It seems that every day during this transfer window, yet another player is being linked with a move to the Chinese Super League. With a seemingly unlimited amount of money to spend, certain clubs in the division can afford to buy any player any on the planet. Getting the players to leave Europe and move to a league which is still in development, however, is another matter.
At present, the standard of football in China cannot compete with the top European leagues. Many football fans, and probably some players, believe it is a joke league. It is worth noting, however, that within a few years, it is a joke everybody might have to take seriously. The plan seems quite simple; to make the Chinese Super League the best in the world. They have the capital to do it, and within a few years they might have the players as well.
The Chinese Super League (CSL) was founded in 2004, out of the ashes of the Jia-A league. The latter had become unpopular following reports of widespread corruption, illegal gambling and match fixing. Attendances dropped, which impacted the flow of revenue within the game. When the CSL was originally set up it operated with just twelve teams, which later increased to sixteen.
Footballers in China have always been relatively well-paid in comparison to other sports. As a result they are able to attract a good standard of players from other countries. In spite of this nobody paid the league much attention until 2012 when Nicolas Anelka, and later Didier Drogba, left Chelsea to sign for Shanghai Shengua. They were soon joined in the league by Frédéric Kanouté, Yakubu Aiyegbeni, as well as former Barcelona stars Seydou Keita and Fábio Rochemback. All of these were well known players, but not exactly in the prime of their careers by this time.
In January 2016, Chelsea’s Brazilian international midfielder Ramires joined Jiangsu Suning. The £25 million transfer fee was a CSL record at the time. Within a month, that record was broken as Jackson Martínez and Alex Texeira left Atlético Madrid and Shakhtar Donetsk respectively to move to China. All of these players were under the age of thirty.
In May 2016, the Chinese Professional Football League (CPFL) was established. The idea is to separate the top three tiers of professional football from the structure of the Chinese Football Association (CFA). In January 2017, the CPFL was announced as a PLC. Because they are independent from the CFA, they are free to negotiate their own television and sponsorship deals. This will only add to the wealth already enjoyed by most clubs. Current CSL champions Guangzhou Evergrande are backed by two megacorporations; Alibaba.com and the Evegrande Real Estate Group.
All of the CSL clubs are shareholders in the newly formed league. The result of this leaves the CFA with minimal involvement, as the clubs are now independent from them. Other than the sanctioning of the competition rules, the regulation of on-field matters and the CFA Cup, they will have little say in the new structure. They will still have the ability to vote on certain issues, but their real influence will now be limited to the clubs not in the top three tiers of Chinese football.
The current set-up allows clubs to have only three foreign players on the field at the same time. They are, however, allowed five in their overall squad. It will be interesting to see if this rule is expanded over the coming years. Of the sixteen clubs currently in the CSL, only three have a manager of Chinese nationality. Some of the more high profile names include Manuel Pellegrini, Fabio Cannavaro, Luiz Felipe Scolari and André Villas-Boas.
Over the last twelve months, the purchases made by Chinese Super League clubs have become bolder and bolder. The figures being bandied around in order to recruit these players are quite extraordinary. It was reported by Sky News earlier this week that Chelsea striker Diego Costa was being offered £30 million a year to move to the CSL. While this transfer appears now to be dead in the water, it shows the level of ambition their clubs have.
Carlos Tevez recently became the highest paid player in the world, on a reported £615,000 per week at Shanghai Shengua. The Argentine striker is approaching his 33rd birthday, and although still a great player, he is past his peak. Costa, however, only recently turned 28, and is in the form of his life. If he left Stamford Bridge he could have his pick of top European clubs. It also speaks volumes about their project that the offer reportedly turned his head.
Xi Jinping is President of the People’s Republic of China, and a huge football fan. His dream is for his country’s football league to be recognised as the best in the world. As a result, he has actively encouraged China’s businesses to invest in his vision. So far the evidence suggests that they have the resources to do it.
Football is a popular sport in China, with most of the top European clubs attracting huge support out there. Whatever the future holds for the CSL, that support probably won’t be affected much either way. The time difference between China and Europe ensures that practically no matches in the CSL would be played at the same time as, for example, the Premier League.
The figures already show that attendances have risen almost every year since the CSL was founded. The league’s average attendance was just over 10,000 in 2004. Last season saw them rise to just over 24,000. If the plan to recruit the world’s best players pays off, these attendances will surely continue to rise. Many of the stadiums in the CSL hold more than 30,000 fans, the highest being Beijing Sinobo Guoan’s 66,000 capacity Workers Stadium. These currently half-empty stadiums may find themselves filling up rapidly in the coming years, given that China is the most densely-populated country on Earth.
If they did manage to get someone of the calibre of Diego Costa, it will raise the profile of the CSL. The knock-on effect may be that other superstars follow suit. If the league starts becoming as competitive as the salaries on offer, the Premier League and La Liga may struggle to keep up. After all, if the level of competition on offer is as good as, or better than that in Europe, that alone would be an attraction. Add this to the fact that the players will have the chance to earn much more than they could in Europe, suddenly the CSL starts ticking all the right boxes. The prestige of the world’s current top clubs might start to wane.
One negative effect that the money on offer in the CSL could have on European clubs is regarding contract renewals. When an agent is negotiating a new deal with a players’ current club, they can point to the money that would be on offer in China. This means that the club has to pay the player a vastly improved contract, or risk losing them. The CSL can pay the sort of wages that would make even Sheikh Mansour or Roman Abramovich blush.
It’s all speculation at the moment about what the future may hold for the Chinese Super League. It may be that it never takes off quite the way it is intended to. At the moment, the world’s top footballers want to be playing in the Champions League. It’s unlikely at this stage that someone like Lionel Messi will head to that part of the world. But the money on offer won’t have gone unnoticed by players such as him.
Imagine somebody like, for example, Neymar having a contract stand-off with Barcelona in the next few years. All it might take is the right offer coming in at the right time for one of the world’s elite players such as him. If they could attract a couple of players of his calibre to the league, more might follow.
There is every possibility that, within ten years, every CSL team has a star-studded line-up of top international players. This is where they may relax the limit on foreign players, in order to accommodate them all. If that were to happen, it probably wouldn’t be too long before a Chinese side wins the FIFA Club World Cup.
All of this would increase attendances further, as well as the level of incoming revenue because the interest in the league would be sky high. The television and sponsorship deals may dwarf those of the Premier League and La Liga. Fans around the world would be tuning in simply because this is where the best players are.
None of the above is guaranteed to happen. The Chinese Super League is a project that is very much still in development. One of the big risks of any top-level player moving there is that the division is currently streets behind European football. They won’t be playing at anything like the level they are used to, and this could harm their international ambitions. It may be that, despite the riches on offer, none of them want to take that gamble at the top of their careers. But if just a couple of them did, it might have a knock-on effect. It certainly seems to be the intention of those writing those supersized cheques.
At present, many football fans view the project as a joke, and treat it with contempt. The flipside, however, is that if the project fulfils all of their ambitions, the joke might be on them. Fans of European football might be casting envious glances over to China, the way their fans currently do when watching the Champions League. The Chinese Super League is here to stay, and their intentions are to change the face of football forever.