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Improving Chinese Football, Take Two
   2016-02-18 14:57:19    CRIENGLISH.com      Web Editor: Liu Ranran

By Stuart Wiggin

Illustration by Robert Wiggin

At present there are rumblings in Europe regarding football ticket pricing, most notably in England and Germany, with many decrying the fact that football is increasingly becoming more about profit and less about the fans. Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal FC, stated that any money that clubs in England make as a result of the latest television deal for Premier League broadcasting rights is unlikely to benefit fans and instead will help English teams remain competitive in the transfer market. This is certainly a preposterous stance to take with the amounts of money that English clubs are due to earn as a result of playing in the Premier League, but Wenger may be right about the level of money required in order to entice big names in the future.

One need only look at the Chinese domestic league and the recent transfer market business to see what Wenger was alluding to. As the longtime Arsenal manager has himself stated, clubs in the Chinese Super League (CSL) "have the financial power to move the whole league of Europe to China, and we are in this job long enough to know that is just a consequence of economic power, and they have that." Going forward, therefore, if Chinese teams continue to spend as they have been doing recently, top European clubs will have to up their wages if they want to prevent money-minded players from going east.

More than a handful of Chinese clubs, and not necessarily the most successful ones, are once again opening their wallets in an effort to attract top names in a move reminiscent of the Didier Drogba/Nicolas Anelka farce, which began way back in 2012 and fizzled out soon afterwards. At the time, Drogba and Anelka's arrival in China, as well as a number of other world class players was meant to ignite the game domestically and create a buzz for the league outside of the country's borders. It did neither and was ultimately a costly error for the clubs involved.

But the difference between then and now is that Chinese clubs, for the most part, are not only buying older players who are looking for one last pay day. Instead, they are also aggressively going after talent who are in their prime. In the January transfer window of 2016, spending by Chinese clubs, amounting to more than 198 million pounds at the end of the Chinese New Year, exceeded the total spend of English Premier League clubs by some 20 million pounds. And this figure could rise as the Chinese transfer window lasts until February 26. In comparison Chinese clubs spent 83 million pounds in the last transfer window. Sven Goran Eriksson, the former England manager who is now reportedly earning 15 million pounds a year after tax at Shanghai SIPG, has stated that money is the primary reason as to why players would opt to play in the CSL, and the clubs themselves have certainly embraced this idea.

This year, Atletico Madrid sold Jackson Martinez to Asian champions Guangzhou Evergrande for 31 million pounds. Martinez has joined former Tottenham man Paulinho who moved to the club last summer for 9.9 million pounds. In January, Gervinho left Roma to join Hebei China Fortune, a club founded only five years ago, as part of a deal believed to worth more than 13.5 million pounds. Ghanaian star Asamoah Gyan moved to Shanghai SIPG for an undisclosed fee, but one can assume that that fee was nothing to scoff at considering that Gyan will reportedly earn 227,000 pounds a week, making him one of the world's highest earning players; a remarkable feat for a player considered a flop in the Premier League.

But the list does not stop there. Jiangsu Suning paid 20 million pounds for an out of favor Ramires from Chelsea and a further 37.5 million pounds on Brazilian midfielder Alex Teixeria, bought from Ukranian club Shakhtar Donetsk. The latter is considered as something of a coup, as Teixeria was considered one of the better players in Europe, as opposed to a large number of the league's other signings who were unsettled or simply not in the long term plans of their previous managers. But what is allowing clubs to do this and what are the reasons behind the splurge?

Despite most talk related to TV money revolving around the English Premier League, the CSL has managed to secure its own mammoth deal, which saw Ti'ao Dongli, a sports events broadcasting company based in Beijing, buy the league's 5-year rights for around 860 million pounds. In comparison, the TV rights for 2015 fetched around 6.2 million pounds. Zhao Jun, manager of Ti'ao Dongli said that they aimed to improve the broadcasting quality of the CSL, in order to catch up with leagues around the world. That's certainly good news for fans who are used to watching live games with little ambience, during which coughing from within the studio can often be heard. It is also, of course, great news for the clubs who will also benefit from increased exposure and one would assume a rise in advertising revenue.

The second reason, and probably the most important reason, is that the Chinese government has explicitly stated that it hopes to raise the standard of Chinese football. With the blessing of the state, Chinese clubs have decided to go all out in an attempt to achieve this goal. This is no doubt helped by the fact that the ownership structure of many clubs sees them either owned by state-run corporations or by companies that have immense interests in real estate, and thus formal business links to the state. Currying political may or may not be a motivating factor for the men who have the money to spend on players and thus "improve" the league, and it certainly cannot be ruled out within the discussion of recent transfer spending.

Political desire, something that Arsene Wenger said was a worrying factor for European clubs in relation to China's renewed investment in players is certainly a real factor and could very well be a boon for Chinese football fans who are desperate to see their country's economic status reflected on the football pitch. Bringing foreign players in, such as Martinez and Teixeria, could certainly help boost the standard of the league but once again it does not address the root problem, or in this case the grassroots problem.

Grassroots football in China is growing, but it is abysmal when measured against grassroots traditions and methods in Europe. Lofty plans for around 20,000 football schools, due to open by 2017, are part of a grand gesture to develop the game though it is unclear whether this will be accompanied with a plan to implement a schools league either within provinces or regions. Bringing in technical consultants such as Tom Byer, widely seen as one of the leading forces in the development of Japanese grassroots football during the 90s, is a forward thinking step but there remain huge barriers to the growth of the sport within schools in general, not least the attitude of parents.

However, regardless of one's opinion about the use of such large amounts of money for the purposes of football, it is good news that the political desire to improve the game has led to education initiatives or projects in the hope of finding a solution. Whether that solution will materialize or not is anyone's guess, and as many grassroots coaches have long warned, growing the game in the correct way is a long term process. And yet, if grassroots football can be revitalized and grown the right way, future young stars of the Chinese game may not grow up dreaming of playing abroad in Europe; they might instead grow up being captivated by the talent and skill on display within the CSL from 2016 onwards.

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