How China is sneaking its way into English football

How China is sneaking its way into English football

CARLOS TEVEZ, CLAD IN A DEEP BLUE KIT, stepped out onto the pitch and soaked in the adulation of thousands of impassioned fans. It’s a scenario that the Argentine has encountered hundreds of times before, but on this occasion he was a long way from the familiar surroundings of La Bombonera. Instead, he found himself at Hongkou Stadium, where he made his first competitive appearance for Shanghai Shenhua. Things did not go according to plan.

Tevez, widely claimed to be the world’s highest paid player after signing a two-year contract reportedly worth over £600,000 per week, cut a disconsolate figure as his new side were knocked out of the Asian Champions League qualifying round after a 2-0 loss. Gus Poyet had partnered his new signing with Obafemi Martins – a pair that would’ve been the Premier League’s most in-demand strikeforce circa 2008 –  but they were unable to make the difference as Shenhua succumbed to Brisbane Roar. 

The Roar are in the middle of their domestic season while the Chinese club have yet to begin theirs, but the fact that one of the match-winners for the Australians was Tommy Oar, a player who struggled to get a game during a recent brief spell at Ipswich Town, indicates just how far Chinese club football has left to go to become a force on the continental and world stage.

Despite the negative, season-dampening result, the game garnered an amount of coverage in mainstream western sports media that would’ve been unthinkable even 12 months ago. In that regard, Carlos Tevez has already begun to prove his value.

After all, beyond adding vast experience and considerable playing ability to a growing competition, that’s what the marquee signings are designed to do: raise the profile of the league.  The strategy is simple – chuck cash at big name players to draw attention to, and enhance the reputation of, Chinese football, which should in turn make the league a more attractive prospect for talented players as well as lucrative broadcasting and sponsorship deals.

The locus of Chinese club’s forays into the Premier League transfer market so far has been West London. In January 2016, Jiangsu Suning bought Ramires from Chelsea and a year later Shanghai SIPG, managed by former Blues coach André Villas-Boas, broke the Asian transfer record by spending £60 million on Oscar. In between those two monster deals, Tianjin TEDA plucked John Obi Mikel away on a free transfer and Diego Costa’s head was turned by a mindboggling offer last month, resulting in the striker sitting out a game while the issue was resolved internally at Cobham.

Deals such as these have caused much consternation and provoked the censure of many critics in England. There’s been a tendency for commenters to haughtily look down their noses at the exploits of the nouveau riche and ignore the fact that the major difference between the business models of the two divisions is that the Premier League has had a 20-year head start.

Understandably, all of this has been well documented, with gallons of ink spilt and countless column inches dedicated to covering this aspect of the Chinese football revolution. However, there is a less glitzy, less glamorous side to China’s new infatuation with football, specifically English football, that receives less attention.



At the end of January, Katharina Liebherr released a press statement on Southampton’s club website regarding a mooted deal with Lander Holding. The Saints’ owner outlined a “potential partnership” that still required strict criteria to be fulfilled before confirmation, but suggested that in order for the club to sustain its success in the increasingly competitive Premier League, they needed to move “forward and look to new markets for commercial growth, innovation and to share our journey.”

If and when the Lander deal is formally agreed, it would make Southampton the sixth English club to have received investment from China. Four of those are owned outright by Chinese businessmen, all of which are located in the Midlands.

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Carson Yeung was the first to make the move when he purchased Birmingham City from Davids Gold and Sullivan in 2009. A relegation to the Championship and a subsequent conviction for money-laundering meant his tenure at the club was catastrophic and the turmoil continued until last October when Trillion Trophy Asia, a company owned by Paul Suen Cho Hung, took over the reins.

The takeover over at St. Andrews came several months after their city rivals had the blow of their relegation from the Premier League softened by Tony Xia’s £76 million acquisition of the club from Randy Lerner. Dr. X, as Xia is affectionately known by Villa fans, has endeared himself to supporters with his unbridled enthusiasm, shameless ambition and his virtually indecipherable transfer equations on Twitter. Relations with fans have been eased by the fact that Villa’s substantial transfer spending over the course of the last two transfer windows has nearly doubled Xia’s initial investment, including a £30 million outlay on strikers Ross McCormack, Jonathan Kodjia and Scott Hogan – the equivalent of approximately half a Carlos Tevez.

Most of the new Chinese owners have been happy to operate with a low profile, allowing the existing club infrastructure, or intermediaries they’ve installed, to handle the running of the club while they oversee things from the backseat. The new Villa chairman has placed himself at the forefront of the club’s day-to-day activity, making Xia something of an outlier.

