How China is changing the face of football

The European transfer window is not so European any more, with Chinese clubs outspending even the continent’s richest clubs in January to prove that the country is now a genuine power in attracting the world’s best players.

Chinese spending on soccer had been growing impressively in recent years, but soared to unexpected heights in the recent transfer window.

The three biggest deals, worldwide, in the recent transfer window were all made by Chinese clubs.

Jiangsu Suning made the biggest of all by signing Brazilian midfielder Alex Teixeira from Shakhtar Donetsk for $56m (€50.3m) yesterday— the Chinese transfer window stays open until February 26 — trumping the $47m (€42.2m) that Guangzhou Evergrande, the reigning Asian club champions, paid to Atletico Madrid to acquire Colombian striker Jackson Martinez last month.

Jiangsu also spent $31m (€27.8m) to sign midfielder Ramires from Chelsea.

Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, pointed yesterday to the vast amounts of money now being spent on players in China as evidence that the Premier League could fall behind if it does not continue to bring in new talent.

He admitted the new trend of spending in the Far East could be a concern and drive up the cost of players across the globe.

Asked if the amount Chinese clubs are able to spend on transfers is a worry to the Premier League, the Frenchman replied: “Yes, of course, because China looks to have the financial power to move a whole league of Europe to China.”

“Will they sustain their desire to do it? Let’s remember, a few years ago, Japan started to do it and slowed down after. I don’t know how deep the desire in China is, but if there’s a very strong political desire, we should worry.”

Chinese president Xi Jinping is an avowed fan of the game, which is growing in the world’s most populous nation.

Guangzhou president Liu Yongzhou acknowledges the pressure this puts upon the club, and coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, to keep ahead of the chasing pack.

“We have been satisfied with the squad we have but even as champion of China and Asia, we are always looking to improve,” said Liu. “The secret to being a good team is to continually strive for excellence. The Chinese Super League is getting stronger and it is important that we are always getting stronger too.

“We also have ambitions to keep succeeding in Asia.” Evergrande’s ultimate target is to win the Fifa Club World Cup and become one of the top clubs in the world.

Chinese rivals such as Shanghai SIPG are desperate to wrest the domestic and even the Asian title away. Shanghai, 2015 runners-up, is led by former England coach Sven Goran Eriksson, who has compiled a $50m (€45m) strikeforce in Asamoah Gyan and Elkeson and has been chasing former Arsenal and Man United star Robin Van Persie.

Guangzhou is backed by property developer Evergrande and Alibaba, one of the world’s biggest e-commerce sites, while Shanghai is backed by Shanghai International Port Group.

Compared with recent years, more yuan is being spent by more and more teams, not just those at the top.

Hebei, backed by an industrial park development company, may be little known and newly promoted to the top tier but has signed African star Gervinho from Italian giant Roma for $20m (€17.9m) Jiangsu had regularly been a mid-table team but since being taken over by a large retail group, has been linked with dozens of world famous stars as it tries to spend a reported transfer fund of $200m (€179m). 

Shanghai Shenhua — owned by a real estate company — already had Tim Cahill but has signed Freddy Guarin from Inter Milan.

“When China invests it does so on an epic scale and in a way that overcomes all obstacles,” said Simon Chadwick, a professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University. 

“As such, there are strong reasons to believe that within 10 years, possibly even five, China will become a major player in world football.”

The nation is also building at youth level to ensure the spending boom does not turn into a bust in the long term.

Tom Byer, a youth development expert, is employed as a consultant to the Chinese Ministry of Education as it rolls out a soccer program in schools. 

“I don’t think there is any other program similar throughout the world that is this big,” Byer said.

“The government is serious about development and also realizes grassroots development is not the glamorous side of the game and is often neglected by the media. This is a marathon, not a sprint.” 

*Manchester City have announced they will play in China this summer as past of their next pre-season tour.

The news comes two months after a consortium of high-profile Chinese investors acquired a 13% stake, worth a reported £265m (€238m) , in the club’s holding company the City Football Group.


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