Does China's investment represent a permanent revolution in world football?

Asian football expert Paul Williams explains the motives behind China's enormous investment in football and what it means for the power-base of world football.

Chinese Super League

Ramires, Alex Teixeira and Jackson Martinez have all made the move to China this transfer window.

It’s been dubbed The Great Haul of China. It seems not a day goes by without the Chinese Super League luring another star to the Far East. 

While big names moving to China is nothing new - Shanghai Shenhua signed Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka in 2012, while Tim Cahill and Paulinho moved last year – we’ve never before seen anything on this scale. 

Three times in the past few weeks the Chinese transfer fee record has been broken, first with Ramires’ move from Chelsea to Jiangsu Suning for $51m, then with Jackson Martínez’s move to Guangzhou Evergrande, the move that made everyone sit up and take notice, for a cool $65m, before Jiangsu shocked the world with the capture of Liverpool target Alex Teixeira for $78m. 

Even bigger bids – a reported $117m bid from Jiangsu for Oscar and $143m bid for Hulk from Shanghai Shenhua – have been turned down.

As far as statements go the Chinese Super League has just made the biggest one possible – China is here! 

For those who haven’t been paying attention, which if we’re honest is almost everyone, this is a phenomenon that has seemingly occurred overnight. In reality, we’ve been working to this point for a number of years. 

Guangzhou Evergrande’s story is well told, taken over by the Evergrande Real Estate Group in 2010 after being forcibly relegated to China League One for their involvement in the match fixing saga that plagued the Chinese Super League in the early part of this century. 

In cutting the purse strings and buying the best domestic talent, quality foreigners such as Dario Conca, Elkeson, Muriqui, Paulinho, not to mention coaches Marcello Lippi and Luis Felipe Scolari, they set the blueprint for success. Where they have led, others are now following. 

The two Shanghai clubs – Shenhua and SIPG – have had recent changes of ownership and have invested heavily in both players and backroom staff, with SIPG, coached by Sven-Goran Eriksson, coming within a whisker of knocking Guangzhou Evergrande off their perch last year. 

They are determined to go one better this year and parted with $28.5m to snatch gun striker Elkeson from their biggest rivals. The Brazilian, who scored the winning goal in last year’s AFC Champions League final against Al Ahli, will join forces with star Ghanaian striker Asamoah Gyan, who joined Shanghai SIPG midway through last year from Al Ain, to create a fearsome strike duo. 

Jiangsu and Hebei – owned by electronics giant Suning and China Fortune Land Development respectively – are two of the latest clubs to be purchased and their new owners haven’t been shy in making their intentions known. 

Between the two they have spent close to $200m in the past month, signing Ramires, Teixeira, Trent Sainsbury, Gervinho, Stéphane Mbia, Gaël Kakuta and Ersan Gülüm. 

When Suning took ownership of the club in December last year it was reported they would make available a war chest of some $200m for coach Dan Petrescu. Their number one target? Zlatan Ibrahimovic. 

While it was mostly laughed off at the time as hubris on their behalf, no one is laughing now. Suddenly the idea of Ibrahimovic kitting up for Jiangsu doesn’t seem so far fetched. In fact, in the last 24 hours French media are reporting Shanghai Shenhua are also eyeing off a bid for the mercurial striker. 

Closer to home and Australian players are increasingly looking east, or north, with Sainsbury, Ryan McGowan, Michael Thwaite, James Troisi and Aleksandar Jovanović all moving in January, joining Tim Cahill and Matthew Spiranovic who moved to Shanghai Shenhua and Hangzhou Greentown respectively last season. 

But what does it all mean? Is this a flash in the pan, or a seismic shift in the power-base of world football? 

In reality we won’t know the answer for many years as we discover how seriously these companies take their investment in football. Are they in it for the long haul, or just for short-term notoriety? 

If we look at the leader of the pack from whom the rest take their lead, Guangzhou Evergrande, then in it for the long haul they are. 

