CHINESE FOOTBALL HAS BEEN GRABBING THE HEADLINES RECENTLY, mainly due to the huge transfer fees that have been paid to entice players to head east. These transfers have made headlines around the world, with plenty of commentators talking about how it may affect the European game, but the effect on football in the rest of Asia has been, to some extent, overlooked.
It is important to put these bank-breaking transfer fees in context. The winter transfer window is usually a quiet time in Europe compared to the summer window; teams are unwilling to break-up their squads by selling key players mid-season, and only the most desperate (or far-sighted) teams are willing to bring in a player who will more than likely take time to adjust to his new surroundings.
In China, on the other hand, this is the pre-season transfer window, so it is expected that Chinese clubs would want to spend big as they build their squads for the upcoming season, which for most of the biggest spenders includes an AFC Champions League campaign. This season, a large windfall from a new broadcasting rights deal has also given clubs some extra cash to splash, leading to an inflationary effect that was also seen in England when the Premier League’s latest TV deal came into place.
Two other factors have helped increase the fees even more. The inability for Chinese clubs to bring in free transfers – due to the July-to-July nature of many contracts – and the unwillingness for European clubs to sell in January, has meant that large sums have been necessary to acquire players that cost more to buy now than they would have if they had been targeted during the summer transfer window. Chinese clubs are also only allowed a limited number of foreign players in their team, meaning that spending that might be spread out over half-a-dozen or so signings is concentrated in one or two players instead. With the top Chinese players moving clubs for huge fees themselves, investment in the best foreign players possible makes sense from a sporting perspective as well as from the marketing side of things.
Although most of the players grabbing the headlines recently are South Americans playing in Europe, it is also worth remembering that Chinese clubs have been picking up some of the best South American players directly from their home continent over the last few years, cutting out the European middlemen. Shanghai SIPG’s Argentine playmaker Darío Conca, for instance, was reportedly the third highest paid player in the world when he was playing for Evergrande in 2011.
Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao are often seen as China’s first super club, and their two AFC Champions League wins suggest that they are the start of a real change in Asian football. Before 2013, the last time that a Chinese team won Asia’s top club competition was back in 1990 when Liaoning FC won what was then called the Asian Club Championship. Since then, Chinese football had been in the wilderness with Korean and Japanese sides winning six of the seven titles on offer between 2006 and 2012.
All that changed when Evergrande beat FC Seoul on away goals in the 2013 two-legged final. With players like Conca and Elkeson, who at the time was on the edge of breaking into the Brazilian national team, Guangzhou had been knocking on the door for a few seasons before their 2013 triumph. Last season, aided by Brazilian internationals Ricardo Goulart and former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Paulinho, Guangzhou won their second AFC Champions League title in three years, cementing their dominance at the top of Asian football.
However, one team does not make a league. Their comparative financial strength has allowed them to acquire all of the best domestic talent available and, as a result, win the Chinese Super League every season for the past five years. However, with the exception of Guangzhou, no other Chinese team has managed to reach the quarter-final stage of the Champions League in recent years. With only Guangzhou to beat, teams from other nations still have a real chance of glory.
Western Sydney Wanderers, for example, managed to beat the Chinese giants in the quarter-finals of the 2014 competition before going on to win the whole thing; a remarkable achievement for a club that had only been formed a couple of years earlier. Unfortunately for Sydney, and their Korean and Japanese counterparts, future editions of the AFC Champions League will feature stronger Chinese opposition as Guangzhou’s rivals in the Chinese Super League are slowly catching up with them – both on the field and off it.
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Shanghai SIPG took Guangzhou right down to the wire in last season’s title race, finishing just two points behind the Chinese champions. Managed by former England head coach Sven Göran-Eriksson, Shanghai, perhaps wary of the acclimatization issues and homesickness that foreign players can suffer (Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka’s short spell at local rivals Shanghai Shenhua springs to mind), took the safe option and acquired Guangzhou’s AFC Champions League winning star Elkeson. The fee that they paid for Elkeson, in the region of £14.5 million, would certainly have grabbed headlines itself if Elkeson had moved from Europe rather than Guangdong. Elkeson joined his former Evergrande teammate Darío Conca, who was already at Shanghai, along with former Sunderland striker Asamoah Gyan; the Ghanaian reportedly on a salary of over £200,000 a week.
