After the shocking emergence of Chinese teams as genuine transfer rivals to European clubs, it seems appropriate to explore whether China has, or could become, a global football superpower.
Undoubtedly the largest signing of the Chinese transfer window was Alex Teixeira. Liverpool were not prepared to pay the asking price; instead he went to Jiangsu Suning for a fee of £38m. It is arguably telling that one of the most historically esteemed clubs in the world wanted a player but were beaten in the race by a Chinese team. This could be representative of a shift in tide, especially with the sudden surge of highly paid players that have gone to China in the last twelve months.
Highly talented players such as Ramires, Jackson Martínez and Gervinho have also made the trip east over the winter transfer window. However, these are not world-class players. Jackson Martínez struggled to find any form in La Liga after he signed for Atlético Madrid in the summer from Porto, Gervinho is inconsistent at best and Ramires, whilst undoubtedly a top player, is not the sort to get fans out of their seats. They are good players going for exorbitant prices. It remains to be seen whether the lure of the money in China would be enough to persuade football’s elite to make the journey east.
In spite of the influx of foreign talent, only a small number of clubs, Guangzhou Evergrande, Beijing Guoan and Shanghai Shenhua, fill their stadiums. Over half of top-flight stadiums have a capacity of 50,000 or more, but are often half-full. Football fans in China are far more interested in illustrious European teams such as Manchester United and Real Madrid. Whilst there are more exciting teams to watch online or on television, where the league is competitive and enthralling, fans in China have little reason to go to games where the stadiums are half-full and lacking in atmosphere, quality or excitement.
Investing heavily in a club does definitely provide results when there is a solid base to begin with, for example Manchester City went from mid-table mediocrity to challenging for the Premier League over the space of a few seasons due to the involvement of Sheikh owners. But the Premier League was already massive. It is a completely different story to attempt to bankroll an entire league. There is currently no lure of winning the Chinese top division and the Asian Champions League and Club World Cup stand in the shadow of the Champions League, the most watched sporting event in the world.
Furthermore, most of China’s emergence seems to be down to the vision of one man, the President of China, Xi Jinping. While Xi Jinping holds the presidency, it seems unlikely that money will stop being pumped into the Chinese Super League. His mandate in 2013 when he rose to power consisted of wanting to build from grassroots level through to hosting, and even winning the World Cup. As a result of this, money started being pumped into professional clubs. With Xi’s vision and financial backing, the league will grow in stature and could even become a realistic destination for the world’s best talent.
Nevertheless, eventually Xi’s term will end and it is unclear whether his successor would have the same obsession with football. If not, then the enthusiasm and support for the game that he has gained could fall very quickly.
As Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger suggested: “Will they sustain their desire to do it? Let’s remember, Japan started to do it a few years ago but slowed down. If it is a very strong political desire, we should worry.”
There has undeniably been a seed planted for the emergence of China as heavyweights in football. They are buying players with international pedigree at an alarming rate and are unlikely to slow down.
However, to brand them as a superpower now is definitely hasty, and it will surely take decades of investment rather than a few months to raise the pedigree of the Chinese league and the international competitions that they are restricted to. For now, especially with the new T.V. deal that is coming in next season, the Premier League, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich etc., stand head and shoulders above anything that the Chinese league has to offer.
Images from Time Magazine and BBC.