Chinese Super League: Windfall time!

The Chinese Super League (CSL) is luring players by offering big money and the teams seem to have unlimited resources, political backing, infrastructure in place and a huge fan following to make things happen.

There are growing legions of ardent supporters and fans of China's football clubs. The government is also trying to foster a football culture in the country by mandating football programs in 20,000 Chinese schools in a recent plan devised by President Xi Jinping to make China a football power.   -  GETTY IMAGES

Traders are heading eastwards retracing the Silk Route in their quest for exchanging their services for riches. Only, we aren’t talking about trade and commerce but the ‘Beautiful Game’ breaching the Great Wall of China. The Chinese Super League (CSL) is luring players by offering big money and the teams seem to have unlimited resources, political backing, infrastructure in place and a huge fan following to make things happen.

At the time of this article going to press, Chinese club Jiangsu Suning completed the formalities to make the record signing of Alex Teixeira from Shakhtar Donetsk for £38.4m beating competition from Liverpool, a week after acquiring the services of Ramires from Chelsea for £25m.

Guangzhou Evergrande, who went toe to toe with Barcelona in the Club World Cup final in December, have the likes of former Real Madrid forward Robinho and fellow-Brazilian Paulinho (from Tottenham) in their books.

They recently scored a major coup when they snapped up Colombian forward Jackson Martinez from Spanish giants Atletico Madrid for £31m.

Evergrande, who have big ambitions of winning the Club World Cup, also have Ricardo Goulart, still only 24 and regarded as one of the top Brazilian prospects a year ago when he left Cruzerio, as part of the squad.

This is the new reality of football as China is successfully shifting the proverbial football paradigm to the east.

The Beckhams, Lampards, Ashley Coles and David Villas, when they decide to go for one big pay day at the crossroads of their careers, usually head across the pond to Major League Soccer (MLS). China is attempting to go one step further by luring players in their prime; and boy are they succeeding!

According to a report in The Guardian, Chinese President Xi Jinping, an apparent football fanatic, wants to stem the failure of the national team at international tournaments. The Government is encouraging clubs to throw cash at players — especially from South America who would usually ply their trade in Europe — to improve the league in the hope that the trickle down benefit reaches the national side.

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba is a major stakeholder in this sporting revolution in the country. It launched Alisports, an offshoot that is looking to turn the company’s hundreds of millions of users into sports lovers as it seeks to cash in on the country’s growing sports market. In the months since its establishment, Alisports has signed deals to stream NFL American football games in China, sponsored FIFA’s Club World Cup, and entered into partnerships with both world amateur boxing body AIBA and the governing organisation for basketball FIBA according to reports.

Alisports also met with super agent Jorge Mendes and his client, former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, in Shanghai last month to discuss partnerships. Interestingly enough, Alibaba owns 38 per cent of Evergrande.

So should the rest of the world, especially European leagues, be worried by China’s financial muscle?

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger nodded in the affirmative during a pre-match press conference on February 5. “Yes, of course. Because China looks to have the financial power to move the whole league of Europe to China, and we are long enough in this job to know that is just a consequence of economical power, and they have that.

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

And recent rumours that Jiangsu Suning had an eye-watering GBP 75 million pounds for Chelsea midfielder Oscar rejected by the London club only supports the notion.

However, throwing money at a problem might not get you the desired results quickly; in China’s case it’s World Cup glory. Since China isn’t a traditional footballing nation, it needs to become one i.e. through investment in grassroots development.

According to the same report in The Guardian, Xi Jinping’s government has launched an incentive to get kids playing the game in school and the target in 2017 is to have 20,000 schools playing the sport on a weekly basis. And with no sign of shortage of money in the league, with new television deals and interest from multi-national companies, it should popularise the sport in a few years from now in a country where parents would rather have their children climb the corporate ladder.

Real Madrid has helped Guangzho Evergrande build what is purported to be the biggest football academy in the world and the influx of world-class players in the league should only improve the domestic talent, which could be a massive shot in the arm for China’s national squad.

For the CSL, the winter transfer window shuts only on February 26 so expect clubs to string in more deals. But looking at the league with a long-term perspective, China could really attract bigger stars like the way the MLS started out. Greats like Pele and George Best headed to the Americas to popularise soccer. Could we see current greats like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, who have a massive presence in the east, ditch MLS to head to China to see out their professional careers? It isn’t outside the realm of possibilities.

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