Earlier this week, while most were focusing on the end of the English transfer window, a seismic statement of intent was sent to the rest of the world when the Chinese record spending on a single signing was broken an unbelievable three times in 10 days. This began last week, when Ramires joined Jiangsu Suning from current EPL champions Chelsea for a hefty £25 million, followed by Jackson Martinez moving to Guangzhou Evergrande for £31 million. The spending culminated in the £38.4 million paid for the services of Alex Teixeira by Jiangsu Suning again, willing to pay more than world-famous Liverpool to get his signature. So is the Chinese league ready to be taken seriously on the world stage? And how does it compare to the steady rise of the MLS in America?
We have to travel back through Chinese football history to discover the core behind the mass spending of China’s big city sides in the modern day. Founded in 1987, the semi-professional Jia-A League was a modest, inferior sporting competition in such a large country to widely practiced sports such as athletics, swimming or table tennis. Football was yet to be supported or promoted by the government, who along with the majority of the population didn’t care for the western devised sport (even though the Chinese FA now claim their country were the first to invent an early version of football). By 1994, though, the national FA had imposed rulings for all Jia-A League sides to have turned professional, contracting all their players, and becoming owned by large state-backed or privately owned businesses.
Despite this move, for a number of years following no real big-name players were attracted to China, as wages could not compete with the tens of thousands of pounds a week in Europe. So in 2004, the Chinese Jia-A League reformed and rebranded as the Chinese Super League. It started with 12 professional sides and few foreign players, but with the ambition to attract world-class talent in both players and managers, expand sponsorship opportunities and create high standard facilities across the country’s biggest urban areas. In the six years following the establishment of the league, there were hardly any trees being torn up in world football, with only the merging, promotions and relegations of a few sides to speak of.
In 2011, though, a new breed of big names was swiftly brought in to repair the reputation of the league after a match-fixing scandal, with three vice-presidents arrested. Didier Drogba and Nicholas Anelka were both brought in by Shanghai Shenhua in 2012, infamous Nigerian Yakubu was signed by Guangzhou R&F and former Italy manager Marcello Lippi took charge of Guangzhou Evergrande. These were all signals of intent to drag ever-increasing Chinese viewers of European leagues back into their own country’s football. In the election of President Xi Jinping in China in 2013, Chinese football found a supreme advocate for the expansion of the game in their nation. Jinping is well known for his love and support of the game, even visiting Manchester City on his official tour of Britain last year. Attendances of games have increased since he assumed office, league sponsorship money increased from ￥65 million to ￥150 million per season and the dominance of foreign players has spanned even further, with much younger and valuable European or South American players.
It is obvious to any economist (I do not claim to be one in any way) that the sporting markets, such as those in football, are definitely widened by economic success. This begs the question why China and the USA haven’t had more success in terms of worldwide significance in football. Quite simply, their national psyche and culture hasn’t yet been significantly impacted by British and European football tradition anywhere near as much as South America, Africa or Australia. Because the USA and China were never successfully invaded by any foreign navies, they never became exposed to our minor continental culture points such as sport, whereas most other continents were impacted, proven by South America’s continual success in the World Cup. They have been the only continent to actually disrupt Europe’s domination of the tournament, mostly as a result of clubs set up by Spanish, British and Irish migrants across Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, such as Corinthians or Newell’s Old Boys (Lionel Messi’s first club).
This is where the eternal optimists at the forefront of the founding of the MLS and the Chinese Super League come in. They have seen the financial success of European football, and want to buy into that vision, proving the doubters wrong. And there have certainly been a lot of doubters. But it is the talent they have managed to convince to support their efforts that have really made the difference. Just look at the example of David Beckham, who has been a part of the rise in both the USA as a player and future owner, and in China as a national football ambassador, a position he has held since 2013. Back in 2007, Beckham joined LA Galaxy, creating a massive shock when he announced the news six months before, when still at Real Madrid, as he was arguably one of the top three most famous footballers at the time. He earned $6.5 million a year for his troubles at Galaxy, bringing mass media attention to the previously ignored MLS, turning the world spotlight on it overnight.
This is how the league officials were, and still are, very tactically astute, as they use their fledgling status to attract big names with large pay packages. It’s a simple business initiative; invest highly in the beginning to establish a bedrock profit, then capitalise on it by persuading current customers to invite their friends; build it and they will come. This worked with the MLS, with Beckham followed by Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill and Robbie Keane. This has been followed by New York City FC, arguably a retirement home for spent talent or a super club on a small scale, having signed David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard as their ‘Designated Players’ in the last few years. These clubs certainly generate plenty of income for up-and-coming brands, but some may argue they disturb the development of local talent. In the MLS, some clubs in fact opt out of blowing their budgets, which could be used on academy facilities, on pricey foreign players. For example, Philadelphia Union’s only Designated player, Maurice Edu, who is only on such a contract because he has played in Europe before, has represented the US national side in the past. In addition, D.C United and Columbus Crew also use only one spot, for lesser-known, higher-skilled South American players, compared to New York or LA Galaxy who shell out millions for superstars.
But the MLS, and the Chinese Super League, are contentious leagues for many across the world. From my perspective, the thing I can deal with are the MLS players, such as Lampard or Steven Gerrard, who are clearly there for the low-intensity matches and positive career-prolonging move for them at an old age. What I can’t take are the highly-paid, self-motivated agents convincing quality players such as Ramires, Paulinho and Jackson Martinez (even Demba Ba, Fredy Guarin, Gervinho and Asamoah Gyan) to leave Europe where they can play at the top of their game and create a legacy. Instead, they follow the astronomical fees of Chinese football, funded by state-backed billionaires, leeching on wages around or above the £227,000 a week earned by Gyan at Shanghai SIPG. This is why agents get such a bad reputation in football, and often prove they deserve it. If that is the way they want to play football, let them see how far it will take them, because eventually someone will stand up for what is right. Football is not meant to be a money game, and we have to maintain that belief for the good of the sport.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!