Going Gaga in Guangzhou?

How one of China’s richest men wants to transform Chinese football

Going Gaga in Guangzhou?

Guangzhou Evergrande: back in the top division thanks to Xu Jiayin’s chequebook

Forget the football. The big question is whether Lady Gaga will show up.

The speculation surrounding tomorrow’s opening ceremony of the new Chinese Super League may not impress the soccer purists. But at least it is getting the event into the headlines. If the media coverage is to be believed this year’s ceremony will launch with the sort of razzmatazz usually associated with the Superbowl. Whether Gaga shows her poker face or not, 7.30pm at the Guangzhou Tianhe stadium is the place to be.

In large part that’s down to a budget far in excess of prior years, and for this fans can thank Xu Jiayin, a property mogul who is paying for the ceremony. That, of course, is small change for Xu: Forbes recently named him the seventh wealthiest tycoon in China, with a net worth of $5.1 billion.

Xu is the boss of Evergrande, a Hong Kong-listed property developer whose sales last year reached Rmb52.7 billion – making it one of China’s most successful real estate players. And having made his mark in business, Xu now has his eye on sport. The owner of Guangzhou Evergrande FC is hoping not only to attain success for his club, but also to turn around the fortunes of Chinese football itself.

A brave man. Over the past 100 issues WiC readers will recall our regular updates on the nation’s footballing malaise (see WiC31, as just one example). Accusations of bent referees, match-fixing and widespread illegal gambling ended in a spate of arrests last year. Even so, badly-behaved players have still shocked an increasingly cynical TV audience with their foul play and on-pitch brawling.

And the national team itself? More of a national joke, given its repeat failures to qualify for the World Cup. Cumulatively, it means that football’s image in China is less of a ‘beautiful game’, and more an embarrassing one. Which is perhaps why Xu is footing the bill for such a grand opening ceremony, as a symbolic press of the reset button. He must be hoping that Chinese football can make a fresh start.

In fact, Xu has personal experience of China’s soccer badlands. The club he bought was at the heart of a match-rigging scandal that led to teams being demoted. Alongside the Chengdu Blades, Xu’s team (then called Guangzhou Pharmaceutical) had been caught working with gambling syndicates to fix matches. Both were demoted from the Super League to the First Division.

Guangzhou then lost its sponsor and its future looked precarious, with attendances set to plummet. But just over a year ago, Xu stepped in and bought the club for Rmb100 million.

Much like Roman Abramovich, the oil tycoon who bought Chelsea in 2003, Xu knew success would only come if he bought top players. He signed China’s national captain, Zheng Zhi from Scottish club Celtic, and spent $13 million on five foreign players (four from Brazil and one from South Korea).

That spending spree was enough to see Guangzhou Evergrande jump straight back into the Super League, as First Division champions last October. And the team’s coach told Soccer News that the ambition this year is to win the Super League too. To bolster its chances, Evergrande this month bought another Brazilian, the midfielder Renato Adriano Jaco Morais – at a price tag of $2.25 million reports the Beijing News.

So it seems league position, rather than the bookie’s odds, is the statistic now being focused on at Guangzhou’s Tianhe stadium. While money may have corrupted Chinese football, it may also be the answer to some of its problems. Xu’s cash, after all, looks to have incentivised the team and got it playing well again. And this year he’s promising Rmb500 million for wages, bonuses and other running costs. As CRI Online puts it: in its financial commitments “Evergrande has broken almost all the records in China’s professional football leagues.”

The phoenix-like rebirth of Guangzhou contrasts strongly with the plight of another disgraced club Qingdao Halifeng.

Halifeng was involved in one of WiC’s favourite match-fixing moments – a comically-inept affair that saw one Qingdao player attempt a last-minute lob of his own goalkeeper from the half-way line. (He missed).

In fact, it was another rigged match that led to the club’s downfall, a 2-0 defeat in 2007 (for a relatively paltry fee of Rmb500,000). That led to the ultimate punishment: Halifeng was disqualified from any further involvement in Chinese soccer by the national Football Association.

The players must now be regretting their actions. Chengdu Business Daily notes that most of them are now unemployed and that “Halifeng’s name has almost completely disappeared from Qingdao”.

At least they’ll have time to tune in for Lady Gaga…

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