Produced for the Charity ecnmy (http://www.ecnmy.org/)
Here is the short version for their website: http://www.ecnmy.org/engage/china-footballing-superpower/
China is something of a footballing minnow. Ranked 82nd in the FIFA world rankings – behind the likes of Benin, Uzbekistan and Cape Verde Islands – you wouldn’t think there is much hope for them to be punching with the heavyweights of World Football anytime soon, right? Wrong. President Xi laid out his love for the game even before he took office in 2013, and has put football at the forefront of his political and economic agenda as he attempts to double the size of the Chinese sports economy over the next 10 years to more than £600bn.
President Xi clearly does not hold back on his sporting requests. He has already said that he wants the Chinese national team to win the World Cup in the next 15 years. But is all this really possible? Can China really become a ‘footballing superpower’?
The Chinese Super League (CSL) has done its best to prove that China can attract the world’s biggest names in the last month. This has proved fruitful after some jaw-dropping transfer fees and astronomical wage packets which have not only significantly raised the profile of the league, but have also symbolised a big step towards putting China on the footballing map.
The transfer story that caused the biggest stir last month was that of 32-year-old Argentinian striker Carlos Tevez, previously of both Manchester City and Manchester United. Tevez left his boyhood club of Boca Juniors, to join Shanghai Greenland Shenhua FC of the CSL. In the process, he has become the highest paid football player ever. Despite seemingly having his best years behind him, Tevez is earning a reported £615,000 a week on a two-year contract – almost double that of World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo’s salary at Real Madrid (£365,000 a week).
And he’s not the only one; ex-Chelsea midfielder Oscar has recently moved to China for a transfer fee of over £50 million, and Belgian Axel Witsel turned down a move to Italian champions and European giants Juventus in favour of an eye-watering contract offer from Tianjin Quanjian.
Where is the money coming from?
Interestingly enough, the big money being spent by clubs in the CSL can arguably be attributed back to President Xi – despite it being mainly private investment.
It was reported in an article on the Guardian website earlier this month that a lot of the private investors in Chinese football clubs have jumped on President Xi’s footballing bandwagon in an attempt to endear themselves to him. They are essentially using football as a stepping stone to the President’s heart. The more they invest, the more likely they are to get political favours.
Michael Pettis, an economics professor at Peking University, said in an interview with Vice last year that most Chinese “are horribly depressed at the low quality of Chinese football and the corruption scandals in which it is constantly embroiled, and would be deliriously happy if China were ever to become a major player.”
If the CSL carries on as it is, it would be difficult to deny the effect economic and political favours have to play in the future of Chinese football. How ironic would it be if China were only able to become a major player in the footballing world amid political and economic corruption?
However, investors will say they are simply optimistic about the prospect of football in the country. They will claim they are looking to take advantage of an increasingly consumer-driven market; the CSL appears to be growing in popularity and value. It seems like a worthy investment so, considering they are businessmen, who can blame them?
Not all the money invested in the CSL is driven from tycoons seeking political favours. The League has just signed a TV deal worth $1.3 billion over 5 years, which means that it will receive around $200 million in 2016, up from $9 million in 2015. You’d assume that the profits from this deal will get shared around all the teams, which could make a considerable difference to their bank balance come the end of the season. This is a considerable jump, but it still has some way to go before it can trouble the Premier League’s new TV deal of around 1.7 billion pounds a year.
The new TV deal is a driving factor behind growing attendances and gate receipts at CSL matches as it helps to increase the attention on the national league. There was an average attendance of 24,159 last year – up from 18,740 in 2012 – and not far off the La Liga average attendance for 2016: 27,775. Despite this improvement, there is still a lot of work to be done to increase attendances at CSL matches. Currently, the average attendance is lower than the maximum capacity of all the stadiums in the league – bar Guangzhou R&F’s Yuexiushan Stadium (see below). As a result, we can see that it is rare for a stadium to be completely sold out. The opposite is the norm in the Premier League.
Unsurprisingly, President Xi has addressed this problem too with a 50 (yes, 50) point plan to combat all the issues facing football in China. Within this plan, it dictates that the mid-term goal for the Chinese Football Association should be a “significant increase in youth football. The League organization and the level of competition have to become the best in Asia.”
It also goes on to outline a long-term goal: “Chinese football will become a sport that is universally participated in by the masses. In the whole society a healthy football culture will be established.”
Believe it or not, the President has actually introduced football into the school curriculum around China, and the government have produced textbooks explaining the art of the game. Hana Mather-Coe, 23, an English teacher in China, says, “The kids love football and love being taught it. There are amateur teams popping up all the time and playing matches at the local park, it is clear to see that the state is making a huge effort and it is hard to deny that it is working!”
The investment in youth football doesn’t stop there either – in fact, China is aiming to have 20,000 ‘specialist’ football schools by 2020, and 50,000 of them by 2025. They are also investing substantially to improve coaching, and will have 50,000 full-time and part-time coaches trained by 2020.
Within the CSL, it has been ruled recently that each side is only allowed 4 non-Chinese players in their squad – a stark contrast to the Premier League where you can have up to 17 non-homegrown players. The reliance on players coming through Chinese academies is refreshing, but it could be the reason for the outrageous salaries and transfer fees of the last month. Teams are aware that they have to get the most reputable overseas players, and the only way to tempt them is with money. A lot of money.
It is as if these footballers are the embodiment of China’s move towards a capitalist economy, suddenly infatuated with Western commodities.
So, will Tevez and co be the innovators that turn China into a footballing superpower? Or will the CSL simply overtake the MLS and become another footballing retirement home for the greats of the game? Only time will tell. But, with the financial backing that China have and the sheer volume of youngsters that will be playing the sport for years to come, these changes are not something that should be taken with a pinch of salt.