China sports law update: January – March 2019

Published 28 March 2019 By: Guo Cai

China Football

Here are the latest stories in China’s sports law market for the first quarter of 2019.

China Embraces Naturalized Football Players

On 23 February 2019, John Hou Sæter (now under his Chinese name “侯永永Hou Yongyong”), the first naturalized player in Chinese football history, made his debut in the CFA Super Cup between Sinobo Guo An FC and SIPG FC. Hou Yongyong, 21, was a half-Chinese Norwegian player who spent significant time with the Norwegian football club Rosenborg. On 31 January 2019, Sinobo Guo An FC announced the signing of Hou Yongyong and Nicolas Yennaris (now under the Chinese name “李可 Li Ke”) and the fact that the two players were in the process of acquiring Chinese nationality.1 It is understood that additional foreign players are in the pipeline to be naturalized in the hope that these players might strengthen the Chinese National Team.

The Chinese culture is relatively conservative with respect to having naturalized players representing the National Team. However, the professional league conference held in December 2018 made clear that “naturalization of qualified foreign players” would be officially encouraged and actively promoted. Given the restrictions imposed by the FIFA Regulations Governing the Application of the Statutes (the FIFA Regulations) and the fact that China does not recognize double/multiple nationalities, only those players who satisfy Article 7 of the FIFA Regulations, i.e. players who have not participated in a match (either in full or in part) in an official football competition, while being born on the Mainland China territory (or his biological parent/grandparent being born on the Mainland China territory) or having lived in Mainland China continuously for at least five years after reaching the age of 18, might be able to represent the Chinese National Team and consequently be considered for naturalization.

On 28 March 2019, the Chinese Football Association (the CFA) issued the “Provisional Regulations on Naturalized Players” (the Provisional Regulations), stipulating the rules governing the registration and transfer of players who have newly acquired the Chinese nationality or are in the process of doing so. The Provisional Regulations confirmed a general principle that possession of a Chinese passport is the only proof for Chinese nationality. Possession of other identity documents, such as a “Certificate of Acquiring the Chinese Nationality”(《中华人民共和国入籍证书》), a document issued by the PRC Ministry of Public Security to applicants who are approved to acquire the Chinese nationality, will not suffice to have the player being treated as a Chinese player for registration/transfer or competition purposes. Players who have not obtained a Chinese passport will be treated as foreign players, consistent with the long-standing practice executed by FIFA.

Under the Provisional Regulations, the employer club of naturalized players is responsible for the players’ Chinese traditional culture education. Plans must be implemented so that naturalized players can learn the Chinese language and history. The clubs are obligated to keep the CFA informed of players who consider acquiring Chinese nationality, to facilitate a centralized management. The implementation of Provisional Regulations suggests potential expansion of naturalized players program – at present, only a few Chinese Super League clubs were selected for the program try-out; with the regulation framework starting to be in place, more clubs are expected to join the initiative, and increasing number of foreign talents will probably be scouted and considered for the future Chinese national team.

The Provisional Regulations, however, did not provide guidelines to member clubs on the eligibility of potential candidates, i.e. the criteria that a foreign player must satisfy before being included in the talent naturalization program. Under the FIFA Regulations, not all players who acquired a new nationality may represent the new member association. For example, according to Article 8 of the FIFA Regulations, a player who had played a match in an official competition at “A” international level before choosing to acquire the new nationality will absolutely lose the eligibility to represent the new association. Currently under hot debate in social media, an official, clear set of guidelines pertaining to the interpretation of the FIFA Regulations will be welcomed, and indeed necessary.

Manchester City Acquires a Sichuan Sister

On 20 February 2019, the City Football Group (CFG, the parent company of Manchester City FC), Ubtech (a Shenzhen based Chinese AI and robotic humanoid company) and China Sports Capital announced the “joint purchase” of Chinese Club Sichuan Jiuniu FC, in the third-tier Chinese football league. Ferran Soriano, the CFG Chief Executive, described the news “an exciting new chapter in the growth of City Football Club” and a “natural extension” of CFG’s existing activities.2 Ubtech, a strategic partner of CFG since 2016, emphasized the agreed plan was to establish long-term, sustainable youth training system within Sichuan Jiuniu FC, with the aspiration to grow into “one of the most professional football clubs in China”.3

The shareholding structure of Sichuan Jinniu FC suggests that CFG’s role in the transaction might be more of a strategic partner rather than being an actual shareholder. Sichuan Jiuniu’s joining of CFG global network makes its players’ data accessible by all CFG teams, which enables football professionals within the CFG network to identify, acquire and nurture Chinese football talents. CFG may thus benefit from talent acquisition – and more importantly, a stronger foothold in the Chinese market.4

Further Reforms Applicable to the 2019 Chinese Super League

The Chinese Football Association (CFA) implements a series of reform applicable to the 2019 season of Chinese Super League (CSL).

