The past and future of the Chinese Super League

Words By Phil Costa
December 6, 2017
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Football. A global game, but with a seemingly immovable hierarchy centred around Europe. When a diamond emerges from the rough, vultures from the top five leagues are there in an instant to lure them away. Ridiculous wages, super cars and mansions with so many rooms you could rival a hotel. This is the lifestyle craved so desperately by many, and who would dare to even compete with that?

President Xi Jinping of China, that’s who. President Xi Jinping of China, followed closely by a group of tycoons devoting their authority and riches in return for political favours, but also due to a genuine excitement about the potential of football in the country.

“My dream for Chinese football is that our own teams can become some of the best in the world,” Mr Xi said last year. “I want football to play an important role in strengthening people’s physique in addition to inspiring a relentless fighting spirit.” That dream is quickly becoming a reality and here’s how it happened.

Influence

To achieve something amazing, you need an inspiration. A rough guide to follow but with room to add your own twist. But unfortunately for China and Mr Xi, establishing a domestic football league overnight is not the easiest thing to do. They are built on vast amounts of history, stories and tradition. But with the sport in the country struggling well into the millennium, the Chinese FA had a peek over at their neighbours Japan, to find football booming after the formation of the J-League.

Before its creation in 1993, the Japanese national team had not qualified for a single World Cup, but since 1998, they’ve qualified for six in a row. A mixture of high profile and experienced players from abroad were brought into the league, working closely with those progressing through the academies after a sharp focus was placed on youth development, which has seen the likes of Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda flourish into globally recognised players. Attendances are rising – with an average of 20,000 across the division – including a TV deal worth $100m a year and a viewership of two million people across Asia. That was the blueprint China needed, which then resulted in the Chinese Super League forming in 2003.

Backing

Once the plan had been drawn up, some financial backing was needed just to get started – almost like a parent teaching their child how to ride a bike. In this case however, stabilisers and a gentle helping hand were swapped with a nitro exhaust and a 5000cc engine. In 2015, Li Ruigang, the billionaire head of CMC (China Media Capital), outbid state broadcaster CCTV to pay ¥8bn (£831m) for the television rights to China’s Super League for the next five years. This was a hefty premium on previous years, when the going rate was about ¥50m (£5.2m) a year.

Three years ago, prior to the bumper television deal, there was a change of ownership at Guangzhou Evergrande where online commerce agent Alibaba purchased 50% of the club for £133 million. They are undoubtedly the power players in the CSL, selling around 46,000 tickets per game, and 68 million were thought to have watched their AFC Champions League final victory in 2013, a number which increased to 83 million in 2015. After the launch of ‘Alisports’ in September last year, CEO Zhang Dazhong spoke buoyantly about their prospects for the future. “This is merely just beginning. The consumption power in China is huge and gigantic, and football in this country is just about to burst”.

An Audience

A plan and financial power are nothing without an audience, but thankfully this isn’t a problem for China. As the fourth largest country in the world, in addition to their staggering 1.3 billion population, the potential ceiling for the CSL to reach was and still is a high one. Attendances have increased steadily over the last decade, with recent averages thought to be around 22,000 – a figure on par with Italy’s Serie A. Football is already the most popular spectator sport in China, and with the recent influx of high profile arrivals coming in from Europe and Brazil, these figures are set to rise as domestic football begins to capture the imagination of the people.

Marketability

In order to continue their steady growth, Chinese clubs needed a selling point. Their merchandise and ticket sales can work to an extent, but to break boundaries on a more global scale, money had to be spent. And spend they did. Chinese Super League spending topped £300 million in the last three years – more than double of what has been spent by those in the Bundesliga, Ligue 1 and Serie A combined.

Everyone began to take notice after former Newcastle and Chelsea striker Demba Ba was bought by Shanghai Shenhua, before Guangzhou Evergrande took Paulinho off Tottenham’s hands for £10m. Roma winger Gervinho was signed by newly promoted Hebei China Fortune for £14m, before Fredy Guarin of Inter Milan was signed by Shanghai Shenhua for £10m. Both players are reported to have trebled their wages in the process.

Ramires was signed by Jiangsu Suning just days later from Chelsea for a CSL record of £25m, and before the dust had a chance to settle, Jackson Martinez of Atletico Madrid was on his way to Guangzhou Evergrande for £31.5m, which subsequently broke the transfer record set just days earlier. The most surprising deal of all followed shortly after, with Shakhtar Donetsk forward Alex Teixeira (who was strongly linked with Liverpool) moving to Jiangsu Suning for £37.5m – the third time the transfer record has been broken within seven days.

While these extortionate transfer fees began to raise eyebrows, the calibre of player heading to the Chinese Super League was considerable. These were big names who played for some of Europe’s top clubs during their peak years, not simply those who were past it and in need of a final payday.

The domestic game has gone from strength to strength in the last decade, but undoubtedly, there is still work to be done. Despite football being the most popular spectator sport, one of China’s largest concerns revolves around participation. This is often due to sports like basketball, table tennis and badminton offering more places to play, but also due to the cultural preference of parents wanting their children to prioritise their studies.

Speaking to Cameron Wilson, founding director of WildEastFootball.com, the lack of local talent combined with the big money signings from abroad could be an issue of concern. “The progression of Chinese youth talent has been stunted for quite some time before the influx of big name foreigners, and in many cases the new wave of even bigger names is making the situation worse, particularly for attacking players” he said.

“There is barely a single Chinese striker who is a first choice pick with any team in the CSL, and a similar situation exists for other offensive positions. At least in England there are some strikers who are good enough to carve out a 1st team place for their own, but in China, there’s simply no-one to match the quality of these guys.”

However, the Chinese government has launched and are strongly pushing a scheme to get kids playing football at school, and the target for 2017 is to have 20,000 schools playing the sport on a weekly basis.

Wilson also gave his personal views on what he felt the future holds for China, its top flight and the sport in general. “When the big names started coming a few years ago, like Dario Conca and Didier Drogba, I welcomed it cautiously as I thought it would give the CSL some much needed exposure.”

“But now it’s gone too far and there are huge sums of money floating out of China, when this is money that could be invested into the game elsewhere. Recruitment and training for not only young players, but also trainers, youth coaches, referees. The whole football ecosystem is underdeveloped in China. A solid grassroots foundation is also essential for long term progress and achievement.”

“What I’d like to see happen is more acknowledgement of China’s football culture abroad, instead of people tripping over themselves to milk the cash cow. Also, a recognition from the authorities that it should be nurtured and protected to help make a common bridge of understanding between China and the rest of the world.”

While a majority of the signs emit positivity, there are still issues both in terms of the politics and the game itself, to iron out. The structure, the financial muscle, the audience and the marketability are all there, but huge amounts of spending simply paper over the cracks of what is a fundamentally flawed national game.

President Xi Jinping announced a goal to create a domestic sport economy worth £590bn by 2025, and at the heart of this goal is the accompanying plan to host and win the World Cup by 2025. Ambitious? Yes. A step too far? Possibly. But if anybody could do it, it’s China.

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