Super Spending in the Super League

By Javan Latson

The People’s Republic of China is one of the world’s fastest growing economies. The rise of China has vaulted them onto the global stage and has made them a major player in global affairs. Although there is a heavy emphasis placed on manufacturing and being able to compete with other advanced nations in the economy, there is another area in which the PRC is trying to show its prowess – soccer. Having hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics and with the 2022 Winter Olympics on the way, the Chinese government has shown that they are capable of producing world class athletes. However, there is still a lot of room for improvement when it comes to their performance on the field.

President Xi Jinping is an avid fan of the sport and has laid out some pretty lofty goals for the nation’s soccer program. Unlike Brazil, Argentina or Germany, China doesn’t have any World Cup championships, or many high profile athletes competing in the top leagues. Whereas the women’s program has played in the World Cup six times, including a finals appearance in 1999, the men haven’t qualified since 2002.  In fact, the Chinese Men’s National Team is currently ranked a mediocre 86th behind countries like Belarus, Qatar, and Armenia. In an effort to improve China’s reputation, President Xi made a proclamation that he wanted to make his nation a major competitor by 2050. He aims to achieve this goal by investing heavily in infrastructure, developing domestic talent, and improving the quality of the nation’s professional league.

A similar initiative was proposed in the 1950s following the revolution that placed the communist government in power. Following the civil war, the plan was to use soccer to launch China onto the global scene. In order to achieve this goal, soccer became organized and financed by the government and what would eventually become the General Administration of Sport was founded. Under the oversight of the state, this government body helps regulate athletics, create standards of physical fitness, organize major international competitions, and encourage investment in the sports industry.

People in China are passionate fans and soccer is the most watched game in the entire country. More than 300 million people (about the population of the United States) tune in to watch English Premier League matches. In fact, demand is so high for these games that the league signed a three-year $700 million deal with the Chinese streaming site PPTV for broadcasting rights. To put things into perspective, NBC Universal paid $500 million to extend its contract with the league even though viewership in the US decreased by 17% last year. However, whereas there are many Chinese spectators, there are relatively few people that actually compete. According to the Chinese Football Association, there are only 7,000 players under 18 that are registered in the entire country.

To address the lack of soccer players President Xi plans to build at least 20,000 training centers and 70,000 soccer fields throughout the country by the end of the decade. Many people don’t play the game simply because they don’t have anywhere to compete, especially in rural areas. His goal is to increase the accessibility of citizens to high quality facilities and skills training. He wants every county to have two full sized fields and every residential area in larger cities to have at least one small sized court. In addition to building state of the art fields, billions of dollars will be spent on player development in the form of training programs or institutions. Children will be exposed to soccer as a part of their physical education curriculum, with the intention that students around the country will have the chance to become familiar with the game at an early age. This is important because when it comes to athletics, exposure at an early age plays a major role in future growth as a player.

By far the most spectacular example of China’s commitment to cultivating high quality prospects is the Evergrande Football School in Guangzhou. The building, which took ten months to build and cost $185 million, is the largest soccer school in the world. Although the primary focus is athletics, students also are taught the typical curriculum found at other schools (math, science, reading, etc.). The 2800 students at the school come from all around the country, including Tibet and the predominantly Muslim province of Xinjiang. They have access to more than 50 fields, special chefs, a library, swimming pools and a gym. The 160-acre campus is a testament to the enormous investment that the government is placing on the sport, which in the eyes of some plays a role in their nation’s prestige. Each week players are instructed in tactics and fundamentals by Chinese and Spanish coaches.

The European imports are the result of a strategic partnership with eleven time European champion Real Madrid. The aim of this partnership is to help develop quality Chinese players who, with the proper tutelage, will be able to compete for the top clubs of Spain, England, Germany and Italy. The opportunity to be taught by some of the world’s best is something that is highly desired by many players in the country, but it’s very hard to get into the school. It costs $9,200 a year for a child to attend Evergrande, which is more than the average yearly income for Chinese families. The more talented athletes are given scholarships to attend or are given financial assistance to help cover the cost of attendance. Thus, for the vast majority of children in China it’s highly unlikely that they’ll ever be able to attend this prestigious institution.