Shandong Luneng and Jiangsu Suning make up the rest of China’s Asian Champions League contingent, and it is the latter’s story that is largely responsible for the recent headlines about Chinese spending. In November, the club, who at the time were known as Jiangsu Sainty, beat Shanghai Greenland Shenhua to win the Chinese FA Cup. This victory, coupled with the place in the Asian Champions League that comes with it, attracted the attention of electronics retailer Suning Commerce Group who bought the club and renamed it after themselves.
With Suning’s financial clobber behind them, the club brought in Ramires from Chelsea, Alex Teixeira from Shakhtar Donetsk, along with Manchester City flop Jô, and Australia international defender Trent Sainsbury. However, manager Dan Petrescu has been trying to downplay Jiangsu’s chances this season. The Romanian has been getting his excuses in early, citing the loss of Chinese international Sun Ke, who moved to Tianjin Quanjian for a fee of around £7 million, as a reason why fans should not expect instant success.
The steady emergence of several strong Chinese teams should be a real concern to the continental ambitions of Asia’s other clubs. In 2014, for the pragmatic reason of trying to shorten traveling distances, Asia’s premier competition was split into two halves, with East and West Asia only meeting in the final of the competition. This, combined with stronger Chinese opposition, may mean that fewer and fewer Australian, Korean, and Japanese clubs reach the latter stages of the competition in future years.
On the other hand, the emergence of a strong domestic football scene in China could be a boon financially for the A-League, K-League, and J-League. With a massive potential audience in China, the amount of money that could enter Asian football through sponsorship, advertising and broadcasting rights could revitalize a game that, at least in Korea, is struggling to match its 2002 heyday.
The Hyundai group have already anticipated such a change. Noticing that Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors’ run to the quarter-finals of last year’s competition – where they were eliminated by Gamba Osaka in the last minute of extra time – led to a large increase in the exposure of the Hyundai brand within Asia, the company have been willing to back the club at a time when Korea’s other conglomerates are cutting back their sporting expenditures. Jeonbuk may not have made any headline-grabbing signings this transfer window, but they have bought up pretty much the best that the K-League has to offer, and have a team with enough strength in depth to compete in Asia as well as domestically.
The early growth of the Chinese Super League led to a mini exodus from the K-League as the league’s top players moved to China, however, with only one place in the line-up for a non-Chinese Asian player, and with China now able to attract the top foreign players from Europe, the movement of players from Korea to China may be less of an issue in the future. This is especially true when it comes to the K-League’s foreign players, who unfortunately aren’t at the same level as Paulinho or Elkeson. Indeed, when FC Seoul reached the Champions League final in 2013, their captain Ha Dae-Sung and star striker Dejan Damjanović were picked up by Chinese teams.
In the latest transfer window they have both left China, with Damjanović returning to FC Seoul and Ha Dae-Sung moving to FC Tokyo. Rather than the growth of the Chinese Super League being a threat to Korean and Japanese sides, the increased revenues from marketing, sponsorship, and potentially broadcasting rights and gate receipts may in fact boost football in East Asia.
Restrictions on the number of foreign players allowed in a squad prevent China from importing the entire English Premier League to the CSL, and while big money signings will most likely continue, the emergence of high-quality domestic players will be key to the future success of Chinese football. Unlike Qatar or other nations, who have gone down the route of buying superstars to improve their domestic game, China does have real potential to be a footballing powerhouse due to its large population and relative lack of other competing sports.
However, despite the considerable investment that the country has made in youth football recently, China still has a long way to go before they will be qualifying for the World Cup on a regular basis.
In January this year, Korea and Japan played out the final of the AFC under-23 Championship, with Japan coming from two goals down to dramatically win the match 3-2. Those two nations, along with third-placed Iraq, qualified for the 2016 Olympics through the tournament. China, on the other hand, not only failed to make it out of the group stage, but failed to pick up a single point, losing all three games to Qatar, Iran, and Syria.
Recent investment in the Chinese game is still perhaps a generation away from baring fruit. The national team’s current FIFA ranking, just one place above that of the Faroe Islands, shows the size of the task at hand, and although the quality of Chinese domestic players will improve in time, it won’t happen overnight.
China will be hoping that their foreign superstars can help raise the game domestically in the short term, but they still have a long way to go before they will truly be a footballing superpower.
By Steve Price. Follow @kleaguefootball