Sunday, February 7, 2016

In a twist, Chinese imports make headlines

As usual, when a sudden shift takes people by surprise, closer analysis shows the elements leading up to said shift have been percolating for quite some time. For Euro-centric football fans, the most recent shock to their system is the "sudden" emergence of China as a competitor for some of the world's most in-demand talent.

Between them, Jiangsu Suning and Chinese Super League champions Guangzhou Evergrande combined to break the Chinese transfer record three times in the space of a week. Jiangsu bought Ramires from Chelsea (21.5 million euros, or US$24 million) before Guangzhou signed Jackson Martinez from Atletico Madrid (31.7 million euros), only for Jiangsu to trump them with a 50 million euro move for Alex Texeira of Shakhtar Donetsk. This last transfer seems to have put some European noses out of joint as Texeira was considered a hot candidate to sign with Liverpool, whose bid was rejected in favor of Jiangsu's.

Predictably, this led to howls of derisive laughter and claims that Texeira and those joining him in moving east were sabotaging their careers for the promise of filthy Chinese lucre. It's fashionable to mock players who move in pursuit of more money, but stop and think for a moment. While estimates vary, the average length of a professional player's career is about eight to 10 years. If they're still playing in their mid-30s, when most workers start entering their peak earning years, they get accused of being "past it" and hanging on for one last paycheck. Think about that -- eight to 10 years to earn the vast majority of the money you'll have to support yourself and your family for many years to come. No wonder many players take the approach of getting what they can, when they can. If you could triple or quadruple your paycheck for the next eight to 10 years but had to move to Ulaanbataar to do it, how many people reading this would say no?

The cynical view suggests European clubs are jealous of the financial clout of their Chinese counterparts and perhaps don't feel the Super League is a worthy stage for talents such as Martinez and Texeira. There may be an element of this, but while it's worth asking just how much European officials, coaches, and fans actually know about the quality of football in China and Asia, there are legitimate concerns, too. There is definitely a sense that clubs are moving away from their community-oriented roots and becoming the playthings of global investors, which the recent influx of Chinese ownership groups into Europe only exacerbates. In addition, Arsene Wenger raised the question of how much Chinese money will inflate an already overheated transfer market where nine-figure transfer fees are all but inevitable.

That said, Wenger's worry that "China looks to have the financial power to move a whole league of Europe to China" is a bit overstated. Like most leagues in Asia -- though not those stubborn Australians -- the Super League limits the number of foreign players clubs can sign. They can have five foreigners on their books, but only four can be on the gameday roster and one must be from an Asian Football Association member nation. Don't expect the CSL to end up like the old North American Soccer League, where only mandates to play domestic talent preserved what little North American flavor the league possessed.

It's all part of the plan
How did China suddenly become a force in the world football market? Like many things in the country, it starts from the top down.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is known to be an avid football fan, and lately he's been on something of a charm offensive as he uses the sport in his political and diplomatic efforts. His sweeping vision for China's football future is fitting in a land where five-year plans and grand ambitions are de rigueur.
Xi fired the starting gun on this startling spree last year declaring his intention to turn China into a “soccer powerhouse”, uncoupling the game’s administration from central government and unveiling a 50-point plan that will ultimately lead to China not only hosting the World Cup but winning it.
“Revitalising soccer is a must to build China into a sports powerhouse as part of the Chinese dream. It is also what the people desire,” said the central reform group, led by Xi, who has targeted improving the sport economy as a key priority, even against the backdrop of recent market turmoil. The investment planned is a mind-boggling $850bn in the next decade.
Guangzhou, meanwhile, laid down a blueprint much of the Super League is trying to emulate. They teamed up with Real Madrid and started a youth academy of a startling size and sweep. Rather than splash out on aging, big name players (like certain other leagues), Guangzhou focused on finding up-and-coming South American talent. The likes of Elkeson, Muriqi, Ricardo Goulart, and Dario Conca may not be household names across the world, but they are among the continent's best young talents and all were willing to swap a crumbling economy and debt-ridden clubs for a new challenge and a greater sense of safety and security. Being paid in full and on time, and not having to worry about you or your family being kidnapped while going to the grocery store, can be very persuasive when those things aren't already in your life.

Another, less publicized aspect of China's rise to prominence is Chinese investors taking control of clubs in Europe. In the past few years, the likes of Slavia Prague (Czech Republic), Sochaux (France), ADO Den Haag (Netherlands), and Espanyol (Spain) have been taken over by Chinese groups. In addition, Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour recently sold a 13 percent stake in the club worth more than $384 million to China Media Capital (who, coincidentally, recently paid $1.2 billion for five years of Super League broadcasting rights, a sharp rise from the $9 million broadcasters paid last season).

