China’s Evolution into a Soccer Powerhouse

As the January transfer window comes to a close, the biggest eye-opener for soccer fans has been the number of big-name signings by Chinese clubs. A period usually characterized by big-name signings or buying sprees by European clubs has been overshadowed by the unavoidable truth that Chinese soccer is on the rise domestically and internationally – and it is good for the sport.

In terms of spending, China ranked second behind England among all nations according to transfermarkt, spending a total of $235 million, over 60% more than last year. China’s first division, the Chinese Super League (CSL), ranked second to England’s Premier League in spending per league, and its second division, League One, was an astounding fourth. No other country’s second division league even ranked in the top 10 – ranking fourth above mass market, first division leagues like the German Bundesliga, Spain’s Primera División, and France’s Ligue 1. Before the typical deadline day chaos in England moved some teams like Stoke and Watford up in the rankings, four of the top six spending clubs in the world were from China.

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China’s fledgling Super League has accomplished in 12 years since its founding what Major League Soccer (MLS) has failed to do in its 23 year existence – gain global recognition because of its good soccer and capable young players, not because it is a place for older players above 30, sometimes legends, to retire comfortably and live out their final playing days. The MLS has gained global recognition as a result of its older players, but it has sacrificed what makes the game interesting in the process – exciting, high quality play and young talent (which the MLS often sells of at a young age, such as in the case of Matt Miazga) that gives fans hope for an exciting future.

China has perhaps learned from the MLS’s failures and set its domestic league up for future success while gaining international acceptance through the purchasing of young European talent. Notable signings in January have included attacking midfielder Ramires, winner of the Premier League and the Champions League with Chelsea to Jiangsu Suning for $36 million, attacker Gervinho from Roma to Hebei China Fortune for $19.5 million, midfielder Fredy Guarin from Inter to Shanghai Greenland Shenhua for $13 million, and recently Jackson Martinez from Atletico de Madrid to Guangzhou Evergrande for a whopping $45 million. These famous players have already attracted attention to the CSL through their transfers and will undoubtedly attract further attention through their play in the upcoming season.

Gervinho, Fredy Guarin, Jackson Martinez and Ramires

Gervinho, Fredy Guarin, Jackson Martinez and Ramires

All four players are under 30 years old, still in their prime athletically. Chinese clubs’ combination of spending large and buying younger players shows the growth of Chinese soccer’s financial prowess and quality of play – luring big name, young players away from the glory of European competition to come play in China through high salaries and ever-developing play ensures the development of their Leagues for future success and continued growth.

As Croatian midfielder Darko Matic, a veteran player in China with Beijing Guoan, has described, clubs in China “have to sign players and coaches who are here to help Chinese football develop, not only to come here for the money.” China’s principal goal is the development of its domestic and international soccer, an objective spearheaded by the government.

A committee led by President Xi Jinping recently declared that “Revitalizing soccer is a must to build China into a sports powerhouse as part of the Chinese dream.” As part of this revitalization, the committee set the goal of qualifying for World Cups in the future, and eventually hosting the prestigious competition. According to World Soccer Talk, the committee has even set the goals of “establishing 50,000 soccer schools within 10 years, making the game compulsory for some elementary and middle-school students, and separating the Chinese Football Association from government bureaucracy.”

President Xi Jinping juggling a soccer ball

President Xi Jinping juggling a soccer ball

The Chinese government has been supportive of the development of the domestic league, funding the Super League to a certain extent in their international purchases, establishing one of the most impressive youth systems in the world (if they succeed in their goals), and making soccer independent from any potential political turmoil in the government, something many nations still developing their soccer leagues struggle with. Increasing the support network for young players and increasing the quality and recognition of the league by attracting new talent additionally makes young Chinese talents motivated to stay in China, allowing China to have sustainable growth in their domestic leagues and their international pool.

The support of the government has prompted many businesses to invest in soccer domestically and abroad, helping to advance the Republic’s goals of establishing itself as a soccer “powerhouse.” Teams like Bayern Munich and FC Barcelona are looking to exploit the growing Chinese market for soccer, and Chinese businesses are increasingly sponsoring teams for domestic and global marketing purposes, funding the purchases that are making the League so popular abroad.

One example of increasing business involvement in Chinese soccer is Ledman Inc., a producer of LED technologies for businesses and sporting organizations. Domestically, Ledman is a “strategic partner of Chinese Football Association from 2011 to 2016” and is the owner of Beijing Ledman, helping to build up the CSL and the development of young Chinese players. Internationally, Ledman has a sponsorship deal with the Segunda Liga, Portugal’s second division, which includes a clause in which “Ledman will send 10 players and 3 assistant coaches to play football in the top 10 clubs of Segunda Liga, and devotes to enhancing the level of Chinese players.” Ledman’s domestic and international sponsorships are giving Chinese players opportunities to develop and Chinese soccer to gain traction in the rest of the world, especially in Europe.

I am not usually in favor of clubs spending extravagant amounts of money to buy players from abroad or for businesses to be heavily involved in soccer; big money usually gives the game to businesses or the elite rather than to the people, where it truly belongs. But when spending money and having business, and even government, involvement in soccer is for the sake of establishing a sustainable league system, enhancing youth participation in the game, and sharing the beautiful game with people from a nation that hasn’t had soccer as an integral part of its culture, it is completely justified.

Soccer should be the people’s game, but it isn’t. Richer regions like Europe have, for ages, dominated the sport. And it seems that people involved in the sport in richer nations don’t want poorer nations to make moves that would make them competitive against the already-established leagues. They want to maintain their superiority over the rest of the world.

Part of the reason that European soccer is so popular globally is that other continents do not have as good quality teams or players, so people in poorer countries have no higher quality local alternative. But China’s recent actions are indicative of the first steps towards reversing this dangerous precedent of soccer being a game for only the wealthy.

The surprise of China’s big spending this transfer window and its increasing business and government involvement in soccer comes as a relief – we may finally, hopefully, be on the path to returning the people’s game to the people.

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