Formation of the first professional team of referees.

On 23 February 2019, the CFA announced formation of its first ever professional referee team consisting of both Chinese (Ma Ning, Fu Ming and Zhang Lei) and foreign members (Mark Clattenburg and Milorad Mazic). The CFA professional referees will be officiating the 2019 CSL. Introduction of the professional referee system is intended topromote the comprehensive development of Chinese football referees” and “ensure all football leagues in China play a fair and impartial game", according to Chen Yongliang, the CFA Super League Director.5

Special funds established to incentivise more in-play match time.

Special funds have been put in place this season to encourage more net match time. Any team that achieves the 60-minute net match time target will be awarded with a trophy and RMB 100,000 ($15,000). The team that wins the “season net match biggest improvement award” and the “highest season net match time award” will be awarded with RMB one million ($150,000) and RMB two million ($300,000) respectively.6

Linking of club licensing with the quality of youth training and women’s team.

The quality of a club’s youth training system and their women’s team are considered mandatory criteria for club licensing. Under the policy, the quality of youth training will be crucial for club licensing. The Chinese Super League and China League Clubs are required to be staffed with youth training director and five-level youth team (U19, U17, U15, U14, U13); further, youth training expenses shall not be less than 10% of the annual expense of the club.7

A Notice issued by the CFA dated 3 January 2019 made it mandatory for all Chinese Super League Clubs to establish a women’s team, effective for the 2020 CSL season.8

WADA Appeals FINA Decision

On 13 March 2019, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) confirmed at a news conference of its Annual Symposium that it had filed an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) against a decision by Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA) concerning Sun Yang, a triple Olympic gold medallist.9

The FINA decision of 3 January 2019 cleared the swimmer of any anti-doping rule violation but issued a warning in relation to his allegedly rejection of an out-of-competition test last year, on the ground that testing officials failed to provide sufficient proof of identification / authorization.10 If CAS decides it has jurisdiction on the WADA appeal, the case is unsettled and the athlete’s career is hanging over a final finding by the sport’s highest deciding body.

China to Bid for the 2023 Asia Cup

On 15 March 2019, The CFA officially submitted its bid to the Asian Football Confederation for hosting the 2023 Asia Cup. The bid is considered an integral part of “Plans to Reform Chinese Football” to further promote the sport across China and encourage international exchanges. Beijing, Chengdu, Xi’An, Qingdao and Guangzhou are among the candidate hosting cities.11

The General Office of the State Council and CPC Central Committee Issue Opinions Concerning Active Promotion of Winter Sports at the Opportunity of 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics (the “Opinions”)

On 31 March 2019, the Opinions concerning active promotion of winter sports were issued by the State administrative organ at the highest level, suggesting an abundance of opportunities for entities, institutions and professionals involved in winter sports. Since winning the bid to host the 2022 Winter Games, China has been exploring different tracks to enrich its winter sports talent pool. The natural environment in most part of China is not ideal for the traditional winter sports now included in the Olympic system; and the cultural foundation is lacking. Many winter sports are thus unheard of in China, let alone actively practiced. Athletes from other traditional disciplines, such as track and field, have the option to practice winter sports in the hope of taking part in the Winter Olympics in their new capacity.

A channel of exchange has been established with the Alpine ski resorts in Germany and Austria; for Nordic sports, teams of athletes were consecutively trained in the reputed sports centers in Finland and Norway. Notably, the year of 2019 signals “Sino-Finland Year of Winter Sports”, with the aspiration to strengthen the bilateral collaboration from a sports perspective.

In our next commentary, we will analyse the Opinions in more detail and identify the various opportunities accompanying China’s winter sports development, which will be of particular interest for stakeholders such as equipment suppliers, rights holders, clubs and professionals alike.

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Guo Cai

Guo Cai

Attorney, Jin Mao Law Firm

Ms. Guo Cai oversees the LexVeritas Sports and International Law Group, Jin Mao Law Firm (People's Republic of China), the first Chinese law firm to have a practice group dedicated to the sports industry. Ms. Cai graduated from Harvard Law School and China University of Political Science and Law. She also held an LLM in Human Rights (distinction) from the University of Hong Kong. Admitted to practice in China and the US (New York), Ms. Cai specialises in international dispute resolution and sports law, growing with the Chinese sports industry and connecting international best practice with sports in China.

蔡果律师是金茂律师事务所(中国)体育产业与国际法组的负责人。 金茂律师事务所是首家投入体育产业并专设服务组的中国律师事务所。蔡果律师毕业于哈佛法学院和中国政法大学,并以第一名获得香港大学人权法硕士学位。蔡果律师具备中华人民共和国与美国纽约州执业资格,专攻国际争议解决与体育法,致力结合国际最佳标准,与中国体育产业共同成长。

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