Last February, the Chinese Super League’s (CSL) transfer record was broken three times in just 10 days, by the three biggest deals of the winter transfer window. For the country with the highest population and the second-richest economy in the world this may not come as a surprise. But the transfers sent shock waves through the global football community—where, at 81, China is currently ranked between the minnows of Cyprus and Jordan.
It appears that the European super clubs now have competition, but for followers of Chinese football, this acceleration onto the world stage may not come as such a surprise.
In July 2013, Thailand beat the Chinese men’s national team 5-1. Not only was the defeat humiliating because it was dealt out by local rivals on home soil, but also because of where the two teams sat in the world rankings at the time—China in 100th and Thailand a lowly 38 positions below.
This loss is seen as the turning point in the nation’s footballing ambitions. Ever since there has been a surge in interest to propel China to the top table in world football; led in part by self-confessed football obsessive President Xi Jinping. In March 2015 the State Council set out a 50-point reform plan to turn the national teams into world-beaters, with goals of hosting the 2030 World Cup and winning the competition by 2050.
This has been followed by some serious investments from Chinese tycoons—who either share this ambition or, more likely, want to curry political favor—in the form of record-breaking player transfers, the propping up of clubs financially and a five-year broadcasting deal for the CSL worth $1.2 billion; an increase of 15,900% on the previous contract.
A FALSE DAWN?
In the past, this injection of money would have signaled a flood of past-their-prime European-based stars to the CSL; attracted by the thought of one last bumper paycheck. The CSL hasn’t been immune to such transfers, with Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka both joining Shanghai Shenhua for a short time back in 2012.
There appears to be something different about the latest crop of arrivals in the Chinese league though. ‘The new signings are a bit younger generally. They’re still in most cases playing in their prime, and they are all players who could have [gone] to play at big European clubs,’ explains Cameron Wilson, founder and editor of the Chinese football website Wild East Football. The record transfer holder, the $56 million Alex Teixeira, is a regular in the Brazil squad and was lining up for Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk in Europe’s premier competition, the Champions League, last season.
China’s leading football agent, Romain Woo, summed up the current situation in an interview with the BBC: ‘We have a saying that the only two players who are not coming to China right now are Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi,’ he said. ‘The other names? It’s all highly possible. I know most of the big agents in Europe and they are all trying to push their clients to China right now if they’re not having a good time in Europe.’ But how does this investment in top talent help China in its ambitions to be world-beaters by 2050?
In short, it doesn’t. ‘Of course it has an effect on the overall skill level of the league—it becomes a better standard overall,’ adds Wilson. ‘But it has a disadvantage as well because the players that the clubs sign tend to be creative players, and that means that there are much fewer opportunities for Chinese domestic players. Chinese strikers are an endangered species because of all this.’
As seen in other countries where big-money transfers have announced the league on a worldwide stage, a club splashing the cash on a marquee signing has no direct impact on the international side—since David Beckham started the flood of players to Major League Soccer (MLS) in 2007, the US national team have actually fared worse at World Cups than pre-Beckham.
Scratch beneath the surface, though, and as well as the headline-grabbing investments in foreign stars, there are foundations being laid that, if fulfilled, will help China compete with the best in years to come.
THE CHINESE FOOTBALL REVOLUTION
As part of the 50-point reform plan, there are calls for $850 billion worth of expenditure on development programs over the next decade, including the creation of 50,000 soccer schools. And Mark Dreyer of China Sports Insider believes that China has a better chance of achieving its aims than almost any other country in the world.
‘It really is turbocharged in all respects,’ he said. ‘China could do it because of how the country is governed. The government can say ‘Right, we are going to do this,’ and it will happen. You can already see it a year on from the 50-point plan where there is a lot of movement in the private sector. The state side of things will take a bit longer to get itself in gear.’
Dreyer did highlight an issue with the long-term aims of President Xi’s plans though: ‘If Xi serves his two terms, he will be long gone by 2050 or 2030 even, so what happens if the next president comes in and thinks that football is a waste of time? Or five years down the line, nothing has changed in terms of FIFA rankings, which to be honest it shouldn’t have done because it’s a 20-year plan. The issue could be that they will revert to type and what they know—as seen with their success at more niche, individual sports at the Olympic Games—but there are so many reasons why this previous model of success cannot be translated to football.’
WATCH THIS SPACE
There are likely to be many high-profile names moving to the CSL this summer, with the financial clout of the clubs allowing them to match the aims and deep pockets of Europe’s top clubs – helped in no small part by the reverse investment of Chinese consortiums in clubs like AC Milan. But to really track China’s development on the international stage, and the progress of Xi’s 50-point reform plan, it is best to ignore the transfer window’s cavalcade.
Instead, according to Wilson, it is best focus on other indicators. ‘It’s going to take a generation to change things in order to make the plan happen, so the sign of it working will be when China qualifies for a youth cup, such as the Under-17 World Cup, or when there is a Chinese player in a European league.’ If China’s general bucking of the norm is anything to go by, though, this ‘generation’ could arrive sooner than predicted.
What do you think of China’s chances of upping its game? Let us know at #momentumtravel