Clubs struggling to keep ball rolling as uncertainty bites

Chinese Super League team Jiangsu Suning (in blue) stepped up preparations for a return to competitive action by playing a friendly against second-tier Taizhou Yuanda in Nanjing last Friday. The CSL, however, has yet to confirm a start date for the postponed 2020 season. CHINA DAILY

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges to Chinese soccer, with a kickoff date for the postponed 2020 season still yet to be decided and many clubs struggling to survive financially.

In an attempt to "keep professional clubs alive" and "create conditions for their sustainable development", the Chinese Football Association on Friday proposed players and coaches in all three tiers of the pro game take a 35-50 percent salary cut, applicable from March 1 until one week before the season kicks off.

Meanwhile, CFA suggested those clubs, which have financial difficulties, could defer payment of up to 30 percent of salaries to within a 90-day window after the season starts.

The CFA said the recommendations have been made following consultation with players, coaches and global governing body FIFA.

However, having stopped short of making any of these recommendations compulsory, it remains unclear just how effective the guidelines can be.

"The COVID-19 epidemic has had a big impact on the soccer industry. All levels of leagues were forced to postpone the 2020 season, which affected the normal operation of clubs," read the CFA announcement. "With low revenue and high labor costs, the clubs are facing growing financial pressure."

In a bid to protect those on the lower end of the soccer income scale, the CFA said the salary cuts should not apply to players and coaches whose monthly income is below 10,000 yuan ($1,413), while payment deferrals should not be enforced on those who earn less than 20,000 yuan a month.

"I hope players can look upon the salary cut positively," CFA president Chen Xuyuan told China Central Television on Thursday.

"The salary cuts will benefit the long-term development of both the clubs and the players. We should not only consider the here and now. We need to think about the future.

"Foreign players are included in the salary-cut plan. We have had numerous consultations with FIFA. It wouldn't be fair if we treat foreign and domestic players differently."

Chen claims FIFA has backed the CFA proposals.

"If any foreign player wants to sue us overseas, I believe FIFA will have our back," he added.

The CFA, though, is undoubtedly treading carefully and says it is not obligating clubs to enforce cuts in order to have "fair and friendly negotiations" over the matter.

Should a club feel compelled to impose a unilateral pay cut, the CFA has demanded that it provide "sufficient materials, including the actual financial situation of the club and an in-depth explanation to the CFA".

Clubs continue to stay tight-lipped on the proposals.

Second-tier Xinjiang Tianshan Leopard remains the only team to have cut players' salaries. In late April, Xinjiang slashed wages from between 10 and 50 percent, following three rounds of negotiations.

The club's chairman, Sun Aijun, told Xinhua that the cuts were implemented in order to ensure his team's survival.

"The CFA's salary-cut proposals are reasonable and logical, and are based on the current situation of Chinese clubs at all levels of the game," wrote soccer journalist Ma Dexing in his personal blog.

"But the CFA didn't sign contracts with the players. The proposals are just suggestions and advice. The final decision should be made by the clubs themselves… now all clubs should start to devise their own plans."

Kickoff conundrum

With the COVID-19 outbreak now under control in China, the CFA says it is considering three ideas to play a condensed 2020 Chinese Super League season, which was originally scheduled to start on Feb 22.

"Plan A is to finish the season with 30 rounds. We have a plan B if the league was to kick off in late June and finish in December, and we have also devised a plan C for a later restart," CFA boss Chen told CCTV.

"If we carry out plan B, we will actually only have four months because of the schedule of the national team and the AFC Champions League.

"So, we may divide the 16 teams into two groups, and decide the champion and relegation through two phases.

"We will resume the league once we meet the medical protocols. The league needs to make adjustments to ensure the integrity of matches. Games early in the season will be played without fans in attendance, and we intend to open the doors gradually."

Chen also revealed that about a third of foreign players and a number of foreign head coaches have still not managed to return to China due to pandemic-related travel restrictions.

However, he added that the CFA will "actively seek to restart the 2020 season once we meet the medical standards, instead of waiting for everyone to return".

Meanwhile, CSL clubs have resumed training, with some even playing warmup matches.

"All I know now is to train as hard as I can like everyone else in the team," said Jiangsu Suning midfielder Huang Zichang following his team's 2-1 friendly win over second-tier Taizhou Yuanda on Friday.

"Nobody knows when the season will start, but we are trying our best… We are thrilled today, after all we haven't played a match for a long time."