Founded in 2004, the Chinese Super League consists of 16 teams; Guizhou Zhicheng, Liaoning F.C., Jiangsu Suning, Beijing Guo’an, and Guangzhou R&F make up just five of these clubs of which little is known outside the Middle Kingdom. Whilst they are hardly well known, established footballing names, the Chinese Super League (CSL) is perhaps currently the richest footballing league in the world. A recent explosion of spending power reaching mind-numbing proportions is putting the CSL firmly on the map, and big name players more than ever are starting to turn their attention to Chinese cash.
China’s love affair with football is relatively new. In 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping made it a national sporting priority to develop the beautiful game and tasked officials with finding ways of improving the quality of the sport in the communist state. Xi, himself a big football fan perhaps prematurely expressed his desire for China to win a World Cup title within the next 15 years. His personal involvement seems to have galvanized the footballing authorities, and the Chinese Football Federation (CFA) recently published an ambitious report outlining that by 2050, China should be "a first-class football superpower" that "contributes to the international football world."
Reality suggests, however that footballing success is a long way off. China currently ranks number 83 in the FIFA world rankings, just below the Caribbean island nation of Antigua, and one position above the Faroe Islands. Furthermore, a recent 1-0 home loss to Syria – a country understandably preoccupied with other things than putting out a football team – prompted fans to take to the streets to demand the removal of the head coach, Gao Hongbo. China’s performance in their only World Cup outing in 2002 was equally as underwhelming with the team losing all three group games without a goal scored. Rampant corruption further hinders the development of the sport, whilst playing facilities and footballing academies are still considered a luxury only available to a middle class urban elite.
Foreign stars turning up on Chinese shores to play their trade is hardly a new phenomenon. Former England legend Paul Gascoigne played four games for the now defunct Gansu Tianma towards the end of his career, whilst former Germany international striker Carsten Jancker played for Shanghai Shenghua for a season in 2006. However, only in the last few years have other footballing nations started to worry about Chinese teams using their seemingly endless spending power to pick up the best players in their peak years from the top leagues.
This worry was highlighted earlier in the week by the Chelsea and former Italy manager, Antonio Conte who admitted that the sale of one of his star players to Shanghai SIPG was a “danger [...] for all the teams in the world”. The £60 million (US$75 million) sale of 25 year old Brazil international Oscar highlights not only the Chinese drive to attract the world’s best players, but also the insane economics behind such deals. Hardly underpaid for his talents currently earning around £100,000 per week, a move to China would give the midfield playmaker a hefty pay rise at £350,000 per week after tax, a wage packet only the new found riches of the CSL can realistically afford to pay. Oscar isn’t the first to be attracted to China. Graziano Pelle formerly of Southampton is said to be one of the highest paid players on the planet, whilst Alex Texeira, and Jackson Martinez are two other big names players to have recently made the move.
Such concerns, however, may prove unfounded. Football is a sport driven by emotion and passion as much as economic might, and China simply can’t replicate the romance of the game which dictates day-to-day life in the great European footballing cities of Lisbon, Liverpool, Madrid, Munich, Milan, Manchester, Barcelona, and Rotterdam. No amount of Chinese cash can buy a footballing history and culture as rich as what’s on offer mainly in Europe, but also in the Brazilian, and even Mexican domestic leagues. Even fans of this author’s beloved Newcastle United – an English club starved of success for decades – find solace in the rich history of the club which was founded in 1892, when China was still ruled by the Qing Dynasty. This kind of organic and unique fan culture is missing in China, where you’re more likely to hear both the young and older generations talk with great zeal about their “beloved” AC Milan, rather than, say Chongqing Lifan.
Before adding noughts to the contracts of footballing superstars from foreign leagues, China would be better off adopting a “bottom-up” approach: pumping money into its academies and making football a sport truly accessible for the masses to partake in.
The Chinese Football Association has only 7,000 registered players under the age of 18 (equivalent to 1.4 percent of those in neighboring Japan), whereas approximately 300 million Chinese children regularly choose to play basketball instead. Creating a footballing powerhouse is as much about creating opportunity and honing existing talent as it is creating a league of hastily-assembled, overpriced vanity projects on steroids. Rather, China should look inwards for its future success. For example, how many footballing academies could be funded by the wages on offer to Oscar at Shanghai? When it comes to the beautiful game, the Chinese demonstrate only that they know the cost of everything, but the value of nothing.
Simply, Chinese cash alone is not enough to buy footballing success for a whole nation, no matter how much Yuan is thrown at it. Thus, Conte’s worries seem somewhat premature. The most talented players will not leave the best leagues in the world to play in a distant, polluted Chinese second-tier mega city. Professional ambition and the will to win meaningful trophies will always appeal more to the world’s best than adding a few million to their bank accounts.
Editor: Edward White