China's football masterplan: why there's much more to it than stellar signings

Chinese Super League

John Obi Mikel, Carlos Tevez and Oscar are the latest household names to flock to the Far East for lorryloads of cash – but there's more to the country's development than splurging sizeable sums on established stars

"Financially speaking, the Chinese Super League already beats second-tier European leagues such as Portugal and the Netherlands,” says Joseph Lee, the Indonesia-born, Brazil-based agent who has overseen many of the recent transfers between Brazil and China.

“China has grown up financially and has the biggest population of any country in the world – and 20-30 per cent of these people are into football. If we can get them into the stadiums, we’ll have the biggest crowds in the world.

“Japanese football had to wait decades to establish itself internationally, but that’s the goal Chinese football should pursue – to become a reference point in world football.”

China

China's sole appearance at the World Cup came in 2002, when they lost all three group games

Hey big spenders

It all adds up to a concerted push for the world’s second-biggest economy to achieve a similar ranking in the world’s biggest sport

That process is now well under way. In November 2015, 50,000 Guangzhou Evergrande fans went potty as their team won the AFC Champions League – at that point, their second continental triumph in three years, to go with five successive domestic titles. The celebrations lasted long into the night, but the next stage of their masterplan – to challenge on the global stage by winning the FIFA Club World Cup, and then eventually become one of the top 10 clubs in the world – was already in place. Guangzhou were the first club in China to start spending serious money, and as recent events have shown, they are far from the last.

On the face of it, the ‘Great Haul of China’ is down to a growing number of teams wanting to make headlines globally and win trophies locally. Among the established names to move to the Chinese Super League in 2016, following Demba Ba and Paulinho the previous year, were Fredy Guarin, Jackson Martinez, Ramires, Gervinho and Alex Teixeira (those five joining four different clubs). John Obi Mikel, Carlos Tevez and Oscar have headed east more recently, and if media reports are to be believed there's plenty more to come.

“Buying famous foreign players helps the clubs to improve quickly,” says Montenegro international Dejan Damjanovic, who joined Jiangsu in 2014 and, later, Beijing Guoan. “For a long time, China wanted to compete with South Korea and Japan; now they want to compete with everyone. Jiangsu weren’t one of the giants of Chinese football, but there is potential for them to be a big club.”

But the spending on transfers is just one part of the grand plan. The clubs are driving that improvement in the short term, but there’s plenty more going on in the long term. It all adds up to a concerted push for the world’s second-biggest economy to achieve a similar ranking in the world’s biggest sport.

In a hurry

The president already warned us that our main goal is to leave a legacy for local football – not just take the money, bring in three or four players and leave nothing for China

- Tianjin Quanjian assistant

When it comes to politics and diplomacy, the Chinese long game – the slow, chess-like moves that supposedly reap dividends years and decades down the road – is mentioned in hushed tones by international relations students and columnists around the world. There is less patience when it comes to the global game. China wants to be the best, or one of the best, in football – and the sooner the better.

Xi Jinping

President Xi Jinping wants China to become a world power on the football field

“We don’t work with a budget,” said Gabriel Skinner, Tianjin Quanjian’s Brazilian (since-departed) assistant manager. “If we need anything, we forward our request to the president – he has given his full support so far. During pre-season in Brazil, we needed to buy equipment for the players that cost $1 million. It didn’t take more than a few minutes for him to approve the order.

“The president already warned us that our main goal is to leave a legacy for local football – not just take the money, bring in three or four players and leave nothing for China.”

The amounts of money being spent continue to increase, but China has been spending since 2010 – when property developer Evergrande took over Guangzhou, a club that had previously been relegated due to involvement in match-fixing.

Over the previous decade or so, the Chinese Super League had been known for that: corruption, not untold riches. There were periodic scandals, forcing sponsors and fans to turn their backs, but in recent years there has been a determination to tidy up the game. The government, which had long focused its efforts on producing stars in table tennis and gymnastics (find the right prospect, give them lots of training, sit and wait for the gold medals to roll in), knew the first step to development in football was to make it clean.

Cleaning up their act

With the drive to improve coming from the top, those who do their bit will – so the theory goes – gain the gratitude of those in power

The punishments were draconian. In 2009, officials, referees and ex-players got their dues. In 2012, two former heads of the Chinese FA were jailed for a decade each. It had been known for some time that Xi Jinping was destined to be president (he was elected the following year) and it was also known that he wanted an end to years of underachievement in the game. He wants China’s sports industry to be worth £590 billion. Then comes hosting the World Cup, in the decade after next, and winning it, perhaps in the decade after that.

Not all the clubs care about that so much, claims Titan Sports’ Ma Dexing, one of the country’s leading football journalists. “They just want to win games and titles,” he says, “and the bosses think that buying famous foreign players is the best way. How much it costs is not important.”

Jackson Martinez

Jackson Martinez is one of the big-name foreigners who's moved to China in the last few years

Ma believes that much of the spending is being done to curry favour with the government and politicians, either of the regional or national variety. With the drive to improve coming from the top, those who do their bit will – so the theory goes – gain the gratitude of those in power.

At the moment, Guangzhou are the best side in Asia, although they’re now being pushed at home as other clubs spend big as well. There have been worries (or should that be hopes?) expressed in Europe that the spree is not sustainable.

This is one of the world’s largest economies, however, and one that thinks nothing of building stadiums in Africa or high-speed railways in Southeast Asia – there’s more than enough money to finance the purchase of a few high-profile Brazilian footballers. Financial experts don’t foresee too many problems, even if there's a slowdown in the economy. China has the resources and, more importantly, the political will.

Guangzhou Evergrande

Guangzhou Evergrande are China's most successful club, winning the last six Super League titles

Corporate backing

Evergrande made huge money from the property boom in the big cities but have branched out into all sorts of businesses

Simon Chadwick, Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University and long-time observer of Chinese football, believes the spending will continue. “Some of the money is coming from the state,” he says, “especially at the provincial level. Much of what is being directed into football, though, is coming from the corporate sector – particularly from China’s entrepreneurial lieutenants, who must be seen to be supporting the state.” This is a view backed by Tim Cahill, who was until August 2016 one of the biggest names in the league. The former Shanghai Shenhua and Hangzhou Greentown star has predicted that a $100m transfer is not too far away.

The investment does not come from a single source. Evergrande made huge money from the property boom in the big cities but have branched out into all sorts of businesses – they have previously annoyed the Asian Football Confederation by using their own brand of bottled water during Champions League games.

Tim Cahill

Cahill spent 16 months in China with Shanghai Shenhua and Hangzhou Greentown

And not every club’s owners have the same real estate background. The 2015 runners-up, Shanghai SIPG, are backed by the Shanghai International Port Group (who run the public terminals in the Port of Shanghai); Jiangsu, previously a nondescript mid-table outfit, were bought by retail giants Suning; Shandong Luneng, 14th (of 16) last season, are run indirectly by the State Grid Corporation of China – the largest electricity company in the world.

While political connections do matter, for some it is good for the brand – such as Suning, who took over Jiangsu in 2015. The purchases of Brazilians Ramires and Alex Teixeira (and to a lesser extent, Jo) have inserted the name of Suning, who have more than 1,000 stores all over China, into a global conversation. There is the possibility of making some money, too. Evergrande paid just £11m for their club in 2010 and then proceeded to invest. In 2014, they sold a 50 per cent stake to Alibaba, a giant e-commerce site, for £127m.

Next page: “It's the worst decision that has been taken since I’ve been here – you can’t allow a sponsor to bring in a player”