The Chinese football revolution?
Some of the world’s biggest players are heading east amid a footballing gold rush in China – but how long will it last?
We all know about the lure of the Premier League for up and coming star players, arguably the most exciting in Europe, the world’s top talents dream of a move to England or even Spain’s La Liga or Germany Bundesliga.
But now one nation in particular seems to be changing that. While the USA appears the place for star players to end their careers with the likes of Steven Gerrard, Andre Pirlo and Raul, China, has gone on a record breaking spending spree, making the world sit up and take notice.
Brazilian Alex Teixeira and Colombia’s Jackson Martinez are amongst the star foreigners on the pitch, snatched from under the noses of European football’s biggest clubs as the total spending topped some 350 million dollars.
It’s becoming clear that some of the biggest emerging names in football are choosing China over European football clubs.
So what’s made the difference? Is it here to last? Is this big spending really sustainable?
Explaining the explosion of moves to China
Jackson Martinez’s £31m transfer from Atletico Madrid to Guangzhou Evergrande captured the imagination this week as the Colombian became just the latest big-name player to switch to the Chinese Super League.
Martinez signs for Evergrande
Guangzhou Evergrande have signed Atletico Madrid striker Jackson Martinez.
There is already speculation that Chelsea captain John Terry could sign a lucrative contract in China too, having suggested that his current club will not be offering him a new deal.
Terry would be linking up with former Blues team-mate Ramires, who made a £25m move of his own to Jiangsu Suning last month.
But it’s the transfer of Martinez, a 29-year-old first-team regular at one of Europe’s strongest sides that’s the real reminder that China could soon become a haven for stars in their prime as well.
Evergrande had sold Elkeson to Shanghai SIPG prior to Martinez’s arrival and with Gervinho joining Hebei China Fortune, China has accounted for four of the five biggest transfers this winter.
Who’s in China?
Demba Ba, Tim Cahill, Gervinho, Asamoah Gyan, Paulinho, Ramires and Mohamed Sissoko are among the former Premier League players in China.
While the heavily regulated world of Major League Soccer restricts the likelihood of such excesses, there are no such obvious impediments in the way for the Chinese Super League.
It seems that the prospect of a new market emerging to compete with Europe’s biggest league is one to be taken seriously.
Chris Atkins is a Chinese football expert based in Guangzhou, as well as a player representative and registered intermediary for RWMG Sports. Here’s his take on the changes in China…
What has changed in China and why?
The government is keen to establish a more balanced economy based upon more than just manufacturing, with sports and entertainment industries seen as areas for investment. In China, companies are reliant on good relationships with the authorities and therefore are often inclined to help with initiatives seen as in the national interest.
The stars in China
Following Jackson Martinez’s record-breaking move, we look at the other stars who play in China.
What companies have also seen from the success of Guangzhou Evergrande is the amount of brand recognition that can be gained from football, allowing diversification. With many of those involved from the slowing real estate sector, that is an important benefit. The overall idea is to build a footballing product that puts China on the world map.
What’s the standard like?
The top end of the division is as good as it gets in Asia, with four or five clubs now at a pretty good standard and Guangzhou Evergrande having won the AFC Champions League twice in the past three years.
Gervinho heads to China
Former Arsenal winger Gervinho has left Roma to join Chinese Super League new boys Hebei Fortune.
Obviously the league is still far off the levels of Europe’s top leagues, but it has improved dramatically in the past five years and should continue to do so. However, the big task will be raising the standard of the Chinese players across the board with the majority of better players now at only three or four sides.
Are there a lot of clubs capable of spending big now? Which ones?
Every year the number of clubs capable of making big-money additions seems to increase as we are seeing more and more clubs taken over by big enterprises. Even the second division now is starting to see increased investment and the likes of Jadson, Luis Fabiano and Zvjezdan Misimovic will line up in that league this year.
Ramires in Chelsea exit
Ramires has completed his move to Chinese side Jiangsu Suning from Chelsea for a fee of £25m.
The top spending clubs capable of attracting top players are probably Evergrande, Shanghai SIPG, Jiangsu Suning, Hebei China Fortune, Shandong Luneng and Beijing Guoan.
How is the influx affecting your clients? Is the money going up across the board?
Pretty much. The need to spend more to stay competitive is being felt at all levels. While at the very bottom of the second division, salaries are still not increasing too much (around $200k net per year), a number of clubs who were spending those levels last year have raised their budget substantially for this season.
Is this a fad or the start of something big?
This is the key question. However, while current levels of spending may not be sustained I think the general push in the direction of sports investment will continue for some time. Much will depend on China’s economic growth in the years ahead and particularly the health of the housing market.
For the time being, expect further Chinese encroachment into European clubs and also further investment in players for the Chinese Super League.
China’s football revolution challenges the Premier League
Its economy may be faltering but China’s burgeoning football league is going from strength to strength and could soon rival the Premier League in terms of transfer spending.
China, long regarded as a footballing backwater, is now second in the 2016 spending table, above Spain and with only the mighty Premier League ahead of it, reports Sky Sports. Four of the five biggest transfer deals so far this year involve Chinese clubs – and their transfer window does not close until the end of the month.
More and more players are heading east as clubs “buy into President Xi Jinping’s dream for the country to become a heavyweight in world football”, says the Daily Mail. The Chinese leader’s ambitions have prompted a “football gold rush” among companies and businesses keen to prove their dedication to the cause.
And although the Chinese Super League used to be regarded as a lucrative retirement home for ageing stars, increasingly the players involved are of Premier League standard and still have years ahead of them.
Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka were well into their 30s when they swapped Chelsea for Shanghai in 2012, but the latest big money arrival is 29-year-old Jackson Martinez. This week, he joined Guangzhou Evergrande from Atletico Madrid for a mammoth £31.5m fee, the biggest paid this year. Significantly, he chose to move to China despite interest from clubs in Europe, including Premier League high-flyers Tottenham Hotspur.
Last month, Chelsea offloaded Ramires, 28, to Jiangsu Suning for £21m, while former Arsenal player Gervinho, also 28 and a better player than Gunners fans will remember, joined Hebei China Fortune for £13.5m.
Managers including Sven-Goran Eriksson, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Dan Petrescu are also now plying their trades in the Far East.
“China’s spending power is expected by Fifa analysts to keep rising and the clubs have the funds to sign top stars,” says The Times.
With China aiming to one day host a World Cup, the country’s wealthiest are responding to the “political signals to invest in football”, says the Financial Times. “The booming transfer market in China comes amid an influx of money into the Chinese game, driven by tycoons seeking political favours but also by genuine optimism about the prospects for football in the country as it seeks to develop sports.”
However, the influx of foreign talent could have a negative consequence, rather as it did in the US in the late 1970s.
Money that “could be spent on training young players [is] instead going into transfer fees and salaries”, says the Mail. Furthermore, President Xi only has two terms in office and unless his successor is also a football fan, China’s politically led football revolution could come to an abrupt end.
“Recent history suggests not all big-name moves end well,” warns the FT. Drogba and Anelka lasted only one season in Shanghai after joining in 2012, and left “amid reports that they were not paid the salaries promised them”.
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