So, China. It’s all gone a bit bloody mental, hasn’t it? When Chelsea midfielder Oscar is the subject of a £75million bid, something has gone terribly awry. But why now? What has changed to make such an embryonic league one of the most potentially powerful and influential around? Join Football365 as we attempt to make sense of all the madness…
A brief history, if you will…
The Chinese Super League was founded in 2004, a decade after the Jia-A League became the first professional football league in China’s history. Yet the world’s most populous country, boasting over 1.35billion inhabitants, remained serial underachievers at international level. They have qualified for just one World Cup, a winless escapade in 2002, and have never won the Asian Cup, finishing runners-up twice. A 5-1 humiliation at the hands of Thailand in June 2013 saw the national team at its lowest ebb, having fallen to their lowest ever FIFA ranking of 109 just three months prior. But the league system was already undergoing a revamp. The Chinese Super League had been beset by match-fixing problems in its early stages, but 2010 saw the government intervene, leading an anti-corruption movement which tackled the gambling which had pervaded football in the country. Numerous leading figures were arrested, and the sport’s reputation was salvaged.
Where has the money come from?
The government. And, in turn, businesses. A desire for a more balanced economy, coupled with companies wishing to achieve more effective brand recognition, has led a change in attitudes. According to the International Business Times: ‘China’s president Xi Jinping announced a goal to create a domestic sport economy worth $850bn by 2025. At the heart of this goal and the accompanying plan is the aim of hosting and winning the World Cup.’ A bold target, but one which the country has readily accepted. The annual value generated by Ping An Insurance’s sponsorship is ￥150 million per season, the equivalent of £15million. It doesn’t sound a remarkable amount, but considering the league didn’t even have a sponsor in 2005, it points to the steps being taken. It also pales in comparison to the sponsorship deals available to each individual club. As Chinese football expert Chris Atkins told Sky Sports: ‘What companies have also seen from the success of Guangzhou Evergrande is the amount of brand recognition that can be gained from football, allowing diversification. The overall idea is to build a footballing product that puts China on the world map.’ An increase in the league’s television rights deal from ￥60m (£6.2m) in 2015 to ￥8bn (£800m) for 2016 might help.
When does the season run? And where can we watch it?
The Chinese Super League commences in either February or March, ending in November or December each year. Sixteen teams compete, with the top three qualifying for the AFC Champions League. The bottom two sides are relegated to Chinese League One, and the top two from that division are promoted to the top flight. Just like football on these shores. Crazy.
And unless you’re a subscriber to Ti’ao Dongli, you won’t be able to watch the games. Give it a couple of years until it’s on Sky Sports 5: The home of Chinese football.
What’s the quality of football like?
Improving, but still understandably far from their European counterparts. Guangzhou Evergrande, the club who recently purchased Jackson Martinez, have been led to the last five Super League titles by Lee Jang-Soo, Marcello Lippi and Luiz Felipe Scolari. They were only promoted to the top-flight in 2011, have won two of the last three AFC Champions League trophies, and became the first Chinese club to compete in the Club World Cup in 2013. They’re pretty good, basically.
But they are not alone. Jiangsu Suning have captured the imagination with their purchases this winter, while Beijing Guoan, Shanghai SIPG and Shandong Luneng lay claim to the finest talents the country has to offer. The Super League also imposes an international players policy, whereby clubs are restricted to having just five foreign players, of which a team can use a maximum of four each game. The aim is to promote the integration of local players, and it is something which Guangzhou have already looked to implement. The club were assisted by Real Madrid in constructing a brand new academy, one which houses 2,200 students and 22 Spanish coaches. In the words of former Real goalkeeper Miguel Angel: “The dimensions of the complex are unparalleled. No one else has developed a project of this magnitude.” So there.
Improving standards on the pitch are being reflected in attendances. In the Super League’s inaugural season in 2004, the average attendance throughout the division reached just above 10,000. Just over a decade later, that figure is 22,193, comparable to both La Liga and Serie A. The rise of Guangzhou has become a common theme, and they boast an average attendance of 45,809. Only Manchester United, Arsenal, Manchester City and Newcastle attract more in Premier League terms.
Along with Alex Teixeira, you mean? The Brazilian former Liverpool target has become the latest mega-money import, joining Jiangsu Suning in a deal worth £38million. To Teixeira, a 26-year-old as yet uncapped by his country, it is worth a reported €10million euros per season. Or £7.7million. With such a wage, he would become the 10th highest paid player in the world.
The signing of Teixeira will be the third time the Chinese transfer record has been broken this transfer window alone. Chelsea midfielder Ramires joined Jiangsu for £25million, while Martinez’s move to Guangzhou increased that record further. According to the wonderful transfermarkt.com, Chinese clubs have spent £199.5m this transfer window, which ends on February 26; Premier League clubs have spent £175m.
Teixeira and co. will join an established legion of recognisable names in the Far East. Arsenal legend Gervinho joined Hebei East Fortune from Roma in January, while Premier League stalwarts Paulinho and Demba Ba made the move in 2015. How about Fredy Guarian (Shanghai Shenhua), Asamoah Gyan (Shanghai SIPG), Alessandro Diamanti (Guangzhou Evergrande) and Stephane Mbia (Hebei China Fortune)? Uncapped Argentinean Dario Conca became the third-highest paid footballer in the world when he joined Guangzhou in 2011. All are following the trail paved by Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka and Seydou Keita. And Yakubi Aiyegbeni. Could Yaya Toure, John Terry and Wayne Rooney join them soon?
In local terms, Guangzhou defender Zhang Linpeng leads the way. Dubbed ‘the Chinese Sergio Ramos’, Chelsea were once interested in the 26-year-old. Team-mate Zheng Zhi, formerly of Charlton and Celtic, is captain of the club aged 35.
Italy legends Lippi and Cannavaro have previously been tempted to the continent as a manager, while Scolari has been joined in the dugouts by Sven-Göran Eriksson and Alberto Zaccheroni. Don’t forget former Everton midfielder Li Tie, coach of Hebei China Fortune.
So, should Premier League sides be worried? When asked that same question, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger replied: “Yes. Because China looks to have the financial power to move the whole European league to China. We know it is a consequence of economic power. Will they sustain their interest? I don’t know how deep the desire is. If the political desire is there we should worry.”