The owners of West Brom and Wolves have both tended towards a quieter, more conventional approach to help ease fans into their respective new regimes. Wolves were purchased by the Fosun Group, an international conglomerate with their fingers in asset management, investment and real estate pies alongside their entertainment ventures, and have thus far utilised connections with Jorge Mendes to bolster their playing staff. Meanwhile, West Brom have yet to see any significant transfer spend by their new owners since Jeremy Peace was bought out by new owner Guochuan Lai in the summer.

It’s part of a wider trend that has manifested itself across European football over the last few seasons. A variety of Chinese businesses have bought controlling stakes in Espanyol and Granada in Spain, FC Sochaux and Nice in France, Internazionale in Italy (as well as AC Milan, who’ve seemingly been on the cusp of a takeover for ages without it ever quite happening), ADO Den Haag in the Netherlands and Slavia Prague in the Czech Republic.

On top of these outright takeovers, the Dalian Wanda group acquired a 20 percent share of Atlético Madrid in 2015 and a private equity fund bought a similar share in Olympique Lyonnais in 2016. In late 2015, City Football Group, Manchester City’s parent company, sold a 13 percent stake to a consortium of Chinese investors following a visit to the Etihad by Xi Jinping, a trip that spawned a strong contender for the most bizarre selfie ever taken: Sergio Agüero sandwiched between the Chinese president and David Cameron.

The question, then, is why is this happening?

It’s obviously worth acknowledging that these owners come from a variety of backgrounds, with distinct business aims and objectives that fit with their own overarching business strategies, but the interest in football is partially due to a broader economic restructuring taking part in China as they move away from a reliance on manufacturing and construction to focus instead on the entertainment and services industries – hence why a number of these companies buying football clubs also have financial interests in sports marketing or broadcasting. That said, from a pure investment standpoint, it’s easy to understand the rationale behind some of these moves.

Both Nice and Inter, for instance, were underperforming clubs playing in financially weaker leagues where spending big on transfer fees and wages could easily catapult those teams into contention at the top end of the table, allowing the new owners to enjoy the financial benefits of Champions League football.

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The clustering of Chinese owners in England might seem a bit peculiar at first glance, but it makes more sense with a bit of context. The Birmingham metropolitan area is home to over 3.6 million people, making it the second largest in the UK, and yet it currently only has one top flight club. In fact, for the majority of the Premier League era, the area has failed to produce a club to challenge for silverware and has generally flagged behind when compared to sides from Manchester and the capital. If any of these new investors can find a winning formula, they have a huge catchment area and massive potential for growth.

That makes both Aston Villa and Wolves particularly attractive prospects – both clubs have large, vocal fan bases, sizeable stadiums and impressive training facilities meaning that the groundwork for success is already in place. Spending heavily to reach the Premier League is a significant risk, as the Championship has proven notoriously difficult to navigate for teams who’ve tried to buy their way to success in the past, but considering the riches on offer for clubs who make it to the top division, it’s certainly one worth taking: in the 2016 edition of Deloitte’s Money League, nine of the top 20 (and 17 of the top 30) wealthiest clubs played their football in the Premier League. That proportion is likely to increase when the new Premier League broadcast deal is taken into account for next year’s list. There’s plenty of money to be made for the new owners of Villa, Birmingham and Wolves if they can fight their way out of the Championship.

That proportion is likely to increase when the new Premier League broadcast deal is taken into account for next year’s list. There’s plenty of money to be made for the new owners of Villa, Birmingham and Wolves if they can fight their way out of the Championship.

The eye-watering wealth on offer for playing in England’s top-flight also goes some way to explaining the purchase of West Bromwich Albion. They’ve been a stable, sustainably-run, consistently profitable Premier League side for a number of seasons now and, barring severe mismanagement, Guochuan Lai and his associates look likely to reap the rewards of Sky and BT’s money.

But there’s another purpose for this beyond potential financial gain: intelligence gathering. Not in the tinfoil-hat, destroy-your-sim-cards, cloak-and-daggers espionage sense, but in terms of acquiring expertise.

Xi Jinping has made no secret of his desire to use his nation’s immense resources and vast potential talent pool to turn China into a “world football superpower” by 2050. In order to achieve that goal, the Chinese government published the ‘Football Reform and Development Programme’, a 50-point plan that outlined their aims, including a pledge to build 20,000 training centres and 70,000 pitches by 2025. With this in mind, the monumental sums being funnelled into the Chinese Super League and the increased focus on football has been viewed as an attempt by China’s elite to ingratiate themselves with the government by making tangible demonstrations of their support for the president’s pet project.

