It’s the 84th minute of a helter-skelter contest between Shijiazhuang Ever Bright and Jiangsu Suning when a Colombian striker by the name of Martínez surges into the box and kills the game with a rising drive into the top right corner. It’s an understatement to say Martínez has taken the Chinese Super League (CSL) by storm, this was goal number eight from his opening six games.
But this isn’t Jackson Martínez, the former Porto powerhouse whose move to Guangzhou Evergrande from under the noses of Europe’s big boys was heralded by Western media as the “true” arrival of China into world football markets. This is Roger Martínez, a precociously talented 22-year-old who impressed in Los Cafeteros’ run to the Olympic quarter-finals. Although his arrival in China went largely unnoticed, the template of his transfer will likely become more familiar over the coming years.
Martínez plays for Jiangsu Suning, a club backed by the same group that recently purchased a healthy chunk of Inter Milan. The loud whispers of his inevitable transfer to Italy come as no surprise with Jiangsu acting as an unsubtle and expensively furnished paperweight.
But the story of this other Martínez does more than simply highlight the financial interconnectivity of modern football; it offers the possibility of China becoming a lucrative stepping stone for South American talent.
The world’s football media focused primarily on big bucks transfers in January when China was afforded the attention of something equivalent to journalistic stoppage time. Fredy Guarín £11m, Ramires £22m, Jackson Martínez £35m, Alex Teixeira £41m; big shiny numbers snatch attention but ignore the host of talented younger South Americans now plying their trade in the Middle Kingdom.
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The names Conca, Ricardo Goulart and Augusto Renato, who all play in China’s top division, haven’t featured on Sky Sports’ countdown transfer bonanzas and are probably unfamiliar to most European football fans. They shouldn’t be. They won Brazil’s Bola de Ouro in 2010, 2014, 2015 respectively. The award is a more statistically driven version of Britain’s Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year and in the past 10 years has been won by illustrious players such as Neymar, Adriano, and Lucas Leiva.
The relative anonymity of these current CSL players partially shows the waning economic power of Brazilian clubs forced to sell their top players at increasingly younger ages. But it also suggests Chinese clubs adopting a model made famous by Shakhtar Donetsk of taking on the South American talent that major European clubs are not willing to risk purchasing.
Superficially, Alex Teixeira seems the only connection between the CSL and the Ukraine superpower. Dig deeper, however, and it becomes evident that The Miners have been able to achieve precisely what many CSL clubs crave. Namely, establish an internationally respected football brand, play the beautiful game with flair and gusto, and become a centre renowned for nurturing young talent.
Although local billionaire Rinat Akhmetov catalysed the project through generous injections of his fortune, the club’s development into a reputable Champions League side (prior to the devastating outbreak of separatist conflict in 2015) has been achieved through diligent adherence to a plan. Build a world-class training facility, develop players through an academy system, hire a foreign manager, and attract young South American talent with the lure of high wages and European Cup football. With the exception of Champions League and Europa League football, Shakhtar’s strategy is directly applicable to many cash-rich CSL clubs.
Arguably the most challenging aspect of this project for Chinese clubs is the development of state-of-the-art training programs because it entails professional expertise that must be imported. Aside from shrewd profiteering, this is the benefit of Chinese investment in academy-style clubs such as Manchester City, Atlético Madrid, Aston Villa and the rest. They offer ready-made models of footballing success to imitate and also provide a host of valuable connections.
These modern day manoeuvres echo Gu Mu’s 1978 reconnaissance mission to Western Europe, which was a month-long trip sanctioned by Deng Xiaoping as a way to learn from advanced industrialised countries. Just as China used foreign direct investment (FDI) to up-skill local labour and develop industry and technology to levels comparable to previously superior countries, so too government initiates are attempting to replicate the results albeit in the field of football.
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The yields won’t happen overnight, not least because clubs need to find the local talent to develop in the first place, but don’t be surprised when the training facilities and sport science advancements of Shanghai Shenhua or Hebei China Fortune are talked about in the same breath as Etihad Campus or La Masia.
Guangzhou Evergrande is perhaps the current leader in imitating the Shakhtar model. Similar to Mircea Lucescu’s control in Ukraine, the whole coaching set up was overhauled by Luiz Felipe Scolari who brought in an entourage of eight Brazilians that stretches to the reserve team fitness coach. The World Cup winner’s first team fuses Chinese national team defenders and midfielders with Goulart, Paulinho, and Jackson Martínez, a trio of South American attacking panache.
Since 2012 Guangzhou has steadily amassed a greedy portion of China’s national team, similar to the way Shakhtar could boast 11 players selected for the most recent Ukraine squad. Among these players are the nation’s captain Feng Xiaoting and Chinese football legend Zheng Zhi, and this element of Guangzhou monopolising Chinese talent is fundamental in a league where only three foreign players can be on the field at any one time. The results speak for themselves: Guangzhou is looking to win this year’s CSL for the sixth consecutive time and won the AFC Champions League in 2013 and 2015.
It is this quota that draws a further parallel between the dealings of Shakhtar and CSL clubs. Namely, the will to sell these star foreign imports on to their next destination- albeit for different reasons. The South Americans who graced the Donbass Arena understood that through diligence and impressive Champions League performances they could earn a transfer to one of Europe’s big clubs. Selling was mutually beneficial as it provided the Ukrainian club with sizable profits and the players with improved footballing and living environments.
It is yet to be seen if the aforementioned South American starlets will be sold to top European clubs but logic suggests that provided with suitably lucrative offers, Chinese clubs will sell and refill their quota with other promising players.
The big transfers by CSL clubs that turned heads may have been quietly mocked for seemed foolhardy and naïve, but you need only ask Elkeson about the ruthlessness that runs the leading Chinese clubs. Despite being the top scorer in the league winning side, the Brazilian was sold by Guangzhou Everglade to make room for Jackson Martínez.
By Richard Whiddington. Follow @EnglishBlase