China – Future football dynasty? Not in our lifetime

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Much like the broken record heard in the United States for the past four decades, big-name imports mean the Chinese league is being hotly tipped to be the next force in world football.

On a recent radio phone-in, one of the game’s most experienced journalists claimed that the best of the beautiful game and the mass of its passionate following are gravitating from Western and Central Europe towards the East.

On the face of it, it is hard to dismiss such a swiftly concluded remark. The arrivals of the likes of Nicolas Anelka, Didier Drogba, Yakubu and Frederic Kanoute have started to put Chinese football on the map.

But having qualified for just one World Cup finals in their history, and with football’s global potential ever increasing, the onus is on those in and around Chinese football to reach out. With the enormous wages funded by business hulks, the recent signings have confirmed that part one of raising Chinese football’s profile is complete.

However, empires are not built by ageing footballers, and no matter what international appeal they may conjure, the distinct lack of grassroots interest will take more to reverse than offering a retirement home to some of the world’s most well known players.

In fact, the bundles of cash thrown at the game can have the opposite effect. As noted in May’s edition of FourFourTwo, the north of China and areas surrounding the capital Beijing see the southern spending spree as a show of arrogance and impatience, with Shanghai Shenhua and Guangzhou Evergrande two of the main culprits.

With former Chelsea teammates Drogba and Anelka joining forces at Shenhua, and Paraguayan Lucas Barrios and Argentine Dario Conca both signed by Evergrande on big-money deals, getting football fans around the world to at least speak about the league has been a relatively straightforward task. And it’s not just the players who are being lured over. Former Fulham manager Jean Tigana was appointed Shenhua’s new coach in December, before being replaced by former Argentina caretaker manager Sergio Batista after a poor run of form, while World Cup winner Marcelo Lippi is currently boss at Evergrande.

Convincing respected managers and ageing players to ‘be bought’ into the system is one thing. Supporting this incline for a decade or more to build the Chinese Super League into one of the world’s most highly regarded is another. Investments into the league are empty ones, with commentators and analysts coming out to assure people are aware that these activities are ego-fuelled and unprofitable.

In fact, it is not far off crystal clear that the cash pumped into these players is for the purpose of everything but developing football. While the Drogba deal included making the Ivorian a spokesman for a Chinese online gaming empire owned by Shenhua chief investor Zhu Jan, Anelka has been endorsing the same company, The9. Not something you can imagine the withdrawn Frenchman was desperate to do without a monster pay cheque, is it?

But sustaining the cash flow is only half the problem, with the image of football in China deeply rooted as something of a mockery. Large-scale housecleaning has been forced upon the Chinese FA in recent years, with match-fixing bribery infecting referees, officials and players on several occasions.

The frighteningly low number of kids playing the game - there are just 10,000 registered under-12 players in China, compared to Japan’s 350,000 - goes hand-in-hand with the notion that the few young people that are interested in football are seen as abandoning meaningful and realistic career paths, not a trait that Europe subscribes to. None of this helps the already tainted Chinese depiction of the world’s most loved game, a crying shame for a country with the largest population on earth. The perception of ‘Fakeball’, as many have named it, has taken a beating in the past few years, and with this running parallel to the vast amount of money that has been ploughed into the game, something just doesn’t add up. 

Compare this with the might of European football and you begin to understand how claims of a shift in power to the East are bordering on ludicrous.

The interest in football/Fuflball/calcio/voetbal/f˙tbol is relentless in Western and Central Europe, embedded in over a hundred years of passion and devotion (and it goes without saying that the continent has produced a few of the world’s best players along the way). This cannot merely be uprooted and shifted along like a mobile home.

European football is a multi-billion pound chain of estates, estates that have had their fair share of corruption and negative press yet survived on the mass scale of interest alone, something China needs to invest in to have any chance of coming close to becoming the next force.

More grassroots investment would be a good start for China. In particular, it is imperative to show youngsters that football can be used as an educational, moral and positively emotional tool, not just for the naughty boys and girls as it is currently seen.

Softening the tone of greed and impatience in the Chinese game also needs extra attention, a step forward that is fully ignored by gargantuan wages and irrational decision making on the part of owners.

As we have seen with soccer in the United States, big signings bring hope of raising the all-round profile of the game in countries where there has previously been little interest.

Ambitions and even promises to take over the footballing world have been farfetched and far from actualised, a trait currently being seen in the Chinese Super League and by those jumping to conclusions.

My view is that for once, fan-power prevails over hard cash; you cannot build a world-beating football league without football being the nation's first nature. The Chinese are shooting on sight.