Chinese money spends just as well as anyone else's, and clubs that are mired in debt can't be all that choosy when it comes to potential investors. As anyone familiar with foreign aid -- Chinese, American, or otherwise -- knows, though, it rarely comes without strings attached and is no guarantee of success. Sochaux has struggled since being taken over by Chinese firm Ledus last year -- a deal that ended a long association with Peugeot, who founded the club in 1928. ADO fans, meanwhile, are fed up with new owner Wang Hui, whose promised investment has slowed to a trickle. Statements such as this from Wang likely will not help matters.
Wang, in an interview in his Beijing office, said he was merely recalculating his strategy, but he also pointedly said that he was under no obligation to do more than he had.
“After I pay the takeover, the club is mine,” he said. “It is my business in terms of how much I will invest in the club.”
Doors open both ways
As part of the ADO takeover, Gao Hongbo (who has since left and become coach of the Chinese national team for a second time) joined the club's coaching staff as an assistant. Such moves are small in scale but still significant. This approach -- sort of a football equivalent to technology transfer -- can help Chinese coaches and players gain experience in Europe and complement the growth taking place back home.

Such an approach must be taken carefully -- look no further than the blowback from Chinese firm Ledman's sponsorship of the Portuguese second division for reasons why. The initial agreement required Chinese players to be included in 10 teams and have a "minimum usage rate". It was later rewritten to remove the playing time requirement; whether there is any lasting PR damage remains to be seen. If China is working toward being seen as a viable football power, the last thing it needs is its players being resented by fans and teammates for getting preferential treatment and perhaps receiving the Junichi "T-shirt" Inamoto treatment.

That is not to say opening avenues in Europe for Chinese players is a waste of time. The right combination of investors, league, and players could create opportunities other Asian nations could only envy, and the inspirational effect of having players flying your country's flag in some of the world's top leagues should not be underestimated. China's FIFA ranking of 93 (right between Botswana and the Faroe Islands) makes receiving a UK work permit difficult, Spain's limit of three non-EU players leaves little wiggle room, and Italy's regulations are suitably Byzantine in their complexity.

Then again, Germany doesn't limit non-EU players (it mandates a certain number of homegrown players), the right sponsor could help pay down the $600,000 minimum non-EU salary in the Dutch Eredivisie, and the minimum non-EU salary in Belgium is even lower (reportedly around $120,000 or so). The Bakrie Group, an Indonesian conglomerate, has bought several clubs including Belgian second-division side CS Vise, which it uses as a feeder club for players in its youth programs. A similarly ambitious Chinese firm could duplicate that model, if not improve upon it.

I come to you now, at the turning of the tide
What does this all mean? Is everything we know and love going to be Sinocized? Should we all start learning Chinese now? In short: 42, probably not, and you could do worse things with your spare time.

History shows that what is deemed inevitable often ends up being quite evitable (aside from death, taxes, and the Cubs breaking your heart, of course). Remember when Japan was inevitably going to overhaul the United States as the world's top economy? Or when Alexander Karelin winning Greco-Roman wrestling gold was as close to a sure thing as there was in sports? Chinese clubs will be able to outspend all but the biggest West Asian clubs; that much is pretty certain. What is less certain is how well these new signings will integrate into their clubs and communities, how they view their time in China in the arc of their careers, and how quickly the level of Chinese players rises to match that of the imported talent. Even with one of the best in the business leading the way, grassroots development is an inexact science.

At the very least, recent developments should give Asian football a welcome shake-up. Asia's usual World Cup cadre of Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Iran need to come under pressure from the next tier down and be made to work to maintain their place at the top of the pecking order. At the moment, China looks to be the best hope for a new challenger. The Saudis are well off their best -- to the point where they're pulling shenanigans just to get past Palestine -- and how well-built Qatar and the UAE are for the long haul is questionable. Who else is there -- Jordan? Uzbekistan? North Korea? The pickings are slim.

Only time will tell if this is a fad phase, much like the J-League enjoyed in the 1990s, or if it's China fully realizing its footballing potential. Recent news of China's slowing economic growth only injects further uncertainty into the discussion, and as big a football fan as President Xi is, odds are swiping the 2022 World Cup out from under Qatar's nose is quite a ways behind shoring up China's banking sector and boosting the birth rate in his list of priorities.

In the meantime, fans of Asian football should welcome the rise of the Chinese Super League. At worst, it will open eyes around the world to the true quality of Asian football and dispel some pernicious stereotypes. At best, it will force China's peers in Asia to raise their game in order to keep their place, as well as further deflating the bubble of assumed European primacy. Either way, it should be fun to watch.

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