Football: China spending big in hopes of shifting balance of power to the east
BEIJING // The powerbrokers of Asian football have long claimed that the sport’s future rests in Asia, and given the recent spending boom by Chinese clubs, that future appears closer than even they dared predict.
Chinese Super League clubs have splashed out close to $300 million in the winter transfer window — which closes Friday — on big names from Europe and South America such as Ramires, Alex Teixeira, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Jackson Martinez and Gervinho. This has led to speculation as to whether it can become one of the leading domestic soccer competitions in the world and help propel the global balance of power eastwards.
“There is a slight shift to China but how sustainable this is remains to be seen,” Mark Sutcliffe, president of the Hong Kong Football Association (HKFA), told The Associated Press. “For it to influence Asia as a whole is more difficult to see at this stage, it depends on the sustainability of the Chinese Super League and how far the playing and financial benefits cascade down throughout the continent.”
Chinese officials must guard against the temptation for misuse of funds, which has blighted the sport there in the past and which would now be all the more lucrative and tempting.
“There are sometimes negative things that stem from too much money floating about in football,” he said. “Governance will be key. China has the potential to be positive but (alternatively) the potential to be damaging.”
Karish Andrews, a sports law expert at London law firm Lewis Silkin, believes talk of a power shift to Asia is premature but said China is now a major player in the transfer market.
“The money being paid for transfer fees and wages has raised eyebrows among the top clubs in Europe and players they expected to keep are now moving away,” said Andrews, citing Jiangsu Suning’s recent purchase of Ramires for around $31 million. “Ramires leaving Chelsea for China is not a player at the end of his career looking for a last payday. There are concerns in Europe about where this will go.”
In the short term, China’s rise could hurt rather than help Asian neighbors. Japan’s J-League was previously the wealthiest in the region, attracting foreign players and coaches, and the leagues in the Gulf had the finances to attract big names. Those leagues, along with South Korea, could find players and coaches being lured away to the Middle Kingdom.
In Europe, too, there are benefits in the Chinese spending even if there is fear that it could drive player wages up.
“The Chinese are injecting a lot of cash into European clubs that otherwise they would not be getting,” Andrews said. “Chelsea is probably quite happy with the Ramires deal and the money received for him.”
For Hong Kong, the rise of China is seen as a clear opportunity.
“Hong Kong is already benefiting because a number of our players have secured contracts in China,” said Sutcliffe. “This means these players will come back as better players and also it should encourage other young players to follow a career in football. I also hope that commercial organizations will see what is happening on the mainland and want to invest.”
The star players attract plenty of attention locally. Asian club champion Guangzhou Evergrande’s record-breaking signing of Jackson Martinez was welcomed by a hundred fans as the club returned to Guangzhou after a recent training camp in Dubai.
Martinez joined Luiz Felipe Scolari’s five-time Chinese Super League champions on Feb. 3, setting the country’s transfer record with a fee of $47 million until Jiangsu announced two days later it had recruited the Brazilian Alex Teixeira from Shakhtar Donetsk for $56 million. He said the transplanted stars needed strong teams around them as much as teams needed them.
“Even the best player in the world needs to work together with his teammates, as much as the teammates need him,” he said, adding that the mentality of the younger players had made a bigger impression on him so far than the more worldly veterans. “Because they are very focused on training and very eager to follow the coach’s instructions. They also have very good skills and high quality. So in general, I’ve been surprised by the younger ones in the team.”
Zhang Jindong, president of Suning Commerce Group, which owns Jiangsu Suning, said earlier this month that Chinese football is developing fast “and currently on the good track.”
“We hope our investment can draw more attention from the public,” he said. “We think it is worth spending the money if it can improve the Chinese football. If we can build the foundation well, I am sure we can realize our goal to win the Chinese Super League in three years, and lift the AFC Champions League trophy in five years.”
China’s state-controlled media has been less than enthusiastic about the spending binge, with the ruling Communist Party’s flagship newspaper People’s Daily warning against waste and low returns on investment.
“If you dare to spend money on the sport of football, it’s even more important that you know best how to spend that money,” the paper warned in a recent editorial.
The editors of popular online forum soccer.hupu.com were even more pessimistic about the potential benefits.
“Burning money to buy foreign players is wasting capital just to gain face. Meanwhile, the national and national youth teams continue to fall behind,” the site said in a recent commentary.
The boom is a big hit with fans, all the same.
“While probably unsustainable, the acquisition of star foreign players was a great way to generate excitement around the game, attract more enthusiasts and hopefully future Chinese players,” Beijing Guo’an fan Hu Dong said. “Chinese football will just have to endure this money burning stage.”
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Updated: February 25, 2016 04:00 AM