The Chinese Football Revolution – What’s Going On?
It’s a craze that has recently seen José Mourinho and his agent pictured in Shanghai against a backdrop of eye-catching transfer deals and mouth-watering wage packets, so just what is going on in the Chinese Super League?
It started in late January when seemingly out of the blue, Chelsea agreed the transfer of Brazilian midfielder Ramires, who joined Dan Petrescu’s Jiangsu Suning for a fee of £25m. The floodgates were open.
In early February, Atlético Madrid forward and Colombian international Jackson Martinez joined the Luiz Felipe Scolari led Guangzhou Evergrande for a whopping £31m. But even that was trumped days later, when Jiangsu Suning re-entered the market, forking out a staggering £40m for Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder and Liverpool target Alex Teixeira.
Now, it’s Argentine Ezequiel Levezzi who has shunned the prying eyes of Europe’s top clubs to set sail for the Far East, joining the aptly named Hebei China Fortune.
It will come as a shock to no-one that the wages being offered by the clubs in the Chinese Super League is one of the main reasons behind the recent flurry of transfer activity in China.
Guangzhou Evergrande, part-owned by the Chinese billionaire Wang Jianlin, are reportedly paying Jackson Martinez anything up to £200,000 a week, while Levezzi’s rumoured wage packet of £400,000 for 7 days work puts him in the same conversation as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo when it comes to comparing weekly pay slips.
But there’s more than jaw dropping cheques and sign on fees behind the wave of Chinese influence starting to make its mark on world football.
Indeed, the recent trend has its roots in the heart of the Chinese state. A Chinese football expert recently told Sky Sports that the Chinese Government wishes to “establish a more balanced economy based upon more than just manufacturing, with sports and entertainment industries seen as areas for investment.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping, a renowned football fan, has put the sport at the heart of his policy with significant investments, task forces and participation schemes all designed to help grow the game in China and reach a stage where their national side can mix it with Brazil, Argentina and the best Europe has to offer on the international stage.
Football has even become a compulsory part of the national curriculum in China, with the President on record as aiming to host, and win, a World Cup.
Cycnics will say he’s using football as a vehicle by which the he can broaden his political appeal and peddle a popular social image. Regardless, the effects of his plans cannot be underestimated.
Growth of the Chinese Super League has inevitably been at the forefront of football’s emerging superpower and it’s only now starting to exercise its financial muscle. It has begun a pattern that has seen several household names take up employment in the Far East.
Demba Ba and Asamoah Gyan both play in Shanghai, Paulinho and Gervinho face off in Guangzhou Evergrande v Hebei China Fortune not the North London derby, while Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka both dipped their toes in the Chinese Super League before moving on. Sven-Göran Eriksson joins Scolari and Petrescu on the list of bosses plying their trade in China’s top league and already known by a wider football audience.
The exodus has sparked some panic in European football circles as concerns surface of a drain of European talent to China. Arsène Wenger recently championed such concern, pointing to China’s financial power:
They could move a whole league of Europe to China. If this is a very strong political desire, we should worry.
But it need not be all threat and suspicion for followers of European football. Importantly, the rise in profile of the game in China is aimed unquestionably at improving the fortunes of their own national team. Guangzhou Evergrande owner Xu Jiayin told the Financial Times his long term strategy is to have his team using “only domestic players in 10 years, making them stars in China, Asia and the world.”
Emphasis on nurturing homegrown talent is further highlighted by the imposition of a foreigners rule for Super League teams, limiting them to fielding 4 foreign players at any one time.
With only 16 teams making up China’s top division, it makes no room for the ‘whole league’ of European footballers that Wenger fears could migrate. It’s a policy that may be a factor in Tim Cahill’s release by Shanghai Shenhua this week, after the ex Everton man bemoaned the league as “a revolving door with a lot of players coming and going.” Obafemi Martins joined the club in the same week.
John Terry may be soon be adding his name to the list of migrators and even bigger names are likely to hop on the bandwagon in transfer windows ahead, but it also won’t be long before there’s a full house of world stars cashing in on the Chinese hysteria. That’ll leave the rest to awaiting a vacancy, or seeking their fortunes elsewhere.
Chinese football meanwhile looks set to continue to benefit from the steady influx of star names, but their long term strategy remains to grow their own. And soon they could be muscling in at the top table of world football superpowers.