2003 was another eventful year for soccer in China. As November drew to a close the curtain came down on China's first division soccer league. An often controversial decade of first division soccer, it is to be superseded next season by the new Chinese Premier League (CPL).
However, before the end of the year there was to be yet another sensational news item. At on Dec. 26 a quite remarkable letter of intent was signed. The Chongqing Lifan soccer club, which failed to secure one of the coveted 12 places in the CPL, now plans to take over the Yunnan Hongta club, which did win a place in the new league.
The formal agreement was signed in Kunming, Yunnan Province the following day. By this surprise move Chongqing Lifan not only purchases Yunnan Hongta but takes control of its qualifying place as one of the 12 founding clubs of the new premier league. The price-tag has been reported as 38 million yuan (about US$4.75 million).
Sixty-six-year-old Yin Mingshan, president of Chongqing Lifan soccer club, is a legendary figure in football circles in China. In 1985 Yin resigned from a publishing house in Chongqing to become a businessman. Seven years later, at the age of 55 he invested 200,000 yuan (about US$25,000) to found the Chongqing Lifan Industrial (Group) Co. Ltd. In just 11 years he turned it into China's biggest motorcycle manufacturer.
Yin established the Chongqing Lifan soccer club on Aug. 19, 2000. It went on to win the Chinese Football Association Cup that same year. Yin was once asked what was missing from China's league soccer matches. His forthright reply was, "a lack of professional ethics among Chinese players."
And the reason behind Chongqing Lifan's purchase of Yunnan Hongta? Yin's explanation is straight-forward, "to repay the Chongqing Lifan fans for their loyal support."
"Lifan wasn't qualified for the new season's premier league," Yin said. "It's unimaginable for Chongqing, a municipality of over 30 million people, not to have a team of its own in the CPL in 2004. The fact is since Nov. 30 when the 2003 season ended, I've felt embarrassed about going back to see the fans in Chongqing and have even been unable to sleep properly. So I made up my mind to do everything possible to help Lifan get into the CPL."
Though it is reportedly costing Chongqing Lifan 38 million yuan (about US$4.75 million) to purchase Yunnan Hongta, Yin puts the total cost far higher with the Lifan Group having put some 220 million yuan (about US$27.5 million) into soccer. "Coincidently, since we began sponsoring soccer three years ago, the Lifan Group has seen its profits grow. But this doesn't mean there is necessarily a link," Yin claimed. "Actually, we would still make much the same money even if we didn't sponsor soccer. We've never looked for a financial return from our involvement in soccer. It's my view that what has come from the people should be used in the interests of the people. Lifan has grown strong in Chongqing and funding a team to represent Chongqing in the CPL is our way of returning something to society."
In terms of Lifan's failure to secure a place in the CPL through its own efforts on the field, Yin concedes that the club made mistakes during the 2003 season. However he has gone on record in a published article to denounce some of the current malpractices plaguing professional soccer in China.
"Overall China has the most favorable investment environment in the world. This is in sharp contrast with its experience of professional soccer which has proven to be a high-risk investment environment," Yin said.
In the early days Yin had spoken confidently in terms of forging a bright future for Lifan soccer, however he now says, "I have really tried to make a contribution to Chinese soccer but I've run into heavy losses and now feel rather downhearted."
Yin cites two contrasting trends over China's decade of professional soccer. In 1993 China's GDP stood at 3,000 billion yuan (US$375 billion) growing to 11,000 billion (US$1,375 billion) today. But over the same period, China's national soccer team has seen its rankings drop from 37th place in the world to just 86th.
"Great progress has been made in China's economic and social development and in other sports. Only Chinese soccer has experienced a slump," he said. "My conclusion is that there have been problems throughout the 10 years of Chinese first division soccer."
Yin holds that people have misunderstood Chinese soccer. "Take the example of the 'fewer but better' model of the new CPL with just 12 clubs. It is based on the premise that a quantitative change will lead to a qualitative change. But improvement in a nation's soccer level is determined by the popularity of the sport. However this is a rather superficial view," said Yin. "There are still significant barriers to the healthy development of Chinese soccer."
"What concerns me most are the prospects for attendances during the first year of the premier league. How many fans will actually turn out to watch the CPL matches? I can say with some certainty that the new CPL will draw fewer supporters to the games," said Yin. "Another thing that bothers me is whether or not some clubs will form alliances and continue to play their petty tricks like they have been doing in the first division. If this doesn't change, what's the point in launching the new premier league?"
