Can China upset football’s balance of power.
When you think of China, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Possibly The Great Wall, a structure so large it can be seen from space (it can’t). Likely.
The world’s largest population? Yes perhaps.
A footballing superpower? Not even if I asked you 1.2 Billion times. However in recent years, China’s Super League has become a haven for footballers from around the world.
During the transfer window in the Chinese Super League from 1st January to 26th of February the likes of Jackson Martinez, Gervinho, Stephane Mbia, Ramires, Alex Teixeira, Fredy Gaurin and Luis Fabiano have all made to switch to the Far East.
Spending for Chinese clubs topped €250 million. A quite staggering fee which surpassed the outlay of Premier League clubs during the January Transfer window. Once a land seen as somewhat of a football graveyard where the likes of Eidur Gudjohnsen and Marlon Harewood had previously trod the path before the big investment came in.
Xi Jinping, the President of China, announced plans to build a domestic sport economy worth €760 Billion by the year 2025. The key ambition in these plans is to not only host the World Cup but also to win it. The fact that they are currently quoted at odds of 1000/1, along with other sporting behemoths like San Marino and Burkina Faso, shows how lofty the ambitions by the country’s President are.
Although the potential for massive growth in China and the rest of Asia has been identified by European Clubs since the launch of the Premier League. Almost every Premier League Club spent pre season racking up the air miles travelling to the untapped market of Asia.
According to Kantar, an online poll taking company, Man United claims to have 108million fans in China alone. If 1% of those followers bought a jersey at €60 it’s about €64,800,000 in additional revenue. Every one of those figures is quite conservative; I don’t remember the last time I seen a jersey for €60.
Of course the driving force behind the explosion of football in China is money; plain and simple. Alex Teixeira’s supposed wages of £192,000 a week is testament to this. No other club could or would match those figures for a 26 year old without an International cap. With the growth of the game, the sponsorship money has also skyrocketed.
The main sponsorship for the Super League went from €5million in 2008 by Kingway Beers to the newest deal by Ping An Insurance worth €20million last season. Still not as much as Barclays €52 million it paid to sponsor the current season of the Premier League but that growth cannot be ignored.
With such a following of European based football in China, it’s easy to see the logic behind the transfer tactics of the likes of Guangzhou Evergrande and Shanghai Shenhua. Do tens of millions of people watch Ramires play for Chelsea every week? Yes? Then bring Ramires to China and get those supporters into your stadium.
Attendances in the Chinese Super League have been steadily increasing. In 2010 the leagues average attendance was 14,581; last year it was over 22,000. 2015’s Champions, Guangzhou Evergrande, had an average attendance themselves of 45,889; higher than all but 4 Premier League’s clubs attendances in 2014/2015.
The current evolution that Chinese Football is going though is, obviously, unsustainable. There are shades of the infamous North American Soccer League to be seen in their model. The failed predecessor to today’s MLS that seen the likes of George Best, Pele and Johan Cruyff all move to America to collect a pension while dancing anyone players that were nowhere near their standard. The difference between the two is that China has plans……big plans.
To encourage the development of the next generation the Chinese Super League has restrictions in place limiting 4 slots for foreign players in a squad. There are also youth leagues for the U-15, U-17 and U-19 age brackets, as well as a reserve league run throughout the countries top 3 divisions.
Their current U-19’s squad have 6 members plying their trade in Europe. They have also reached the Quarter Finals of the U-19 AFC Championship 4 of the last 5 years. There may be only one member of China’s full internationals currently playing outside of the country (Zhang Chengdong of Rayo Vallecano), but expect that to change sooner rather than later .
Be assured that the expectations put on Chinese Football may be quite hasty but be under no illusions; China will soon become a force to be reckoned with in world football.
Joe Gleeson, Pundit Arena