Can spending billions inspire a nation of billions to become a football powerhouse?
The Chinese Super League football season kicked off on Friday, but it is evident that in just 14 years it has gone from minnow to major power in the world’s most popular sport.
Chinese clubs are offering top players as much as $730,000 (£600,000) a week, and that is leading stars to swap Europe and South America for Shanghai.
The 2017 January transfer window saw some big money moves involving the best leagues in the world. It was not as busy as the summer window, yet it would be foolish to overlook its importance in club football. Carlos Tevez, Oscar, Alexandre Pato and Alex Witsel recently signed bumper deals to make a switch to other clubs. Surprisingly, not for any of the European giants but for unknown clubs in the mysterious Chinese Super League (CSL).
“I have great respect for Juventus as they tried everything to get me. I had contacts with them going back a year, but I eventually chose to go to Tianjin. It was not an easy decision. I do not lie; the economic aspect of the deal was an important factor in my decision to go to China,” Witsel said after completing his move from Zenit St Petersburg (Russia) to Tianjin Teda (China).
If Witsel’s reason to deny a move to Juventus was bizarre, here’s what Oscar had to say about his big-money switch from Chelsea. “This happens with every player, if it wasn’t for money, I wouldn’t leave Brazil. Of course the Premier League [has a better] level of players in the world, but the Chinese guys are very good. They help the new players a lot, and I hope they continue this because I come to help.”
Tevez, who is now earning more than Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, too defended his move to China. “I’m talking seriously. Football is only about money and I don’t like it. There are so many agents with really young footballers. It’s awful as these young players are not interested in winning titles — they only want money.”
It is baffling to see players speak highly about a league which came into reckoning just a few months ago.
However, it is not for the first time that China snatched some of the top notch players from under the noses of European heavyweights. This transfer madness began when Nicolas Anelka signed for Shanghai Shenhua — China’s oldest club — where he earned £12 million a year. Didier Drogba joined his ex-Chelsea teammate soon on a reported fee of £10 million. This was just the beginning. The other clubs were not far behind.
The clubs were more interested in outspending each other instead of out-playing each other on the field. To be precise, out of the 16 CSL clubs, Shanghai SIPG, Hebei China Fortune, Jiangsu Suning, Guangzhou Evergrande, Tianjin broke the bank in the pursuit of signing big-name players from the market. The likes of Jackson Martinez, Hulk, Ramires, Alex Teixeira, Pelle have all settled in China.
There is always a mastermind behind a revolution and if there is one man to thank for reforming football in China, it is President Xi Jinping.
While other Asian countries were still drawing out a scheme, President Xi wasted no time and set out a 10-year plan which began in 2015, with an aim to maximise the Chinese sports economy to more than 500 million yuan, as reported.
As an ardent football enthusiast, he acknowledges the potential China has and wants his country to churn out players through grassroots. His plans involve setting up new football schools and pitches by 2020. The foundation has been laid for his plans to excel with enormous support from citizens. A few trips around the world gave him a fair idea of how his investments can reap rewards back in China.
Furthermore, he plans to make football the country’s national sport even though they have only appeared once at a World Cup finals. Xi is also optimistic about China qualifying, hosting and even winning the World Cup in the next 15 years.
Not only he is bold with his ideas, but he is also a smart thinker. He took the example of how hosting the 1994 World Cup changed the face of football in the United States and has started working on something similar which could soon see China among the top nations.
Apart from players and coaches, China also has a hold on several European clubs, thanks to their investors. Most teams in the CSL are backed by large companies and billionaires. Last year, CSL clubs spent £208 million in the January window, £185 million more than the amount spent by Premier League sides.
They also have broadcasting rights worth £1 billion for the next five seasons, a massive increase from the £7 million the league received from television rights in 2015.
Deloitte’s Annual Review of Football Finance, published in June 2016 reports that China’s commitment to football has triggered investments of £200 million in playing talent by CSL clubs in the 2016 January transfer window.
According to an in-depth report, Wanda, China’s largest commercial property company, has secured a 20 percent stake in Atletico Madrid. The China Media Capital (CMC) has a 13 percent stake in Manchester City, Suning owns Jiangsu and Inter Milan. As reported by The Guardian, four Midlands football clubs are already owned by Chinese investors – West Brom, Wolves, Birmingham City and Aston Villa.
Apart from the Premier League and other European leagues, the CSL faces competition primarily from the Major Soccer League (MLS) and the Hyundai A-League (Australia). The Indian Super League has failed to come up with a concrete plan so far and cannot compete on the same level as these other leagues. A handful of legendary footballers have veered to the MLS, A-League and ISL during the latter half of their careers, mainly to earn more money and promote football around the world. Unlike the other competitive leagues in Asia, the Chinese league has been praised for signing players who are still in their prime.
However, the Chinese do know that they have a mountain to climb to reach the levels produced by European clubs, but it is feasible looking at the rate CSL has progressed.
“In China it’s new. China has moved forward. It tries to promote football and I’m happy that football has become popular in China. I also expect India to come to the game too you know. I hope it will happen,” said Arsene Wenger on China’s investment in the sport.
Attracting big names
With the backing of President Xi, the Chinese want to commit everything to make this radical plan a success. This league has the potential to match the glitz and glamour of European football. Just like the players, one would have expected the likes of Manuel Pellegrini, Felipe Scolari, Felix Magath, Sven Eriksson, Gus Poyet, Andres-Villas Boas and Cannavaro to manage Europe’s elite clubs but interestingly, these top men can be now seen in the CSL.
Money does play an important role in luring such big names in football but what also makes these professionals choose such a league is the unequivocal plan – to make China a global footballing force in the future.
“The fact that Oscar has signed for Shanghai means a lot for Chinese football,” Villas-Boas told DSP magazine in Qatar, according to Reuters.
The Chinese market normally attracts star players from the age of 27 or 28. Chinese football should be grateful that we’ve been able to attract him to Shanghai,” he added after Shanghai SIPG signed Oscar for £58 million.
“I think it’s fantastic that players can decide to go to China and earn more money. In every profession, including yours — the press, people change jobs and earn more money and nothing is said, in fact, your friends congratulate you. It’s great, but when you are a footballer? You’re a traitor, a money grabber… It’s strange. I think it’s fantastic and I applaud those who do it but it’s odd the way it’s badly seen in football,” Barcelona coach Luis Enrique was quoted as saying in FourFourTwo magazine.
It makes sense that players should have the freedom to choose to earn more money, be it in China or Russia, but it raises the question about their growth in such leagues.
A step forward?
Amid all the criticism, some of the big names have benefited from CSL. Renato Augusto, Paulinho, Burak Yimaz, Hulk and Graziano Pelle have dribbled their way into their national sides respectively ahead of well-known players. It is also evident that the foreign players are equally engrossed in the project to build something extraordinary. Now that the influx of big name players has increased, the CSL could turn out to be more competitive with more international players fighting for their place.
Despite all their heavy spending, China is yet to flourish on the international stage. China is ranked 81st in the current FIFA rankings and need to do more than just splurging fervently on players. Out of their last seven games, the Chinese national team did not register a single win (four losses, three draws). The focal point for Xi remains to turn the Chinese national team into a menacing force.
Will China become a powerhouse, given the amount of money they are spending? Will CSL deliver after drawing out a radical plan? For many, it is just a matter of time, while the rest believe it depends on the execution. These are just the early days and with a population of 1.3 billion, the bet is China’s to lose.
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