The Chinese Super League has sent ripples through the football world this winter.
Relatively unknown outside of East Asia just two years ago, wider recognition has been achieved through a sustained onslaught upon the global transfer market. Now barely a day passes without mention of the CSL in major European media.
Not all such reporting is positive in tone, that much is certain. However, as the old saying goes, ‘all publicity is good publicity’ when you are trying to build a brand.
An economic, not just footballing project
It is this feeling which strikes to the core of what China is trying to achieve through its widespread investment in football. Besides strengthening the country’s perennially underperforming national team, this is a concerted attempt to build an industry rather than simply good football teams.
China must diversify its economy away from manufacturing into consumer-driven sectors to sustain growth in the years ahead. Football is seen as a pivotal part of growing sports and entertainment consumption.
How does one grow an industry? By increasing demand, and the quickest way of achieving that is to boost the league’s media coverage through the addition of world famous players.
But what is in it for the owners? Why are these seemingly private companies entering into an arms race to sign elite talent?
For most, investment in football is clearly driven by a need to impress or appease local government chiefs. President Xi Jinping made football a priority for China, and each local region is expected to follow suit. In turn, they are themselves leaning on powerful individuals in the area to help achieve that vision.
Political favour is an integral asset to any business success in China, and therefore to ignore requests to participate in growing the sports industry drive would be a major risk for anybody concerned. It is in everybody’s interests to assist.
Will the CSL soon break the world transfer record?
However, personal wealth and, frequently, ego dictate the scale of investment. The Chinese government has recently stepped in to warn against transfer fees and salaries getting out of control, implementing what is effectively a 15 percent tax on all expenditure by clubs.
Yet the spending continues with Changchun Yatai this week smashing their transfer record to sign £20 million Nigerian striker Odion Ighalo from Watford.
“They’ve got the cash and they like to spend it and they like to be seen spending it,” China-based football journalist Cameron Wilson told the Guardian last week regarding China’s extravagant club owners.
“China loves to have the world’s biggest this, the world’s biggest that. That’s what they do these days,” he added regarding the possibility of China breaking the current £89 million world transfer record in the near future.
Football has been used as a means of personal advancement. Despite Xu Jiaxin’s Evergrande group amassing increasingly concerning levels of debt as the property market declined, and attempts to diversify stuttered, Xu’s personal status has been bolstered beyond recognition by his club Guangzhou Evergrande’s footballing successes.
The Cantonese side have twice won the AFC Champions League in the past four seasons and are six-time consecutive winners of the CSL. Besides that, Xu is also contributing a sizeable share of Marcello Lippi’s €20 million annual income to coach the China national side. As a consequence of his expenditure and triumphs, Xu is now on the radar of many of China’s most influential politicians.
It is clear others are trying to follow suit. Tianjin Quanjian, for example, have been mentioned more than any other side in news reporting of the CSL this winter, linked with an array of talent from the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A. Thus far, both Alexandre Pato and Axel Witsel have arrived in the northern Chinese city—another striker is expected.
The owners of Quanjian are a herbal remedy pharmaceutical company, largely unheard of until their football investment began 18-months ago. Yet now chairman Shu Yuhui has catapulted both himself and his company into the limelight, regularly featuring in the national sports media. A cursory look at the club’s website quickly demonstrates that it is Shu who is the key figure at the club — rather than players or coach Fabio Cannavaro — with the vast majority of pictures featuring the club’s extravert owner.
It was little surprise then to recently see Shu appearing in photos with Jorge Mendes, or claiming that only new rules on spending prevented his side from recruiting Edinson Cavani, Falcao and Diego Costa among others this winter. As the quality of signings increase, so too does the competition among clubs and their owners to retain their place at football’s high table.
Can the Chinese government keep the CSL under control?
China’s government is struggling to rein in a beast they themselves have created — just as they have in other industries. While they have encouraged expenditure on football, club owners have sought to make such outgoings as personally profitable as possible, leading to ever-increasing transfer fees being paid.
At times like this, China is often conflicted in its plans. Desires to expand industries rapidly are incompatible with the government’s wider need to curtail extravagant spending and corruption. Football is just another chapter of the same story, the result will surely be the same.
As history shows us, however, once investment has begun it will slow, but not grind to a halt. Chinese football spending is here to stay long term, even if the individual clubs and owners may not be. There is a difficult balancing act to be found and, until that point, uncertainty will be rife.
But China craves footballing credibility and, with enough time, it can surely be achieved. Along the route there will be bumps, but the CSL will not simply go away.
Key now is for investment in the grassroots and facilities which will justify the millions flowing into the pockets of players, agents and European clubs. Without a solid base, Chinese football will never be secure in its development.