DAVID SHONFIELD: A sporting revolution as China fast becoming a global football powerhouse

The most significant football event of the year may have been a meeting in Shanghai last week.

The photographers picked up on José Mourinho signing shirts (still blue ones, for the time being) but that was just a sideshow. The occasion was the launch of a Chinese venture by Gestifute, the sports business headed by Mourinho’s agent, Jorge Mendes, in a partnership with Foyo, the “culture and entertainment subsidiary” of Fosun International.

Fosun is one of those big investment conglomerates that most of us have never heard of but which has a stake in everything. A German bank, an American insurance company, steel, pharmaceuticals, Thomas Cook and Club Med – and now football.

Alongside Mendes and Fosun’s billionaire boss, Guo Guagchang, at the launch were some of the European football elite, directors of Real Madrid, Benfica, and Monaco, together with representatives of leading local clubs. The aim is to promote and develop the game, adding foreign expertise to Chinese economic power.

Needless to say this is not an act of charity. “China is the last piece of the puzzle in terms of success in world football,” declared Monaco director-general Vadim Vasilyev. It is also linked to the rapid growth of Chinese investment and influence in European football.

It is just 12 months since another Chinese billionaire Wang Jianlin, announced that his company, the Dalian Wanda group, was taking a 20% stake in Atletico Madrid, the first significant Chinese investment in a European Club.

Last July, it was the turn of the French, when Sochaux was bought from its long-term owners, Peugeot, by the Chinese lighting company Ledus.

In September, CEFC China Energy, another conglomerate, bought 60% of Slavia Prague as part of a spending spree in the Czech Republic.

In November, the Rastar Group, a toy manufacturer and media company based in Hong Kong, announced it was buying a similar stake in Espanyol – Barcelona’s local rivals.

Then last month came the largest investment to date, the purchase of a 13% stake in City Football Group, chief asset Manchester City, by China Media Capital.

Almost from nowhere, it seems that Chinese business is establishing a significant presence in European football, and there are definitely more announcements to come.

Chinese president Xi Jinping is a big football fan and his visit to Britain last October was swiftly followed by the CFG investment, although Xi allegedly prefers the red side of Manchester to the blue. China Media Capital is a state-backed investment firm that also recently tied up the broadcasting rights for the Chinese Super League.

The president is the key man behind China’s aim of staging the World Cup and making football the country’s key sport. A major overhaul is required for that to happen. The game’s image has suffered because of corruption and in the past, some foreign players have not received the wages they were promised. More recently there has been a clean-up and an influx of big-name foreign managers such as Marcelo Lippi, Luiz Felipe Scolari, and Sven Goran Eriksson.

The government strategic plan includes making football a mandatory part of the school curriculum and establishing 50,000 football schools over the coming 10 years. The plan also explicitly links the “revival of the Chinese nation” to “the dream of China becoming a football powerhouse”.

Football is seen as the ideal sport to promote team spirit and the ability to work together.


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