In the space of one transfer window China has turned the landscape of football around completely. Previously stars looking to see out their last footballing days and earn a nice pay cheque whilst doing so would come to China and get their wish, but in the last month the Chinese have completely changed that around with the signings of Gervinho, Ramires, Jackson Martinez and now Alex Teixeira among many others. The scary thing? Their transfer market is open until February 19th, leaving plenty more time for more outrageous deals. Chinese teams have already paid four of the five highest transfer fees in this window, mainly because of a raft of changes that have allowed the clubs to spend more money than the premier league and other European counterparts.
The first of these is a new television deal. Although not on the level of the £5.1 billion deal the premier league recently signed, a new £830 million deal is five times the size of its predecessor. If we look at how premier league clubs such as Stoke have been able to sign players such as Xherdan Shaqiri, we see the effect more TV money can have.
China’s president, Xi Jinping, is known to be a big fan of football and he has encouraged much of the spending after growing exasperated at the state of his country’s shortcomings in the world’s most popular game. Many of the wealthy owners who have got involved with the now big spending clubs saw an opportunity here. They are looking to develop positive relationships and useful links to the government just as much as they are hoping to make money.
With football now identified by the politicians as a major area for growth it is the new way for China to show its sporting prowess on an international stage and are backed up by plans to double the Chinese sporting economy by 2025. Currently the Chinese and the Americans form an unbreakable duopoly at the top of the summer Olympic medals table every four years but with many Olympic sports not really popular away from the Olympic bubble the government have turned to football to continually show the country’s sporting strength.
Whilst signing big name foreign players will likely increase interest in the league and football itself the government longs for the national team to be competitive. It is a widely held belief that the country will make a huge effort to win the hosting rights for the 2030 world cup and a competitive national team simply has to be in place by then. The country has only ever qualified for one world cup, in 2002, and is already looking unlikely to make it to Russia in 2018. This has led to rules that are designed to develop local talent. All goalkeepers in the first division must be Chinese and there is a maximum of three foreign players plus one from another Asian confederation allowed on the pitch at any time. A number of further initiatives have also recently been put in place to increase participation in football among china’s youth as well as to tackle a health scare over growing obesity levels in the country.
The state’s plans do not just revolve around bringing players to them either. State backed investors have recently taken control of European clubs such as Slavia Prague and Sochaux and it was recently announced that a state backed Chinese firm had invested £265 million into Manchester City. Jose Mendes is understood to have recently sold a stake in his business to a Chinese investor, showing the people behind this sudden interest are looking at numerous diverse ways to get into the sport.
Although the interest in the Chinese domestic league may still not be fervent with locals, the passion for football is still in place as many have a keen interest in the big foreign leagues. During Novembers El Clasico images of people celebrating each Barcelona goal wildly in cinema’s in Shanghai should not be underestimated. The leagues attendances are increasing in the face of this however. Last season the average attendance was twenty two thousand, an increase of 17% and targets of doubling that over the next 10 years.
Recently, when asked whether Europe should be worried about the financial muscle flexing of the Chinese, Arsene Wenger replied “Yes, of course, because China looks to have the financial power to move the whole game to China”. These words could prove to be prophetic if Chinese clubs keep their momentum up and, really and truly, are we not just a little bit bored of the Europeans league’s domination and the same old teams doing well at the world cup? This author just may well be.