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In sporting terms, China are the new kids on the block. At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, the country collected just 16 gold medals, but this dramatically increased over a 12-year period and in Beijing, China claimed 51. They are ranked number one in the world across a variety of sports from table tennis to diving and women's beach volleyball. What's more, their rise is unlikely to slow down.
There is also no immediate reason why China should not be successful in footballing terms. It has 1.35 billion inhabitants and is leading the world economy (covering the arses of half of Europe). Although the gap between rich and poor is notoriously stark, there is a fantastic potential fanbase that has provided sufficient evidence to assume that merchandise and tickets will continue to be sold in considerable quantities. The country has 66 stadiums that are solely used for football with a capacity of 20,000 or above (20 more than England), the third largest train network and the second largest road network in the world.
The fact remains, however, that until recently Chinese football had yet to make its mark on the world stage. The national team have qualified for the World Cup on only one occasion, and have never even won the Asian Cup. They currently sit a lowly 68th in the FIFA World Rankings (I know, I know, pinch of salt) and have already failed to qualify for Brazil in 2014, finishing behind Iraq and Jordan in the first qualification stage. For a country that is passionate about the sport, football is a national joke.
But this doesn't mean that China and its football clubs aren't trying to make significant waves. In the last year Seydou Keita and Fabio Rochemback (Dalian Aerbin), Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka (Shanghai Shenhua) and Yakubu (Guangzhou R&F) have moved to the Chinese Super League (CSL) in the last year, and Marcello Lippi has been tempted to manage Guangzhou Evergrande. Even the national team have made statements, with former Real Madrid and Spain manager Jose Antonio Camacho taking over the reins in August 2011.
For the privilege, Drogba will be paid £193,000 per week, and Anelka's wage is certainly no less. It is clear that China's clubs mean business, but aren't they going about this in exactly the wrong way? Paying a 34-year-old nearly a million pounds a month might create fame, media interest and a stir, but it does very little in terms of cultivating a league that is desperately short in other areas. In a footballing sense, China is stomping its feet and shouting, but doing very little to actually improve itself.
China is not the first country to approach things backwardly. In 1985, the North American Soccer League (NASL) hosted its last game. Following the lead of 'superclub' New York Cosmos, millions were spent by owners of clubs without knowledge of the game on aging foreign stars with the intention of copying the Cosmos' blueprint, only to make significant losses. Such players were selected for every game (regardless of performance) at the expense of North American players, who were relegated to the bench. By 1985, only two teams were interested in continuing the league.
More recently, the Middle East has fallen foul of such a warped ideal, and the Qatar Stars League is a prime example. In 2003 the Qatari government gave each club a large grant. This was not to invest in youth talent or training facilities, but instead to simply fund moves for foreign players. Many obliged, including Gabriel Batistuta and Pep Guardiola, but again such short-termism was a bubble destined to burst. By 2009/10, the Qatar Stars League had an average attendance of just 4,200, and league champions Lekhiwa have Madjid Bougherra as their recognisable face. Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and the UAE are all further illustrations, and yet nobody learns.
The crucial issue here is that whilst other advances in cultural developments can be 'shortcutted' through economic profligacy, countries such as China must realise that football is almost unique due to the necessary additional presence of tradition and prestige. The lack of tradition within the CSL determines that high-profile mercenaries seeking a last hurrah will be the league's principle friend. Instead of short-term fame, China's league and FA should instead be focusing on building solid foundations for the future.
Moreover, their infatuation with footballing celebrity has taken Chinese football's eye off the ball, allowing an undercurrent of damaging influences to emerge, and corruption has been China's most notable footballing export of the last decade. Last month two former heads of the Chinese FA were jailed for taking money for sponsorship deals, four former national team members were jailed for match fixing, and their highest-profile referee Lun Ju was jailed for five years for the same. As farcical as it may seem, in 2009 Qingdao's owner Du Yunqi was publicly irate after his team failed to score a late own goal whilst 3-0 up. Dunqi, it became clear, had bet on four goals being scored in the match. The hope is that this latest raft of legal investigation will eradicate some of these corrosive problems, but the issue is deep-rooted and widespread. Without a clean slate, China will struggle to progress.
However, China's principle limiting factor may be politics, and Xi Jinping, the future President, is a known football fan. China's largest clubs are owned by wealthy businessmen, and it is suspected that the marquee signings from abroad are merely an effort to boost the profile of the Chinese Super League in an attempt to gain political sway or advantage. That is certainly the opinion of Chinese commentator Tony Shao: "Jinping is a great fan of football. If you make a special connection with high-level officials in government, then you definitely get yourself an advantage in business." To this effect, China's clubs, and therefore its fans, are being used as mere pawns in a game, with western stars utilised as political golden handshakes.
The formula for success is predictably evident and yet worryingly distant. China's grassroots game is suffering woefully from under-investment, and connections between clubs and local community are inept. Funding is needed in academies and training facilities outside of the top clubs, a pan-Asia scouting network established and scholarships offered to the best young players across the continent. Rather than recognised western players, instead increased (but not excessive) salaries should be offered to some notable European youth coaches who can help the next generation of Chinese footballers.
Rather than using the Premier League or La Liga as the oasis in the desert, the CSL must walk before it can run, attempting to replicate the success of the J-League in Japan and then the youth development of the Brazilian or Argentinian leagues. It may take ten, 20 or 50 years but, as discussed, there are few shortcuts in football. After all, China first started playing the game 2,000 years ago, and progression at an amateur level has been dangerously slight thus far.
China may have the passionate fans, stadia and infrastructure, but the true pinnacle of sporting contest is that competitors wish to partake for the glory and the honour, rather than the money, with the Olympics and the World Cup perfect examples. At the moment the CSL is the antithesis of this principle. At some point, as a footballing nation China will need to decide whether it wants fame and notoriety or development and improvement. These differing ideals may be mutually exclusive.