This year’s football season is full of surprises. It looks like lowly Leicester City might win the English Premier League, and a team from Nanjing has just outbid world-famous Liverpool for one of the game’s top players.
Yes, these are heady days for the Chinese Super League, which has just broken its transfer fee record for the third time in two weeks.
Late in January the Chelsea midfielder Ramires signed for Jiangsu Suning in an unexpectedly huge $37 million deal. A few days later Jackson Martinez, the Colombian striker, joined Guangzhou Evergrande from Atletico Madrid for $45 million. And then the record was smashed again when Brazilian midfielder Alex Teixeira also joined Jiangsu Suning from Shakhtar Donetsk for $56 million.
An even bigger bid from Jiangsu Suning for Chelsea midfielder Oscar was reportedly rebuffed. But the Chinese Super League has still spent more in the winter transfer window than clubs in the English Premier League, while teams from the division below – China League One – went on a spree as well, spending more than the top leagues in Germany and Italy.
The player exodus to the East has taken the traditional football world by surprise, with Mark Lawrenson, a television pundit in the UK, sounding particularly incredulous at Teixeira’s decision to move to Jiangsu Suning rather than five-time European champions Liverpool.
“That he’s gone there tells you everything,” the former Liverpool defender scoffed to the local press. “You can’t blame him for setting himself and his family up for life. But he must have the professional ambition of a gnat.”
The sentiment was similar in Belo Horizonte last year when Guangzhou Evergrande signed Ricardo Goulart for $17 million, one of Brazil’s best young players, for what was then China’s highest transfer fee.
“Ricardo Goulart, the biggest mercenary in Brazil,” fumed a local sports columnist, describing the Chinese team as “irrelevant”.
The sense of frustration at Corinthians, the current holders of Brazil’s league title, was more understandable after it lost four players in a month to Chinese teams at the end of last year. “China is really messing with us,” its coach complained.
In fact, Brazilians have been coming to play in Chinese football for years. But most of the biggest foreign stars coming to China have tended to be older players looking for a final payday, like Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka.
What’s different now is that the Chinese are competing with European clubs for players in the prime of their careers.
Asked whether English football should be concerned about Chinese clubs getting out their cheque books, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger agreed: “Yes, of course, because China looks to have the financial power to move the whole league of Europe to China. We know it is a consequence of economic power. Will they sustain their interest? I don’t know how deep the desire is. If the political desire is there we should worry.”
For most of the players arriving in China, the motivation is obvious: the cash. The biggest stars are being paid huge sums, such as Asamoah Gyan, a Ghanaian forward, who is reported to make $350,000 a week at Shanghai SIPG.
“You can’t take away the fact that money is the primary factor,” said Sven Goran Eriksson, Gyan’s coach in Shanghai, referring to the current influx of foreign talent.
Whether these wage levels will last over the longer term is debatable, although the league’s backers say that the commercial potential for football in China is tremendous. Average crowds are already set to overtake those in Italy and France, and interest from corporate sponsors has been flourishing, following the success of property company Evergrande’s investment in Guangzhou’s top team (see WiC289). Jiangsu Suning, for example, has had its name rebranded twice in as many years due to changes in its ownership. The Nanjing-based club’s present name has been in use for less than two months, after a takeover by retail giant Suning Commerce in December.
The upcoming season is the first in a five-year television rights deal won by China Media Capital, a state-backed investment firm, worth $1.25 billion (see WiC302; last year the rights were valued at just $9 million), and soccer ‘super agent’ Jorge Mendes has just partnered with a company controlled by Guo Guangchang, chairman of investment conglomerate Fosun (see WiC311).
The bigger picture is that Xi Jinping has made football a policy priority, with a 50-point plan that includes thousands of soccer schools and making the game compulsory for some school students (see WiC275). China’s hunger to become a more respected voice in the football world was also evident in Xi’s diplomatic tour of the UK last year, when he visited Manchester City. Two months later China Media Capital bought a 13% stake in the Manchester club’s parent firm for £265 million ($348.4 million).
In the meantime, more high-profile signings for the Chinese Super League look likely. It helps that its clubs aren’t stymied by the financial fair play rules that compel European teams to balance their books, and that they don’t have to implement wage caps similar to Major League Soccer in the United States.
“Are they overpaying? In a word – yes,” says Simon Chadwick, a professor of sports at Salford University in the UK.
But as Chadwick also told CNN: “It’s a brand positioning statement. It’s telling the world ‘we’re here and this is what we’re doing’. In terms of China’s reputation to be an important nation globally, to be good at football is a large part of that.”
Keeping track: At the start of February, the Australian football veteran Tim Cahill offered a word of caution about the teams that were spending huge amounts on transfer fees and wages in the Chinese Super League.
“When they want something they get it, and when they don’t want something they get rid of it,” he warned. “It’s like a revolving clock, you’ll see a lot of players coming in, a lot of people going.”
Cahill’s prediction has turned out to be painfully accurate – on February 16 he had his contract with Shanghai Shenhua terminated. He was about to start his second season with the club, having scored 11 goals in 28 appearances, and he had signed an extension to his playing deal last November.
“Regardless of whether my contract is being honoured and paid out in full, I would much rather have seen it out and finished what we started,” he said.
Clubs are restricted to five foreign players in their squads, with one of the five having to hold a passport belonging to an Asian Football Confederation nation. They can field three foreigners and one AFC player on the pitch at any one time.
Shenhua signed Colombia midfielder Fredy Guarin from Inter Milan last month, adding to a squad that includes another Colombian Giovanni Moreno, the Senegal striker Demba Ba and Greek defender Avraam Papadopoulos, who qualifies for the AFC slot as he holds an Australian passport.
As Cahill departs Shenhua, the Nigerian international Obafemi Martins joins the club from Major League Soccer in the United States. But the Socceroo wasn’t left on the sidelines for long. This week he signed a five-month deal with Hangzhou Greentown.
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