While that is certainly at least part of the motivation behind these moves, their purpose is also to gain access to the knowledge European clubs possess when it comes to coaching, youth development, recruitment and club infrastructure – knowledge that can then be utilised back home to improve the quality of the domestic league and provide the expertise to implement Xi’s plan effectively.

The ‘Football Reform and Development Programme’ essentially amounts to a lot of whats (building facilities) and not necessarily a lot of hows, so the investment in European football clubs is an intelligence gathering operation to help develop a proper football culture in China; the software to the Reform and Development Programme’s hardware.

Again, the motivation varies from club to club, but casting a glance back at the sides across Europe who’ve received investment suggests this might be the case. Lyon’s current team is populated with quality players who are graduates of their academy, such as Corentin Tolisso, Alexandre Lacazette, Rachid Ghezzal and Nabil Fekir.

In a similar vein, West Brom’s academy is well regarded and has some talented recent graduates (Izzy Brown, Romaine Sawyers and Saido Berahino) and the next batch, including Tyler Roberts, Sam Field, and Jonathan Leko have started to break their way into the Albion first team and are all rated highly by their countries’ youth international systems.

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Elsewhere, Manchester City’s Etihad campus is a breathtaking, state of the art training facility constructed as part of a regeneration project conducted by the City group. One look at the impressive work they’ve done quickly explains that 13 percent stake purchased in the club’s holding company after Xi Jinping’s visit.

All of which brings us back to Southampton. Liebherr’s characterisation of the deal with Lander as a “partnership” was slightly confusing; the Saints were gaining a benefactor with deep pockets and a foothold into the world’s largest consumer market, but what would the Chinese company be getting in return? If we consider the deal in light of Xi Jinping’s plans, the answer seems to be the expertise of the most consistently well-run club in England.

In recent years, Southampton have been football-club-as-lizard, constantly having their tail pulled off by larger predators and yet able to regenerate themselves to full strength. The Saints’ approach has been much admired, with good reason too, as the top end of English football is littered with players who have graduated from their academy or have spent time at the club – they’ve made in excess of £90million from selling players to Liverpool alone.

Most of those players were signed for comparatively small amounts from across the world, spent time improving at St. Mary’s and then sold on for a healthy profit. There have been a few bumps in the road as the club has made the transition to life under Claude Puel this season – in part due to their failure to adequately replace Graziano Pellè, a player they ironically lost to China – but their ability to be asset-stripped every transfer window and enjoy continued success is down to a solid structure at the club that enables individual parts to be replaced without the underlying framework collapsing.

That’s in no small part due to the contributions of Executive Director (and former Head of Football Development) Les Reed. The former Charlton manager has helped oversee the transformation of a debt-ridden club languishing in the lower reaches of the English football pyramid to and upwardly mobile one – one lauded for its efficiency and its conveyor belt of talent. It’s largely thanks to an analytics-driven approach facilitated by their fabled Black Box – a database of statistical profiles of current Southampton players, at both senior and youth level, as well as of players from across a range of global leagues.

The thinking is that by drawing up profiles of existing players based on key metrics the club have identified, combined with performance data, the club will be able to easily replace players by simply searching their database for someone whose profile matches that of the outgoing player.

The club’s exemplary succession planning and their proven track record of developing players ready for first team football at an elite level – Sam McQueen, Jack Stephens and Josh Sims have all broken through this season –  make the Saints an extremely attractive prospect for anyone looking to learn how to sustainably run a footballing environment and, with their long-term football ambitions in mind, China’s interest in them makes all the sense in the world.

The exorbitant transfer fees and hyper-inflated contracts being offered to players at the minute seems unsustainable and this appears to have been acknowledged; a spokesman from the Chinese government suggested that they’ll set an “upper limit” on spending and has threatened to remove “seriously insolvent” clubs from the league.

The Super League itself has measures in place to try to stimulate the development of Chinese players – the number of foreign players clubs were allowed to register was cut from four to three at the start of the year (with a maximum of three being able to be fielded at any one time) and there’s a blanket ban on non-domestic goalkeepers. Thus far that has only served to inflate the price of existing Chinese players, but in years to come the guarantee of playing time for Chinese nationals in a competitive league could prove beneficial to the national team. This approach, coupled with the investment in clubs across Europe, forms a multi-pronged attempt at cultivating a football culture from scratch.

One of the accusations frequently levelled at China’s newfound interest in football is that they’re trying to buy their way to success. They are, just perhaps not in the way the tabloids would have you believe 

By Tom Mason    Follow @Mase159

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