Exposure and access are two important things when trying to increase something’s popularity, but in the world of sports there must be opportunities for competition at the amateur and professional athletes. China’s goal isn’t simply to have more people playing, but to produce high-quality athletes that can go toe-to-toe with the world’s best. To solve this problem the government has begun a multimillion-dollar revamp of the Chinese Super League which is the country’s professional league. The CSL has 16 teams and is regulated by the Chinese Football Association. Chinese professional soccer has a rough history rife with mediocre teams, and corruption. In 2013, dozens of referees and former players were banned from soccer after an investigation into match fixing. The probe by the Chinese football association led to two high-ranking officials being arrested, the team Shanghai Shenhua vacating their 2003 championship.

In spite of these major setbacks, the CSL has seen tremendous growth in recent years to a growing amount of investment from Chinese corporations. Firms like multibillion-dollar Alibaba  have begun purchasing stakes in professional clubs. Much like his other strategies, President Xi is setting the bar high for the country’s professional clubs and expects a few to be dominating Asian competition within a few years. To accomplish this, clubs in China have spent large sums of money to acquire some of the world’s top talent.

In December of 2016, Oscar dos Santos Emboaboa Junior left Chelsea FC for Shanghai SIPG in a deal worth 52 million pounds (over 64 million dollars). The team was shocked that one of their marquee players left a team that placed first in the English Premier League.The Brazilian silver medalist had been a part of their 2012 championship team and had only cost Chelsea 19 million pounds to acquire, but was paid more than twice his initial value. That same month, Argentinian footballer Carlos Tevez made the decision to take his talents to the Chinese team Shanghai Shenhua in a 70 million pound (87 million dollar) transaction. Tevez, who spent the majority of his career in the Premier League, now makes more than 745,000 dollars per week.

Tevez and Oscar are two members of a growing class of high-level players that are leaving Europe for China. During the January-February transfer period of 2016, CSL clubs spent $365 million on player acquisition. In comparison the English Premier League spent $275 million during that same two-month window. In addition, many reputable managers are also making the trek east. Alberto Zaccheroni, who led the Japanese national team to an AFC Asian Cup championship in 2011 and a berth in the 2014 World Cup, 2010 Japanese league manager of the year Dragan Stojkovic, and former coach of the Brazilian national team Mano Menzenes are some high profile hires that have been made by CLS clubs.

Speculators predict that by next year the CSL will become the world’s third most watched league behind the Premier League and  the German Bundesliga. The broadcasting rights within the span of one year increased from a value of $8.6 million in 2015 to $1.11 billion in 2016. In fact five-time league champion Guangzhou Evergrande is now estimated to be the world’s most valuable soccer team.

The rapid ascension and growth of Chinese soccer has caught the attention of many. European clubs are anxious about CSL clubs due to their incredible spending power. It was reported that four-time FIFA player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo was offered a huge contract by one Chinese team, but declined in order to stay with Real Madrid. There are others however, that are skeptical of this desperate spending. Critics claim these high level transactions are simply not sustainable over the long term. Others are more worried that much of the money is being spent on foreign players rather than Chinese athletes. In order to address the rampant spending, the Chinese government has begun to call for the creation of salary caps that limit the amount clubs can spend on players. There are also now rules that limit the amount of foreign players that can be on the field at one given time.

President Xi’s desire to build up his nation as a soccer powerhouse is quite impressive. However, the increased focused on athletics could all be a cover for something else. It is possible XI is using soccer to distract the people from the slowing economy or the human right’s abuses of the Communist Party. On the other hand, it could be a ploy to gain favor with other nations. There has been a history of China practicing “stadium diplomacy” with resource rich nations of Africa and Latin America. For example when Angola hosted the African Cup of Nations, China paid the bill for the construction of four new facilities. Following this act of “generosity” Angola has now become China’s second largest source of oil. China has the capabilities to excel on the world stage. It may not be long from now that we turn on our TVs and see a Chinese player as the star on Real Madrid or Manchester United, or a World Cup trophy being hoisted up in Beijing.

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