. And there isn't many Chinese playing outside of China.''
The reliance on foreign strikers has been an issue across Asia for some time. Even Japan and South Korea, the continent's most successful countries, struggle to produce top-class goalscorers.
It is perhaps becoming more extreme in China, though. In the 2015 J-League season, seven of the top 10 scorers were Japanese. In South Korea, half of the top 10 were Korean.
Leagues in South Korea and Japan limit the signing of non-Asian players to three, whereas in China the limit is four. Plus clubs in countries such as South Korea and Japan can't compete with the growing financial resources of the Chinese clubs in terms of luring the top-line stars, so the gap in standard between locals and imports is not so great in those leagues.
This gives local players in China even less chance to get serious playing time as Tom Byer, a youth development expert who is consultant to the Chinese Ministry of Education's soccer program, points out.
''Traditionally, clubs buy foreign players who can score goals but unfortunately, Chinese players will not be given as much opportunity since there is such an influx,'' he said, adding that China wasn't unique in this issue. ''There are lots of opinions on the subject (around the world) and most of the great strikers are still coming from South America and Latin countries where the culture is much more conducive to developing strikers.''