The Chinese Super League has just outspent the Premier League but there have been false dawns like this before. It was bound to happen, wasn’t it?
China’s sleeping soccer dragon has at last caught fire as CSL clubs have outspent England’s top flight in the January transfer window.
Their outlay of £199.5 million on new signings compares to £175m spent by the Premier League. With the Chinese window still open until the 26th of February, expect more Yen to be spent.
These are extraordinary sums for players who while perfectly able internationals, would not make any best XI of European soccer.
Still, they cannot be labelled has-beens or rejects from top QQ European player, as perhaps the likes of Demba Ba, Tim Cahill, Asamoah Gyan and Robinho, who all now ply their trade in China, could.
But there are other significant signings too such as 24 year-old Brazilian Ricardo Goulart who left Cruzeiro for Guangzhou Evergrande and his 27 year-old compatriot Renato Augusto who left champions Corinthians for Beijing Guoan and four times his Sao Paulo wages.
Chinese clubs are clearly wanting to make a splash and announce their league on the world stage, but are they making the classic mistake of starting to build from the top down instead of from the bottom up?
The nation’s leader, President Xi Jinping, is a football fan and has tried to spread the game to the nation’s schools, apparently with the desire to win the World Cup within the next quarter of a century for China.
The support of a giant state for football as a tool of cultural hegemony could make the difference. In the USA by contrast, a lukewarm attitude towards soccer among the establishment has left MLS to the whims of the unforgiving market.
Recent Chinese business investments in European clubs like Atletico Madrid and Manchester City have been underwritten by state money.
“I don’t know how deep the desire is in China now,” commented Arsene Wenger this week, “but if it is a very deep political desire then we should be worried.”
Domestic TV money has leapt from £6 million a season last year to £138 million this. If the CSL maintains its European and South American raids in next summer’s transfer window we will all have to sit up and take more notice.
The 16-team CSL still has a modest average crowd of 22,000, but that has doubled in ten years. Managers include Dan Petrescu, Dragan Stojkovic, Li Tie, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Alberto Zaccheroni and Sven-Goran Eriksson.
Clearly all this is connected to China’s emergence as an economic superpower soon to overtake the USA and the flamboyance of this sudden spending spree should be seen in the same light as their 2008 Olympic Games splurge.
In the 1970s the NASL announced its arrival with similar aplomb, big-name signings and a surge of media interest, before a lack of grass-roots foundations led to a swift and precipitous fall.
Those with longer memories will recall the tide of stars like Alfredo di Stefano who in the early 1950s flew out to join the Colombian “El Dorado” rebel league, which disintegrated four years later.
More recently the J-League and the Q-League have tried to redress their wealthy nations’ anomalously low standing in football by the use of ‘marquee signings’ as they call it in the USA.
The resurgent top American league the MLS could have most to fear from a Chinese rival willing to outspend European leagues, as they have tried hard to build a base of American players to avoid the mistakes of the NASL, which relied too heavily on imports.
“China looks to have the financial power to move the whole league of Europe”, said Wenger, but added, “Will they sustain their desire to do it?”, referencing a similar phase the J-League went through a while ago.
Without the organic base, funding a Chinese league which can seriously compete with the world’s biggest will be a question of throwing billions down a well.
Football is a notoriously bad financial investment, but a great way to stroke an ego, which much of this appears to be about, albeit regarding a superpower nation instead of a locally ambitious investor who wants his name in the newspapers.
The NASL in the 1970s spoke about propelling the USA to become the world’s premier soccer nation on the back of its success but the national side failed ignominiously to make it to the World Cup finals in the 1980s. China is in a similar position now.
China’s World Cup finals debut in 2002 was an embarrassment – three defeats out of three with no goals scored. They have failed to qualify since then and are currently ranked 93rd in the world, far below their high point of 37th in 1998.
There is only one overseas-based player in its men’s squad – Zhang Chengdong of modest Rayo Vallecano. Their women’s team are on the decline too – 17th in 2016 having been fourth in 2003.
On paper China should be a major footballing nation as befits the country’s economic status and lack of competing professional sports.
But instead it is arguably world soccer’s biggest underachiever.
A World Cup hosting would help grow the sport as it did for the USA in 1994, but with the farce of Qatar in 2022 set to go ahead, China will have to wait until 2030 at the earliest.
A sudden splash of cash might look ridiculous right now, but it could also go down as an important step in the uphill yet inevitable march of the Chinese: Sooner or later, like the USA and Australia, they have to join the world football party.
The dragon is not roaring yet, but it has woken up.