Chinese football revolution swinging the balance of power away from Europe
Published 07/02/2016 | 02:30
A mildly bemused Jackson Martinez being paraded before the cameras at Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao following his €42m move from Atletico Madrid, part-owned by Chinese billionaire Wang Jianlin. A gurning Sergio Aguero squeezing between David Cameron and Chinese president Xi Jingping for a selfie on a tour of Manchester City's training ground that presaged a €345m investment in the club.
The graph that shows the €50m spent by Jiangsu Suning on Brazilian midfielder Alex Teixeira, breaking the transfer record for the third time in 10 days and sending total investment by the Chinese Super League soaring past that of the Premier League, in a transfer window that does not close until the end of the month.
Each of these snapshots opened a window into a Chinese football revolution that is only just beginning and has an uncertain destination. Chinese investment funds are targeting stakes in European clubs, from City to Atletico and Slavia Prague, while media and technology companies pour cash into building a sports economy and strengthening a domestic league until recently riddled with corruption and controversy.
Even more telling than the sums spent on players, which also include Suning's £25m outlay on Chelsea's Ramires, is that the game's so-called super-agents are all making tracks for China. In surely the biggest bellwether, Jorge Mendes has recently been pictured alongside his client Jose Mourinho in China to mark a new partnership with Foyo Culture, a company controlled by Guo Guangchang, the chairman of investment conglomerate Fosun.
Guangchang spoke of helping to build Cristiano Ronaldo's popularity in China and, as surely as bees to nectar, Mendes will be plotting the transfer of more of his charges to China. Foyo took a stake in his agency, Gestifute, last year.
Meanwhile, Pini Zahavi and Mino Raiola, agent to Zlatan Ibrahimovic and others, are also understood to have set their sights on the riches on offer in the east. Although buoyed by their new £8.3bn TV deal, Premier League clubs and even the big two in Spain may soon struggle to compete financially.
"Football fans of the world are saying, 'How did this happen?'," says Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at the Centre for Sports Business at Salford University, who has been charting the rapid rise of the Chinese football industry. "In many ways, it's no surprise at all. Football development is following the same model as Chinese industrial sectors. They have acquired foreign companies and foreign labour to upskill local labour."
Xi fired the starting gun on this startling spree last year, declaring his intention to turn China into a "soccer powerhouse", uncoupling the game's administration from central government and unveiling a 50-point plan that will ultimately lead to China not only hosting the World Cup, but winning it.
"Revitalising soccer is a must to build China into a sports powerhouse as part of the Chinese dream. It is also what the people desire," said the central reform group, led by Xi, who has targeted improving the sport economy as a key priority, even against the backdrop of recent market turmoil. The investment planned is a mind-boggling $850bn in the next decade.
Zhang Dazhong, chief executive of China's biggest e-commerce firm, Alibaba, last year launched a sports offshoot called Alisports and told the South China Morning Post that the financial target would be reached easily. "These players going to China is about building a fan culture, they will improve the level of competence," says Chadwick.
"What is also interesting is what the Chinese government and the provincial authorities are trying to do is to build sport campuses in all the major cities. The Chinese like the Manchester City model, with the Etihad campus and so on. It's no surprise that's where they've chosen to invest."
Investments in European clubs are as much a fact-finding exercise as a financial investment and will no doubt lead to more cultural differences, such as sponsor Ledman rapidly backtracking on plans to force teams in Portugal's second tier to include Chinese players in their starting line-ups.
The vast spending sprees of oil and gas-rich Gulf states such as Qatar to invest rapidly in sport at home and abroad, and the up-and-down efforts to grow the MLS in the US offer different lessons in the difficulty of moulding fan culture and building a quality product - some more relevant than others.
This is no standing start: Evergrande and Beijing Guoan attract average crowds of more than 40,000 and the former won the Asian Champions League in 2015. Into this heady brew, Premier League clubs and other European leagues are also trying to build their audience - with Serie A in particular enjoying a historical advantage following a rare misstep by the English top flight in initially limiting itself to pay TV.
For many years, basketball was seen to have stolen a march on football, with the NBA investing huge sums in promoting the sport and courts springing up across the country, but all that money has not produced a successor to Yao Ming, the NBA superstar who retired in 2011. Producing its own domestic heroes will be vital to the success of Chinese football.
Investors are also being urged to put money into building networks of coaching academies across the vast country, turbocharging investment in facilities and coaching. The plan also ties in with wider societal aims and, perhaps belated, concerns that driving Chinese teenagers to ever greater academic heights is taking its toll on their mental health.
Where president Xi leads, China's peculiar form of state capitalism follows - with investment funds now poised to spend billions into a new assault on the world's most popular sport. No sooner had Jianlin taken a strategic slice of Atletico Madrid than his company was buying the TV rights agency Infront, owned by Sepp Blatter's nephew, Philippe.
Then, as if by magic, he was appearing alongside Blatter in Zurich as he was re-elected to the Fifa presidency in May before his dramatic fall. While there is talk of reintroducing a continental rotation system to World Cup bidding, which would mitigate against China following a Qatar World Cup in 2022, it would be folly to underestimate the ability of Chinese commerce and diplomacy to alter that.
As outlined by the set text on the troubled growth of Chinese football, Bamboo Goalposts by Rowan Simons, China's politics and culture have traditionally mitigated against team sports. In a country where gatherings of more than 10 people were expressly forbidden, forming a football pyramid from the ground up was impossible.
Xi's masterplan aims to change all that, shifting the focus from racking up Olympic medals to improving the national football team's abject record, and this eye-catching splurge on players is just the start. The chaos and confusion that led Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba to beat a hasty retreat in recent years might soon be a thing of the past, given the longer-term strategy apparently underpinning the latest charge, but, as Chadwick says, it is unlikely to bear fruit overnight.
"People will take it much more seriously in 10 years' time than they do today. It's one thing having a successful league that people want to watch and another having a national team that can win the World Cup. The one thing they have to understand is the relationship between the two. This won't happen overnight."
In the meantime, expect much more seriously conspicuous consumption.
Sunday Indo Sport