Why so many good foreign players are coming to China

February 05, 2016
Why so many good foreign players are coming to China

Why are so many good footballers moving to China?

How come so many top players are suddenly moving to the Chinese Super League and does anyone actually watch them once they arrive? Here are all the answers you need to know about the new footballing superpower

What is going on?

It won't have slipped your notice that money talks in the world of football and there is a new kid on the block when it comes to splashing the cash.

Over the course of the past couple of weeks Jackson Martinez, Ramires and Alex Teixeira have all moved to the Chinese Super League for a combined total of £90million.

While big names joining clubs outside Europe is nothing new, the key difference between the current crop heading to China and those packing their bags for places like America or the Middle East is that Martinez, Ramires and Teixeira are far from ageing stars.

All three of them had either been linked with or were playing for the best clubs in the Premier League before being tempted east by greater riches.

In the words of Arsene Wenger, European football should be “worried” about China.

Why is it happening?

In a nutshell: because the state wants it to.

Never one to turn a blind eye to a useful tool for propaganda, the most powerful people in China have recently identified football as a major growth region - a way to show their country's sporting might on a truly global platform, while also creating a relatively fresh industry to tap into China's consumer culture.

The slight fly in the ointment is that the Chinese football team is not very good.

The national team have qualified for just one World Cup finals in 2002 and - currently ranked one spot below Botswana in 93rd position in the Fifa rankings - they are already struggling to make it to Russia in 2018. Yet China is set on hosting a World Cup in the not too distant future. So the question is how can the reality match the vision?

On the one hand, President Xi Jinping has called for a huge transformation of grassroots football in China, visiting Manchester City’s new training complex during his state visit in October in a bid to underline his commitment to the sport.

A number of schemes have been put in place to increase participation in football among young people, which has captured the attention of local government officials who are increasingly aware of an impending health crisis over growing levels of obesity in the country.

On the other hand Xi wants (and needs) to boost the profile of his country's top-flight football league. And that is where money comes in.

Encouraged by Xi’s plan for state and private investment to double the size of the Chinese sporting economy by 2025, more global sporting figures are increasing their links with China.

Jose Mourinho was in Shanghai last month with his agent Jorge Mendes, who is understood to have sold a significant stake in his Gestifute business to a Chinese investor. Elsewhere, Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour has sold a 13 per cent stake in his £2billion football business to investors from the emerging superpower in the form of China Media Capital.

Indeed with Chinese investors already in control of a number of European clubs including Slavia Prague in the Czech Republic and French club Sochaux, it seems only a matter of time until a Premier League club goes the same way.

The key in all of this investment is the link between private corporations and the state. The £265million private investment in Manchester City was state-backed, as is the overwhelming majority of footballing spending in the country. Powerful people have cash to burn, Xi has identified football as an area to spend it in and the result is a lot of money changing hands internationally.

As Chinese football expert Chris Atkins told Sky Sports: "The Government is keen to establish a more balanced economy based upon more than just manufacturing, with sports and entertainment industries seen as areas for investment. In China, companies are reliant on good relationships with the authorities and therefore are often inclined to help with initiatives seen as in the national interest."

As discussed by Sam Wallace in his piece on China's economic powerhouse spreading its footballing reach, the coach of the Brazilian champions Corinthians, Tite, was frank about his club’s defence of their 2015 Brasileirão Serie A title, which has seen them sell four of their leading players to Chinese Super League clubs.

“China screwed us,” said Tite. “Keeping big players raises the standard but, unfortunately the reality for us has been different.”

There are around 25 top Brazilians currently in the Chinese top-flight alone, as well as Luiz Felipe Scolari, coach of last season’s national side. Mano Menezes, another former Brazil national team coach, is in charge of Shandong Luneng, while a third former Brazil coach, Vanderlei Luxemburgo, manages Tianjin Quanjian in the second division.

However, the major change over the past six months has been the shift from signing relatively unknown Brazilians from South American clubs to attracting high-profile names from leading European sides. If Chinese clubs have their way the likes of Martinez, Teixeira and Ramires will be just the tip of the iceberg with Chelsea believed to have turned down an incredible £75million offer from Jiangsu Suning for Oscar.

Jiangsu are also thought to be planning a move for Yaya Toure at the end of this season and are prepared to pay an astonishing £30million-a-year for the Ivorian in wages.

What is life like in Chinese football?

The president's sudden interest in boosting the profile of the Chinese Super League is not currently matched by the country's masses, but that is not say that changes are not sweeping in. As is the case in the majority of "lesser footballing nations" around the world, interest in the big foreign leagues far outweighs that of the local top flight.

"Football is on the TV all the time here, not just the Premier League or the Champions League, but all the European leagues," says Shanghai SIPG manager Sven Goran Eriksson.

But while European football is king, any impression that Chinese top flight games are played in soulless, empty stadiums would be incorrect.

The league's average attendance last season stood at around 22,000 (a 17 per cent increase on the previous season), with targets to double that number over the course of the next decade.

The reach of the Chinese Super League is almost certain to grow further thanks to a new bumper television deal. While last year Chinese broadcasters paid just US$9m to show local league games, that figure has risen a quite remarkable amount this season after China Media Capital (those folks of Manchester City state-backed investment fame) outbid state broadcaster CCTV to pay US$1.2 billion for the television rights over the next five years.

On the field there are a number of rules in place to promote growth among Chinese players. All goalkeepers in the top flight must be Chinese and there can be no more than three foreign players, plus one from other countries affiliated to the Asian Football Confederation, on the pitch at any one time.

Where could this end?

Jason Burt reports that when asked on Friday morning whether the European leagues should be worried about China's willingness to spend such vast amounts of money, Wenger replied: “Yes, of course, because China looks to have the financial power to move the whole game to China. We know it’s just a consequence of economic power and they have that.

“Will they sustain their desire to do it? Let’s remember a few years ago Japan [where Wenger coached before moving to Arsenal] started to do it and they slowed down. I don’t know how deep the desire in China is now but it’s a very deep political desire then we should be worried.”

With an £8billion Premier League television rights deal soon kicking in, Wenger has also predicted that Chinese spending could have a significant impact on transfer fees and wages.

“Inflation is on our door,” he said. “The next TV deal will move up again transfer prices and soon the £100m target will be easy to reach.”

Indeed if Oscar is worth £75million then it is easy to imagine a Chinese club offering enormous figures for all manner of top-class players this summer. China could well be at the forefront of a footballing revolution.