Do you enjoy football or the money you earn from it? It’s the fundamental question that surrounds Chinese football and irks those that have propelled an unknown entity into a global franchise.
From its humble beginning in 1994 football in China now spreads across the globe, with over 100 countries televising Chinese Super League fixtures, providing a platform for those most talented Chinese footballers to showcase their skills in front of millions.
With the popularity of the game rising every second, TV rights have soared, and as broadcasting money has flowed into clubs’ revenue streams, sides have become drawn to the magnetic pull of an almost unlimited transfer budget and a never ending wage structure.
Hyperinflation was a term famously synonymous with the 1920s German economy, but now the rapid rise of football in China has given this once old dated phrase a comeback.
For the last seven years, the CSL has altered the global standpoint on the football transfer market and has proven that money can indeed be the defining factor in turning a side dwindling in the lower leagues to one challenging for the top prizes.
Since the CSL’s inception in 2004, it has become the hallmark of Chinese football excellence, welcoming an influx of high-quality foreign stars and coaches which has prompted a raising of standards.
The upper echelons of China’s football governance have installed a culture, one embedded within the structure of the league, that money is necessary for the rapid progression of homegrown players.
So the theory is that by attracting foreign stars you draw in vast swathes of TV money, build up the sporting infrastructure and in the long term, Chinese footballers across the country will benefit from the easy access to state of the art gyms, practice pitches and rehabilitation areas.
It was not always like this. A famous saying in China is that if you walk on snow, you cannot hide your footprints. In other words, if you participate in illegal activities involving money you will be found out and rooted out.
Remarkably, and perhaps ironically, the irresponsibility with money from Chinese football officials in the 1990s has provided the catalyst for the current for the extensive investment in players.
Before the introduction of the CSL, the premier division in China took the name of the Jia-A League. Eight teams took to the field, each an enterprise which could only cooperate with the government in deciding the management.
As years passed, the league started to become marred by gambling, match-fixing and corruption. Sustaining the credibility of the competition looked less likely by the day.
The league failed to provide the facilities for the homegrown talents who graduated from Xu Genbao’s academy, the eccentric coaching genius recognised for providing opportunities for young Chinese footballers.
So during the CSL’s formation, it was vital to the central government, who by this stage had realised the powerful potential of football on a global scale, to target development of potential prodigies.
The result was that the CSL committee imposed a range of minimum criteria to ensure professional management, including administration, financial probity and a progressive youth development programme for every club. Investment from China’s richest were courted to take over CSL clubs as a solution to the lack of investment.
From the turn of the century to 2010 the level of competition in the CSL far exceeded early expectations, and once the multi-millionaires gained the keys to the myriad of franchises available to them, the money started to flow.
The opportunity to make lucrative connections with the government, along with the restricted Chinese transfer market explain why clubs were willing to pursue foreign superstars.
When Guangzhou Evergrande paid £10m to sign Dario Conca from Fluminense in 2011, he became the third-highest paid player in world football, managing to drag the club out of the second division and into the CSL. It’s a trend which has caught on.
Even in the 1970s though the US became a lucrative stop-off for the likes of Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, George Best and Johan Cruyff in the old NASL, long before Major League Soccer came along to offer the likes of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard a last hurrah.
The major difference now is that players are travelling to China to play in their prime. Oscar is 25 and Teixeira is 26, the latter even turning down a move to Liverpool to sign for Jiangsu Suning last year.
President Xi Jinping’s hope that China will become a football superpower is starting to shape into a reality. In the last three years, CSL sides have smashed the transfer record four times. And as European and South American football is shown across China, especially in the urban districts, crowds have suddenly boomed.
This is especially the case in the municipalities of Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin, where attendances have jumped up dramatically. Afterall, Beijing Sinobo Guoan, Tianjin Quanjian and Shanghai SIPG pull in three out of the top seven crowds in the CSL.
In fact, the CSL pulled off the highest growth in average crowd size of all the major football leagues as it increased by 16.7% in attendance in 2015.
Draw away the attention from the coastal megacities though, and there is a sense of a disproportion of popularity in Chinese football. The best two examples are Guizhou Hengfeng Zhicheng in the south and Liaoning FC in the north.
Both have created a vast majority of the support in the area, yet the pair of clubs fail to fill out 40% of their stadium. It’s a sign that although football is a well-loved sport in China, it still has a long way to go to match Europe and South America as a whole.
The dilemma for China now is that while the domestic league shines like a star on the top of the Christmas tree the national team face disarray. So the government is looking to prioritise money at youth development level to help the national side.
It’s estimated that only around 50,000 children are involved in football today in China, a startling figure considering the population total, so one CSL team has sprung into action.
Evergrande Group president Xu Jiayin has spent around £150 million on 300-acre facilities, while he has more impressively persuaded Real Madrid to send across a dozen or so of their top coaches, what Xu hopes will be a catalyst for high profile European managers to teach their trade in China.
With more than 50 football pitches and a school for around 2,400 students – with ambitions to grow up to 10,000 – the idea is to track down and capture talent across the country.
The likelihood is though that this will trickle down slowly, so while fans may expect the national team to qualify for the 2022 World Cup, it may be until 2030 until China could put out a side against England or Portugal and fancy their chances. Coincidentally, that is the year targeted for a world cup in China.
One major flaw in this argument originates around China’s political structure. The fact the Communist Party still runs the country may create a scenario where local grassroots football unions would be a threat to the all-encompassing state, who prefer tight top down control to free-flowing bottom up projects.
And one sign of this oversight and accountability of football is already clear. Earlier this year the government said it would limit the amount clubs are spending on overseas players.
By regulating and restraining high-priced signings, and making reasonable restrictions on players’ high incomes, is a clear indication to CSL club owners that it is those who decide national policy and not multi-millionaire entrepreneurs who decide what you can and can’t do.
Currently, CSL clubs can employ five overseas players, but that will be reduced to four, while 13 clubs who were in danger of insolvency have recently been threatened with eviction from professional football.
Nonetheless, China wants to portray an image of continuity and solidity, so if outstanding debts can be paid there is likely little chance that those top CSL sides will be banned. After all, the fact they are now worldwide brands makes them a valuable asset to the government.
What is clear though is that there is concern over the irrational expenditure that has occurred in the last few years. For China to succeed and popularity to match that of England and Germany, the country must invest in youth and make sure that stadia fill out on most weeks.
Most importantly China must be proud of its ancient footballing culture, where between 960AD and 1279AD, an early game of football called Cuju inspired thousands.
Known as kickball, these clubs had managers, trainers, and captains, with players possessing an ability to learn a sheer drive to succeed. This is what money cannot replace.
So if President Xi wants a footballing dynasty, he may have to look at a previous one. Embed that culture with long term investment and eventually, China’s dormant period as a football giant will be over.