We’re used to seeing stars leaving European football after their prime years: Henry, Kaka, Beckham, Raul, Xavi, Gerrard, David Villa, Nesta, Pirlo, Del Piero and many more opted to play in developing leagues such as in USA, Canada, Qatar and even Australia. However we’ve all been taken by surprise as the Chinese Super League opted to snatch a few big names during their prime years in this past month. Is this just a wave or will it turn into a tsunami that makes the Chinese league among the world’s best?
Jiangsu Suning signed Ramires from Chelsea for £25 million, a fee that is higher than the record fee spent by 13 of the current 20 Premier League clubs. He wasn’t the only player to follow Robinho, Asamoah Gyan, Demba Ba and Tim Cahill and Paulino. In fact, several Brazilians including Renato Augusto, Ralf, Jadson and Gil all left Corinthians and other teams for the China. Even Pato could have gone there but instead he opted to join Chelsea in a bid to return to European football. Things didn’t stop there. Fredy Guarin, Gervinho, Alessandro Diamanti, Stephane Mbia, Assani Lukmiya and even Jackson Martinez were convinced to leave European football to double their wages in football’s fastest growing league. These players are not past their time. Most of them are still in their twenties or early thirties, they still have a lot to offer and they’re willing to become the stars of the league they joined. It’s not only about money, they have a point to make.
It’s not only the super league, China’s second tier has also braced itself for a change and former Sevilla and Brazil striker Luis Fabiano was one of many who had no problem dropping down one division to make sure they play regular football. China is proving that there is no place for old men in its super league. David Beckham was not considered to join the league as a player but he joined as an ambassador in 2013. The focus is on making football more competitive and attractive. China was never going to be a retiring league like the MLS.
The Chinese are not Americans and the way they do business is completely different. They want efficient players who can deliver rather than famous ones who can attract support and media attention. The MLS opted to sign big names that are past their prime years. From a business point of view, it’s something that improved the image of American football and gave it much needed attention but the Chinese seem to be smarter. None of the players who went to China is a stellar name but unlike those who went to the United States, the players leaving for China are still fully fit and able. The US transfer system is complex with plenty of rules and regulations which limits each team’s ability so sign European stars. In China, it’s an open market, any team can pay any player the sum they think is adequate. This will only lead to exponential growth of the league. New TV and broadcasting deals have also been boosted: Broadcasters paid $9m to show Chinese league games in 2015 but this season they’re paying over $200m and new sponsors will come soon.
European clubs are struggling to balance the books in compliance with the FIFA financial fairplay and as we saw none of the big European clubs made any significant signings in the past month. The newly gained power of Chinese football could shift the balance very soon. The Chinese super league had an average attendance of just over 22,000 last season. This season, they are expecting to go over the 25,000 barrier (ahead of France and Italy) and the Chinese are aiming to be the third most-watched football league in 2018 in terms of average attendance in the world just behind the Bundesliga and the English Premier League.
Football’s development in China is also about improving academies and facilities. On the long run, the country is looking forward to become the first Asian team to win the World Cup and to do so it’s football clubs have invested in academies that can train over 2000 young players. Successful managers like Mano Menezes, Dragan Stojkovic, Luiz Felipe Scolar and Sven Goran Eriksson are already there and many others are expected to follow. The game is improving at a rapid pace: Youth academies are being restructured, stadiums are being redesigned and more fans are being attracted to the game. At the current rate, it’s hard to see any limit to the Chinese spending spree; we can only imagine who will be the next big name to leave for China. Jose Mourinho once called the Chinese league rubbish when his Inter lost to Lazio in the Italian Super Cup in China in 2009 but he could be tempted to join that very same country soon, especially if he’s given the money to sign any player he wants.