There was more than a hint of irony and football amnesia on display last month when Chelsea manager Antonio Conte warned how the Chinese Super League’s heavy-spending was a “danger for all”.
But the Italian wasn’t the only one to wag a finger.
A litany of high-profile figures from the world of football stepped forward to criticise while, simultaneously it seemed, airbrushing their own clubs’ history of domestic monopolies and extravagant purchases.
“It’s sick. It’s nothing but sick,” said Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness of the burgeoning Chinese football revolution. “Hopefully everything doesn’t turn out as bad as it looks at the moment.”
However, China has been doing this for a while. Last January, Shakhtar Donetsk’s Alex Teixeira was heavily linked with a move to Liverpool. Instead, he signed for Jiangsu Suning for €43m.
Meanwhile, Atletico Madrid’s expensively-acquired striker Jackson Martinez headed for Guangzhou Evergrande just months after arriving in La Liga. It was a firm statement of intent.
Players were no longer joining English teams for a decent pay-day. In fact, some — like Chelsea’s Ramires and Southampton’s Graziano Pelle — were leaving the Premier League to pick up a bigger salary in China.
But, it took the recent headline-grabbing deals involving Oscar and Carlos Tevez to really leave a mainstream mark. While countless other transfers made some minor ripples, the dizzying amounts offered to the South American pair by Shanghai SIPG and Shanghai Shenhua respectively (the Brazilian playmaker will reportedly earn €450,000 per week, Tevez a cool €700,000) have led to consternation and condemnation, notably from within English football.
Is the Premier League worried? And, if not, should they be?
“There is no doubt the Chinese Super League represents a competitive threat to the English top-flight, something which the Premier League will seek to address in order to retain its market position,” says Simon Chadwick, professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford Business School, who has consulted and advised the Chinese Football Association on a number of issues.
“Premier League transfer fees and wages have been skewing the market in England’s favour for some time, but now China (either deliberately or accidentally) is redressing the balance,” Chadwick continues.
“There is no doubt China has huge resources at its disposal and is in a position to try and buy success. Furthermore, China and its political system are possibly unknown entities that the likes of the Premier League are struggling to understand or come to terms with. All of these factors combined implies, after many years of almost total dominance, English football may finally now be exposed to a realistic challenger that might, ultimately, undermine its competitive position.”
Of course, we’ve been here before. Sort of. Other pretenders have previously stepped forward and attempted to realign the market by making a financial splash. Russia tried and failed, exemplified by the crash-and-burn tale of Anzhi Makhachkala. Others, like Major League Soccer and the Indian Super League, have gently tiptoed their way into the conversation with careful and considered strategic approaches.
But, China is a different proposition. This is a government-led initiative and it’s multi-faceted. Yes, a successful domestic league is a priority but so is hosting a World Cup and showcasing a football-loving country to a wider community. Earlier this year, Wanda Group – a huge Chinese conglomerate – was announced as a top-tier Fifa sponsor. In key markets, Chinese owners have taken control of some well-known European clubs: Milan and Inter in Italy, Aston Villa, West Brom and Wolves in England. At Manchester City, Atletico Madrid and Lyon, there’s substantial Chinese investment. The country’s growing influence on the game goes far beyond the acquisitions of elite players.
“People shouldn’t be seduced into thinking that this is a crazy, money-fuelled football grab. There’s a lot more subtlety and careful thought behind China’s strategy,” Chadwick says.
“Indeed, China’s football development plan is actually relatively modest, setting a target of 2050 for it to have become a global football power. This marks out the country’s strategy as being evolutionary rather than revolutionary. It might seem zany to westerners, but the Super League is only one part of what is actually a well thought through vision and accompanying strategy.”
China seems to have learned its lesson. In 2012, Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka arrived in Shanghai but left after just one season. This time around, the league isn’t chasing veterans. There’s a commitment to delivering a certain calibre of player.
“Chinese fans are happy to see more genuine stars playing in the league here,” says Beijing-based Mark Dreyer, editor of China Sports Insider. “It’s important to eradicate the myth that the imports are mostly players well past their prime, as per MLS. They’re not.
“But at the same time, Chinese fans realise money is the primary motivating factor in these deals and so I think that actually leads more to a sense of shame, rather than pride. Yes, there is a lot more attention on the league globally, but it’s often not positive and fans know that.”
The key is whether China has the patience to see the project through. President Xi Jinping has ambitious football plans but with a 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign in tatters and not one player in their latest squad plying their trade outside of the country, it’s the foundations that appear to require the most work, not the furnishings.
“The money being spent on transfer fees and wages is designed to create a short-term splash, with ego playing a far bigger role in these deals than any sort of fiscal responsibility or indeed any genuine desire to ‘grow the game’,” Dreyer says. “Firms and clubs have been given the green light to invest in football, and so they are doing so because it’s both politically smart and may also, indirectly, benefit them financially. But China needs proper investment at youth and grassroots levels as well as massively improved infrastructure. Those are the only things that will have any tangible, long-term benefits but the timeframe is the key: none of the investors want to wait 20 years to see the fruits of proper investment, they want results today.”
Managers also answering China call
China hasn’t just seduced some high-profile players over the last number of years. Well-known managers have flocked to the Chinese Super League too and tasted plenty of success.
Marcello Lippi arrived in the country in 2012 and took over at Guangzhou Evergrande, with whom he subsequently won three successive league titles. After leaving the club in 2015, Lippi was parachuted in as coach of the national team last October after the side picked up just one point from their first four qualifiers. But after a scoreless draw with Qatar in November, the Italian, who guided the Azzurri to World Cup success in 2006, admitted China now “need a miracle” to make it to Russia next year.
Lippi was replaced at Guangzhou by another former World Cup-winning manager: Brazilian Luiz Felipe Scolari. The 68-year-old former Chelsea boss picked up where Lippi left off, claiming back-to-back titles in 2015 and 2016.
Scolari will face some solid competition this season, though, as two former Premier League coaches attempt to steal the spotlight.
Manuel Pellegrini arrived at Hebei China Fortune in September last year and will hope the likes of Ezequiel Lavezzi and Gervinho can put his side in championship contention.
Meanwhile, at Shanghai SIPG, Andre Villas-Boas will look to Brazilian duo Oscar and Hulk to inspire the side and improve on last season’s third-place finish.
Other familiar names have made China’s Super League home. Gus Poyet is at the helm of Shanghai Shenhua, Fabio Cannavaro is at Tianjin Quanjian while Felix Magath is at Shandong Luneng.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved