Chinese Whispers

in Features

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There is a new superpower coming in world football. Liverpool fans will still be in disbelief that their top transfer target Alex Teixeira shunned their advances in favour of a move to Chinese Super League side Jiangsu Suning.

The £38 million Jiangsu shelled out for the talented Brazillian was the third time the Chinese transfer record was broken in only ten days. Earlier on in the transfer window Chelsea sold Ramires to Jiangsu Suning for £25 million. This raised some eyebrows as Ramires, who had been one of Chelsea’s most consistent performers at the club during his six years in London, is still very much in the peak of his powers at 28. Any lingering thoughts that this may be a one off were dispelled when Guangzhou Evergrande signed Colombian striker Jackson Martinez from Atletico Madrid for £31 million. Two of these players are 26 and one is 28, this shows the commitment to bringing world class players in their prime to China.

The website “Transfermarket” which analyses money and commercial developments in sport has some startling figures about the abundance of money being bandied about in China’s Super League. In total Super League clubs have spent £198.5 million (€258.9) in their current transfer window in contrast to the £175 million (€227) which Premier League clubs spent in January. It is surprising to see clubs from any country, never mind a relatively unknown entity like China, outspend the Premier League in any given transfer window. The Chinese transfer window runs until February 26th so there could well be more seismic transfer movements soon. Could we be seeing a genuine rival to the Premier Leagues global influence emerging?

Arsene Wenger certainly seems to think so. In his press conference prior to Sunday’s fixture at Bournemouth, the Frenchman revealed his fears on how developments in China could impact English football.

“Yes, of course, the Premier League should be worried,” said Wenger. Because China looks to have the financial power to move a whole league of Europe to China.”

Wenger also emphasised that this would only be the start of the big spending in China, which in turn would lead to massive inflation in the European transfer market as well. However he made a good point in questioning how long this kind of spending would continue and whether it could really be sustained at the same rate by pointing out there was a short-lived financial backing of Japanese football in recent years.

For most footballers in their prime Europe’s big leagues will still remain their priority. Teixeira revealed as much when he discussed how Liverpool had been his preferred destination before he decided to accept the offer from Jiangsu:

“Let’s put it like this: everyone always knew that I wanted to stay in Europe and move to the English Premier League club,” Teixeira told Shakhtar’s official website.

“But, unfortunately, all the proposals that came from them, were somewhat windy and did not contain anything concrete.”

However, the migration of players still in their prime and well able to earn a living at top European sides is worrying. If there’s anything to be learned, it is that the big guns in England and elsewhere will need to take competition for signings from China seriously (as Liverpool clearly did not in this instance).

Doubters of the potential of the Chinese Super League will point to the MLS. However there are big differences in the domestic leagues of China and the USA. Yes, the MLS has managed to attract top talent. David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, David Villa, Kaka, Andrea Pirlo, Didier Drogba, our own Robbie Keane and most recently Ashley Cole and Nigel De Jong are examples of this. However can anyone spot the common denominator in these star names? They are all past their prime, some more than others. The MLS is yet to attract top quality players who are still in their prime both in age and physical ability. This might happen some day too, but thus far the MLS transfer and wage structure has been a hindrance to this. No such limitations exist in China. If leagues like the MLS adopt the Chinese method we could see world class football all over the globe in the future. For fans of English football this thought is both a threat and an interesting concept as well.

While the sudden interest in Chinese football seems to have come completely out of the blue, football fervour has been building steadily in China for a number of years. In an interview with BBC World, Rowan Simons who is a football reporter based in Beijing, explained that a lot of the investment in Chinese football has come from politically motivated backing led by the President of the People’s Republic of China.

“President Xi is a big football fan, there has been a huge and unprecedented football revolution in China led by him, which has turned the game on its head.”

With this kind of backing China could soon be competing with European clubs for the world’s top talent. However, no matter what they do, the history and allure of European clubs, and the big European competitions, cannot be replaced with money. Or can it?

by James Cox

james cox