Chinese football's woes worsen as Chongqing cease operations

BEIJING, May 24 (Reuters) - Chongqing Liangjiang Athletic withdrew from the Chinese Super League (CSL) and ceased operations because of rising debts on Tuesday, 10 days before the start of the new season.

In a notice to employees, which has been widely circulated on Chinese social media site Weibo, the club said delays in implementing a shareholding reform had led to their financial struggles and that their accounts had been frozen.

Fans were pictured leaving flowers outside the premises of the club, which in 2018 came close to signing Spanish World Cup winner Andres Iniesta and finished 13th in the last CSL season following the relegation stage.

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"After careful study by the club's shareholders meeting, we very regretfully decided to withdraw from the Chinese professional football league and disband the team," the club said.

The CSL did not immediately respond to a Reuters query asking to confirm these reports, if and when they had been informed about this by the club and if they had any comment.

The news was one of the top trending topics on Weibo, with the hashtags generating millions of reads within a few hours.

The club, which was acquired by Dangdai International Group in 2016, also highlighted the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their finances.

"At the end of 2016, Dangdai Group invested 540 million yuan ($80.99 million) to take over the club. Over the past six years, it has invested more than 3 billion yuan in total," the club said.

"However, due to the impact of the epidemic and the development model of the football industry, the club is already heavily indebted and unable to maintain its operations."

Chongqing players had shared an open letter on social media earlier this month alleging that they had not been paid wages.

"From 2019 until now, we have been subjected to the miseries caused by unpaid salaries. Our consistent, quiet and whole-hearted commitments have been rewarded by repeated lip service that failed to be realized," the letter said.

The club said it would continue to raise funds through "litigation recovery, debt collection, asset sales, and group borrowing" to pay off wages.

The news is the latest blow to Chinese football after the country relinquished the rights to next year's Asian Cup finals.

The global health crisis and China's pursuit of a zero-COVID strategy, coupled with increasing difficulties within the business sector that bankrolled many of the country's clubs, has left the game in turmoil.

Jiangsu FC's closed last year, months after they won the 2020 Chinese Super League title. read more

The CSL will begin on June 3 and is to be played in three centralised hubs.

($1 = 6.6676 Chinese yuan renminbi)

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Reporting by Martin Quin Pollard, writing by Aadi Nair; Editing by Peter Rutherford

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