No one can deny that China are quickly becoming a force in worldwide domestic football. Transfer fees like the £37 million spent on Alex Teixeira by Jiangsu Suning, or the £31 million forked out by Guangzhou Evergrande for Jackson Martinez, show how China’s financial clout really can attract big names to their Super League.
But the key word is domestic. Despite bringing in some world class players to join the national league, the Chinese national team has showed little improvement in recent years. Down three places to 96th in the latest FIFA rankings update, China drop below Faroe Islands, North Korea and Guatemala. Not necessarily what you would expect from such a huge nation.
The reason is that despite all of the football stars now playing in China, there has still not been a great influx of top players from that country. Although watched by plenty of spectators, there are few who play football for leisure compared to other major sports. What China really needs is an inspiration – they need a Yao Ming.
Yao Ming, the 7ft 6in giant, caused an explosion in the popularity of basketball in China. Like football, the sport hadn’t seen much growth for years until this monster centre came along. In 2002 Ming joined legends like Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal as the coveted #1 draft pick, with LeBron James following him as the #1 pick in 2003. Going to the Houston Rockets, he became an icon for basketball fans throughout China almost overnight. Especially having been drafted after five years of playing for the Shanghai Sharks in the Chinese Basketball Association, it gave young Chinese players the belief that they too could go on to become international stars.
While they don’t need to be a Ballon D’Or contender or a multiple Champions League winner, China do need some sort of superstar to inspire youngsters to get into the game. Gao Lin and Zheng Zhi are the two closest to that from the current crop of internationals but, while the pair are experienced and good role models, they don’t really capture the imagination.
Hopefully the mixture of international stars and Chinese natives playing in the Super League can spark further interest among fans. Then this combination of footballing cultures might just produce a Chinese prodigy who grabs the attention of the whole country.