Money Makes The Ball Go Round

A Song Dynasty painting by Su Hanchen, depicting Chinese children playing cuju.

IN THE HOME of capitalism, the purchase and employment of professional footballers are tightly regulated, almost socialistic. Unlike in the United States, in purportedly Communist China, the same enterprise is red in tooth and claw.

Money speaks. Loudly. And it is currently providing a siren song for a host of foreign professional players being lured to the Chinese Super League. The 16 clubs in its top division now number at least 75 foreign players between them, and the roster is swelling daily.

Alex Teixeira, a 26-year-old Brazilian midfielder, is only the latest, joining Jiangsu Suning, which bought him from  Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine for 367 million yuan ($55.8 million), a record transfer for an Asian club. The ink on the old record was barely dry: earlier in the week, Guangzhou Evergrande paid 308 million yuan for Jackson Martinez, a 29-year-old Colombia striker, who previously plied his trade for Spanish team, Atletico Madrid.

That, in turn, had broken the record set at the end of January when Brazilian Ramires moved to Jiangsu Suning from Chelsea of the English Premier League for 237 million yuan.

These are transfer fees of a size that would buy top players in Europe at the height of their careers, and there are reportedly wages to match. A host of Teixeira and Ramires’ fellow countrymen — a third of the 75 foreign players in Chinas top division are from Brazil, where they now joke that footballers have replaced commodities as the top export to China — along with Martinez and other internationals such as Ivory Coast’s Gervinho, have been vaulted into the ranks of the world’s best-paid professional footballers.

Awaiting them is a galaxy of top coaches who have between them won pretty much everything there is to win in world soccer. It includes Luiz Felipe Scolari, who coached the Brazil national team at the World Cup and is now at Chinese and Asian Champions League reigning champions Evergrande ,and Sven-Goran Eriksson, a former England coach, who is now with Shanghai SIPG.

If it is the money that is attracting such talent, the obvious question is why is so much cash being flashed now.

The short answer is that the Chinese Super League, which opens its new season next month, is on the up and up. The corruption and match-fixing scandals of recent memory are now behind it. Within a couple of years, our man among the muddied oafs tells us, the league will be drawing the third highest crowds in the world to its games, behind only Germany’s Bundesliga and the English Premier League.

But it is the long answers that are the more interesting; they involve that perennial Chinese overlap of commercial self-interest, political connections and national soft power, in this case through a ‘cultural industry’.

In October, 2014, the State Council approved a national plan to raise the sports industry’s gross output to 5 trillion yuan by 2025 — almost 16 times its value in 2012. The Chinese Football Association’s part of that is manifested in a reform plan approved a year ago, setting a goal of qualifying for the World Cup again by professionalizing the game’s bureaucratic management and promoting youth participation.

President Xi Jinping is reputedly a big soccer fan, and wants Chinese football to make its mark in the world. He understands that China has to increase its soft power along with the rise of China’s hard power. Football, which China claims to have invented (see picture above), would fit the bill.

Xi has made no secret that he would like to see FIFA’s World Cup staged in China, which would be an affirmation of the country’s global standing —  as the 2008 Beijing Olympic games were. At one point, 2036 was being talked of as the target date; now 2030 is thought to be the earliest feasible target. In the meantime, just getting the national team to qualify for the Finals is the goal.

Plenty of wealthy businessmen have stepped forward to support the cause — especially the bolstering output part — by bolstering the domestic game.

China Sports Media, a Shanghai-based cultural investment firm, outbid state-broadcaster CCTV for the broadcast rights to the Super League. This year, its 8 billion yuan five-year TV contract kicks in. Last season, the league’s domestic TV rights sold for 50 million yuan. That in itself is a marker of how fast-growing the domestic audience for the game is growing, as well as a reason that the competitive quality of the fare being served up has to be improved.

The other half of the money side of the story is that construction companies seem especially attracted to a game that needs stadiums built, which, in turn, anchor all sorts of commercial, retail and residential development. Real estate interests own 13 of the 16 teams in the Super League’s top division.

Guangzhou Evergrande is jointly owned by the eponymous real estate company and Jack Ma’s internet giant Alibaba (a smart deal for the property development group’s founder Xu Jiaxin, who paid 100 million yuan for the club in 2010 before selling half of it to Ma for 1.2 billion yuan within four years).

In the other direction, Chinese state and private investors have bought Slavia Prague in the Czech Republic and Sochaux in France. They have a stake in Atletico Madrid and are paying $400 million for a 13% stake in the Gulf-based group that owns Manchester City in England, New York City FC, Melbourne City FC and a stake in Japan’s Yokohama F. Marinos. These are all investments in which the return is learning the mechanics of professional football club management in all its commercial and sporting dimensions.

However, there is a huge divide to cross between having a richly paid foreign-star studded domestic league drawing a large TV audience and a national team capable of competing creditably against the world’s best it the World Cup, and an even greater chasm between the professional and grassroots games.

The sheer weight of population implies that the country should be capable of producing eleven men who can play football along with the best of them. Even matching the China women team’s top-20 FIFA world ranking seems far off: the Chinese men’s national team has qualified for just one World Cup finals, in 2002, and is struggling to make it to Russia in 2018.

To that end, the government has set a target of having 20,000 schools playing the sport on a weekly basis by next year as a platform for an even bigger programme. Meanwhile, Guangzhou Evergrande has built what is reputed the world’s biggest soccer academy (with a bit of help from Real Madrid), just one of thousands of academies that have been set up.

However, developing the game at the grassroots is hard and patient work. It would always be foolish to bet against the state’s capacity to mobilize the country’s youth to create world-class athletes, but in countries, like Brazil, that do it naturally, the game is deeply imbedded in the popular culture, and played from birth in the favelas, on the beaches and in the streets, with Brazilian idols as role models.

The situation of the game in China reminds this Bystander of the United States in the 1970s. The North American Soccer League (NASL) threw huge sums of money at aging South American and European stars in the hope it would kick start the game there. The League collapsed under the weight of its financial instability.

The widespread acceptance of the game as being for anything but immigrants and expatriates took generations. The United States has a globally competitive national team, Americans play in the top leagues around the world and the domestic league, Major League Soccer, is increasingly strong and stable, having learnt the lessons of the financial excesses of its predecessor, the NASL.

The lesson for China is that it was the children of those Americans who watched the NASL who started to learn football at school and college, but it was their children and grandchildren, who had grown up kicking a ball with their fathers and mothers and each other, who became good at it.

Similarly, it will be the grandchildren of those watching Teixeira, Martinez, Ramires and the rest in the Super League this season who will be pulling on their red shirts for China in the World Cup Finals — long after this current mad spending spree by the clubs has burnt out.

Update: Xi has made “hosting, qualifying for, and winning a World Cup” national goals, state media report. Control of the development of the game has been returned to the Chinese Football Association, with the Chinese Football Administrative Center, one of 21 sports departments of the General Administration of Sport, abolished.

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