As a successful entrepreneur, Yin has invested in soccer for many years. When asked if he ever thought of quitting, Yin said, "Sure, I'm always thinking about that but the time has not yet come for me to quit. If the purchase of Yunnan Hongta is successful the Lifan Club will introduce more foreign players to strengthen the team in preparation for the new season.The new team will do its best to play well in the league matches and live up to the fans' expectations."
Speaking of Lifan's purchase of Hongta, Yin said: "Every step in the process complies with FIFA rules. However once the Chinese Football Association (CFA) gets involved we might find we have some procedural barriers in our way."
In fact, Lifan's purchase of Hongta poses difficult questions not only for CFA, but also for the club itself. The difficulties include the need to re-register the team and transfer players.
According to CFA's regulations, after purchasing Yunnan Hongta, the Lifan club must sell the original "Lifan" team that still carries the club's name. So far the deal between Lifan and Hongta has not been approved by the CFA.
Yin wrote to the CFA on Dec. 28 in the hope that the CFA would give the green light to Lifan temporarily owning both Lifan and Hongta until the two teams can be regrouped.
"This is indeed a special case," said Yin. "After buying Hongta, we need time to arrange the sale of the Lifan team. So we have asked the CFA to consider the situation."
Chen Hong, vice president of the Lifan club, went to Beijing on Dec. 29 to report to the CFA on the Hongta deal. While expressing appreciation at having received the report from Lifan, Lang Xiaonong, director of the CPL Organizing Office and of the CFA's League Department, made it clear that both Lifan and Hongta should lose no time in submitting the necessary documentation. "Everything is going as expected," said Chen optimistically.
Once the deal is finally confirmed by the CFA, many players from both the original Lifan and Hongta clubs will have to face the issue of transfers.
On Dec. 26, China's only military soccer team, the 52-year-old Bayi team of the People's Liberation Army was disbanded at its training base in Beijing's XishanMountain suburbs. The players are now free to transfer to other clubs. This has further worsened conditions in the transfer market for the start of 2004. Two consequences are writ large, the supply of players exceeds demand and transfer fees will be driven down.
In the light of these circumstances, Yin has promised that before the Lifan team is sold, the club will make proper arrangements for all the laid-off players. Meanwhile in Yunnan the Hongta Group will earmark the 38 million yuan, reportedly paid by Lifan, for compensation for club employees and players in its U15, U13, U11 and U9 teams, which will all be disbanded, together with funding for subsequent operational activities. Even a sum of this size is a drop in the ocean to the mighty Hongta Group.
Both the first team and the U17 team will be brought into Lifan. The 100-odd club employees will each receive compensation on disbandment. The teams that are not to be retained will be stood down in an organized manner.
Most of the club's employees have no need to worry about their future. They originally came from jobs within Hongta and will now be able to return to jobs with the group. For example the club's 58-year-old general manager, Qin Shaogao is a member of the Hongta board of directors and president of the group's supervisory committee. Only those few employees who were recruited externally will now have to find an alternative means of making a living for themselves. Looking after their interests won't require too much Hongta money.
The Hongta training base on the east bank of the
DianchiLake is no longer the bustling place it once was. There are few people to be seen except for some security personnel.
"I hoped to play for Hongta in the CPL, but this will not be possible now," a young player from Yunnan said sadly. He had been in the team for three years. "People seem to lack confidence in Yunnan's soccer players, so I don't know where to go," he said.
In addition to the famous Hongta base, the club has a juvenile training base in Longjiang with teams at five levels; U17, U15, U13, U11 and U9. The under 17 team is to be brought into Lifan. Members of U15 were not actually signed by Hongta and their training and living expenses were shared among Hongta, their families and society. Players in the under 13 and younger categories are still school students and have already said their good-byes to the club. Some may now abandon their dreams of becoming professional soccer players. As for their parents, all their efforts and expenditure have come to nothing.
There is good news however concerning the Hongta reserve team. It has been reported that it is to be taken over by the Lijiang Sports Administration. A new club will be established in this ancient city in YunnanProvince. The new team will register on behalf of Yunnan for the 2004 season's national second division league matches.
Hongta President Qin Shaogao said the club's withdrawal from soccer did not come as a result of financial pressure. "Hardly any of the top players in the Hongta team actually came from Yunnan. In the long run this has had a negative impact on the popularity of soccer in the province. And this was quite the opposite of what we had intended," said Qin.
(China.org.cn by Li Jingrong and Shao Da, January 8, 2004)