In March 2015 China set out their aim of hosting and winning the World Cup by 2025.  It was a sweeping movement that sought to revitalise a sport damaged by match-fixing scandals and poor performances on the pitch. 

Pushed by a desire for a more balanced economy, coupled with companies wishing to achieve effective brand recognition, there has been a change of attitude towards Chinese football.  With the national team’s performances still disappointing, the Chinese football fan can at least look to the Chinese Super League, one of the most rapidly developing leagues in the world.

Wild Spending & Big Name Signings

In January 2016, a trio of big signings in 24 hours signalled the intent of three mid-table Chinese Super League teams. They were established players who had played in Europe’s biggest leagues and competitions, and boast 181 international caps between them. Gervinho signed for recently promoted Hebei China Fortune FC for £13.5 million from AS Roma. Brazilian international Ramires joined Jiangsu Suning from current Premier League holders, Chelsea, for a then record fee of £21 million, to team up with former Chelsea man, and now manager Dan Petrescu. To complete the hat-trick, Fredy Guarin joined Shanghai Shenhua from Inter Milan for a reported £9.75 million.

The Chinese Super League has not kept quiet since then either, with two huge signings going through in early February. Colombian Jackson Martinez joined current champions Guangzhou Evergrande from La Liga’s Atletico Madrid for an astounding £31.5 million whilst Jiangsu Suning strengthened their squad further, swooping to add Liverpool target Alex Teixeira for a transfer record of £37.5 million from Shakhtar Donetsk.

The financial pull of Chinese clubs goes further than just Europe, with one of MLS’ most prolific strikers and former Inter Milan and Newcastle player Obafemi Martins recently joining Shanghai Shenhua from Seattle Sounders. It also extends to South America, with current Brazilian champions, Corinthians, losing no less than four stars to Chinese clubs during this transfer window, leading manager Tite to honestly comment “China screwed us”.

The top 10 transfer records to the Chinese Super League

The top 10 transfer fees in the Chinese Super League

In the league which includes internationally renowned managers Felipe Scolari and Sven Goran-Eriksson, there is a huge development of domestic football, with hundreds of millions being invested in football academies over the last five years, including the academy of current Asian champions, Guangzhou Evergrande, thought to be the biggest in the world.

Attracted by the potential market in China, Manchester City have plans to found a club in China to add to their clubs across the Atlantic, in America (New York City) and the other side of the world, in Australia (Melbourne City). With little known about this venture by the Premier League title contenders, they have recently announced a pre-season tour to China this summer.

Ongoing Troubles – Corruption & Stadium Disputes

Such wild spending continues amidst ongoing troubles which have surrounded football in China in recent years. The same pitch where Obafemi Martins and Demba Ba will link up for Shanghai Shenhua, the Hongkou Football Stadium, is being used as a golf driving range during the week. The 35,000 capacity ground is now used specificially for golf on non-match days, giving golf enthusiasts a place to practice their swing in the urban jungle of Shanghai.

Such stadium disputes are far from being the worst or most controversial things to happen in the Chinese Super League. The league has seen Robinho, Drogba, Anelka and Gascoigne pass through the competition, yet match-fixing proves an ugly stain hard to rid on the footballing history of China.

Despite efforts from football loving President Xi to clean up the sport, the ongoing corruption problems Chinese football has had haven’t cleared up entirely. Over 33 people and 12 clubs were affected in the most recent anti-corruption scheme where match-fixing and bribery were blamed on low player salaries and unchecked local government officials. Whilst this is one of many anti-corruption schemes, suspicions still remain about match fixing.

The Chinese FA is set to split from the Chinese Central Government

The Chinese FA is set to split from the Chinese Central Government

Since then, big reforms are under way at the Chinese Football Association, as China has moved ahead with plans to separate the sporting body from central government, hoping to lessen the government’s role in football and also slash the corruption that plagues China’s professional leagues.

Elusive Success

As transfer spending captures people’s interest, with PSG’s Ezequiel Lavezzi being the latest to move with rumoured wages of £400,000 a week, Chinese football sits in an odd position. There is an ongoing battle between owners for who can be the first to build an internationally renowned team, leading to the ludicrous big money moves of European players. Even though the Chinese Super League profits from the high profile signings, the heavy spending lacks any true direction for the national team, that aim to host (and win) the World Cup in the near future.

China’s place on the international stage is being held back by the lack of any Chinese role model for youngsters to aspire to replicate. Whilst East Asian neighbour Japan’s national side thrives through a generation inspired by Nakata and the 2002 World Cup, China struggles with no notable players. With Inter’s Nagatomo, Southampton’s Yoshida, Dortmund’s Kagawa, Milan’s Honda and Leicester’s Okazaki all in the current international squad, Japan provides a stark contrast to China’s team of virtual unknowns, all plying their trade in Chinese domestic football.

China recently got eliminated at the group stage of the U23 Asian Championships, with only war torn Yemen performing worse at the finals. With little cause for optimism, the Chinese have tended to look to European football.  But current spending is now bringing Europe to China, resulting in an ever increasing level of interest in domestic football.  Experts now suggest the possibility of the Chinese Super League becoming the dominant Asian league in the future, a role traditionally held by the J. League, as the geography of football looks set to change.

A good friend, and immensely skilful footballer, Guanglei 'Totti' Zhao

A good friend, and immensely skilful footballer, Guanglei ‘Totti’ Zhao

The Chinese can’t play football”, a common assumption in the west, is now being questioned.  For myself, it was playing amateur football alongside Guanglei ‘Totti‘ Zhao that showed the naivety of such a statement. Nicknamed as Totti, after the inspirational Italian footballer whom he idolised in the absence of national footballing heroes, Guanglei was typical of millions of today’s Chinese youth. Immensely skilful and fanatical about the game, Guanglei can now enjoy watching the likes of Teixeira and Ramires at home. How long before China’s young fans have their own stars to emulate?

A superstar Chinese footballer effect would be transformational, similar to the effect Shanghai-born Yao Ming had on Chinese basketball. The former Houston Rockets player, who retired in 2011, almost single-handedly popularised basketball as a national sport in China.

Despite their previous troubles, and current seemingly wild spending habits, the lesson from other business sectors is that China will get it right – eventually. If and when it does, the ongoing Chinese interest in football could well have a profound effect on the world’s favourite sport.