Why the Chinese goalkeeper rule may not actually be beneficial for development

When people think of China and football there is one thing that comes to mind in modern times; money. In the past five years or so, the Far East nation has been the source of some of the most astronomical transfer fees and dealings.

Yet, there remains one crucial position on the football pitch entirely untouched by that big-money business.

The goalkeeper.

And that’s for good reason too. Clubs simply aren’t allowed to.

As part of the rules set by the Chinese Football Association, clubs must field Chinese goalkeepers. This prevents the Chinese Super League sides from exercising their considerable financial might when it comes to the shot-stopping department.

The rule came into affect with good intentions too. Chinese football’s governing body acknowledged early on that the wealth that Chinese clubs could invest in players would see an influx in foreign players – largely big-name stars from Europe – coming over to ply their trade for mega-money deals.

For most positions on the football pitch, that was fine. Chinese football maintains a foreign player cap, so Chinese players were getting to play alongside top players and, as such, would likely find their own game slowly improving.

However, in football, there is only ever one goalkeeper on the pitch for a side. That presented a unique problem; how to ensure that Chinese clubs didn’t simply go out and buy a star man between the sticks and let their Chinese talent languish in the depths of the squad.

For a country led by football enthusiast Xi Jinping and with genuine desires to win a World Cup in the not too distant future, not developing domestic goalkeepers that could help national team success would be a real problem.

Hence, the foreign goalkeeper ban came into effect.

Yet, I’m not convinced it has truly worked. Certainly, by Asian football standards, there are some relatively talented Chinese goalkeepers playing in the country’s top-flight.

However, they haven’t managed to push on and reach that next level of talent in goal. There aren’t really big name teams in Europe scouting and snapping up Chinese talent in general, but especially not in the goalkeeper market. They still seem to be just slightly off the grade necessary at the moment.

And I think some of that does come down to the negative effect of the Chinese goalkeeper rule.

While it does ensure that there are sixteen Chinese goalkeepers playing week-in, week-out in the top flight, it also stops foreign goalkeepers arriving who could help coach and push those players to the next level. The competition and need to improve isn’t as great as it would be for the Chinese goalkeepers had foreign players in their position been allowed to arrive.

And similarly, there is little desire for Chinese goalkeepers to move beyond their country. Why would they want to look abroad, to moves to other top Asian nations or to Europe, when they can remain domestic and have guarantees that they’ll play, and competitive and sometimes even overly-inflated wages.

If Chinese football truly wants to push for major improvement and even win a World Cup, then in terms of goalkeepers it needs to think seriously about loosening its strict domestic-only rule.

More than anything, to encourage Chinese goalkeepers to aim for and reach the next level, and potentially seek opportunities in more established footballing nations and leagues abroad. That may well prove necessary for any real success on an international stage.

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