While their $65m purchase of Jackson Martinez from Atletico Madrid dominated headlines around the world, far less is made of their significant investment in youth development. 

The Guangzhou Evergrande Football School has to be seen to be believed. With its manicured gardens and tree-lined entrance, it looks more like an Ivy League school from America. 

It’s not short on facilities either – 50 football pitches for over 2000 students, with at least 20 coaches from Spain as part of an agreement with Real Madrid. Speaking of Madrid, a campus of the Guangzhou Evergrande Football School has just opened in the Spanish city, as Guangzhou looks to extend its reach beyond China’s borders. 

With China, like almost every league across Asia except the A-League, adopting the +1 rule, in their case 4+1, for foreign players, the strength of its clubs is largely down to the domestic talent they have, which places extra importance on developing their own talent. 

“Youth training is a key to keeping a club developing sustainably,” Shanghai SIPG general manager Sui Guoyang told Yutang Sports last year. “A team’s results are directly related to the quality of players. 

“Of course a club can bring in excellent players, but it is impossible for a club to buy a whole team, therefore youth training can guarantee that the club can bring through young players through the academy.” 

The government has also developed the Chinese School Football Program and hired renowned youth development expert Tom Byer to implement its ambitious plan. 

While the worldwide focus is on the top of the pyramid, those in charge realise it means nothing without a strong base, and while it’s not as sexy and doesn’t grab as many headlines around the world, as much, if not more, work is being done at grassroots level to create a pipeline of talent that will make China a football force for years to come. 

While it has been predictably criticised, usually by ignorant souls who’ve never watched a game, the standard of play in the CSL isn’t as bad as people suggest, Guangzhou Evergrande have won two of the last three AFC Champions League titles after all. The top clubs – Guangzhou Evergrande, Shanghai SIPG, Beijing Guoan and Shandong Luneng – are as good as any team in Asia. 

With their investment this month, and likely investment in the future, expect Jiangsu Suning, Hebei China Fortune and Shanghai Shenhua to close the gap and join them at the pointy end of the table in the next 12-24 months. 

For Suning, who purchased Jiangsu Sainty for $110m in December last year, there’s no doubt owning a football club is a marketing tool, why else change the name of the club to Jiangsu Suning, but for them and others like them there are far greater motivations. 

President Xi Jinping, a self-proclaimed football fanatic, has made it a stated aim to improve the fortunes of Chinese football, hoping to one day host and win the FIFA World Cup. Lofty ambitions that require significant investment and China’s corporate giants are only to happy to help, pouring large sums into the local league, hoping to curry favour with the politicians. 

Off-field, both Evergrande and SIPG have committed to building new purpose built football stadiums, which along with their significant investment in youth academies, signals their intent to develop long term, sustainable success. 

While there is no doubt the level of spending we’ve seen this month is unsustainable in the long term, don’t expect it to slow down in the short term, especially with a new TV deal commencing this season worth around $1.7bn over five years, almost 30 times the previous deal. 

The Chinese Super League is ambitious, and historically when China sets its mind to something, they are not afraid to spend to get what they want, which really is no different to what English Premier League clubs have done over the last 15 years, plundering the leagues of Europe and South America for the best talent, paying increasingly exorbitant sums in the process. 

Chinese clubs will continue to open their wallets to prize away Europe, South America and Asia’s best talent to make the Chinese Super League one of the top leagues in the world. 

With an average attendance of 22,193 in 2015 it is already the world’s eighth most attended league, and league officials are confident of breaking through the 25,000 mark this season which would take them ahead of Serie A and Ligue 1. 

Yaya Toure, Hulk, Ibrahimovic, Oscar, Wayne Rooney, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Robin van Persie, Nani and Lukas Podolski are just some to have been linked with a move to the Chinese Super League either this transfer window or in the future, and as more players make the move, more will follow. 

Only time will tell how significant this past month has been, but significantly it is the first clear sign that the AFC’s boastful slogan is in fact correct – the future is Asia.

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9 min read
Published 7 February 2016 at 2:02pm
By Paul Wiliams