Chinese soccer clubs are splashing their cash in Europe, as wealthy owners embrace President Xi Jinping’s vision of the sleeping Asian giant becoming a new heavyweight in the sport.
As January’s European transfer window began to swing shut on Monday, clubs in the top two tiers of Chinese soccer had spent more than 200 million euros ($216 million) collectively on players, according to website transfermarkt, which tracks commercial developments in the sport.
That was more than 60 percent higher than the total they lavished in the winter transfer market last year.
But critics say that owners are motivated more by a desire to curry favor with political power than by a love for the Beautiful Game.
Questions have also been asked about whether Chinese clubs are paying over the odds for players who may be past their best — many of the new arrivals are in their late 20s — and if European clubs are seeking to unload overpaid stars on willing buyers.
The three highest individual fees in the window so far were all paid by Chinese clubs, transfermarkt’s figures show.
Four of the 6 top spending football clubs in the WORLD in Jan are Chinese. But Newcastle No1. (Source: Chronicle) pic.twitter.com/Hx7lggw1QY
— sportingintelligence (@sportingintel) January 30, 2016
“There is one new reason for Chinese billionaires to invest in football inside China — to build political capital in uncertain times,” Rowan Simons, author of a book on Chinese football, told AFP.
The spending spree comes after a powerful Communist Party committee chaired by Xi declared: “Revitalizing soccer is a must to build China into a sports powerhouse as part of the Chinese dream.”
As vice-president in 2011, Xi said he wanted China — currently languishing in 82nd place in the FIFA world rankings — to qualify for, host and ultimately win a World Cup.
The committee last year approved a 50-point plan to put Xi’s sporting ambition into effect, including establishing 50,000 soccer schools within 10 years, making the game compulsory for some elementary and middle-school students, and separating the Chinese Football Association from government bureaucracy.
Companies and businessmen have since rushed to put money into soccer.
“It’s what their president wants,” says Tony Rallis, who brokered a deal to sell Australian international Trent Sainsbury to Jiangsu Suning.
“Why is it any different from the Chinese government encouraging them to buy Australian farms, invest in African countries? To me that’s an example of due diligence and proper planning.
“It’s not about individuals, it’s about the broad picture here.”
– Billionaire backers –
In January, Chelsea’s Brazilian midfielder Ramires went to Jiangsu Suning for a Chinese Super League record 28 million euros, Hebei China Fortune bought Ivorian striker Gervinho from AS Roma for 18 million euros, and Shanghai Shenhua took Inter Milan’s Colombian international Fredy Guarin for 13 million, according to transfermarkt’s figures.
Suning, a privately held retail conglomerate that sells appliances at more than 1,600 stores, only bought the Jiangsu team in December, and subsequently renamed it.
The company’s billionaire founder, Zhang Jindong, is a member of the government’s Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee, a Communist-controlled debating chamber.
Hebei China Fortune are owned by a Beijing-based developer of industrial parks, founded by billionaire Wang Wenxue, while Shenhua are owned by Greenland Holding Group, a real estate investment company that focuses on high-rise complexes.
“When the Chinese government says they are setting their mind to something, it means ‘This is how you’re going to get on our good side,” said David Hornby, sports business director of the Mailman brand management group in Shanghai.
Mark Dreyer, a sports blogger in Beijing, compares the football gold rush to the flood of money into China’s notoriously volatile stock market.
When “they announced the soccer reforms, the very next day there were dozens of people registering football clubs,” he said. “Clearly none of them had anything to do with the sport, but thought, ‘This is my opportunity, I can get a piece of the next pie’.”
– Uncertain Times –
But experts say the avalanche of cash is unlikely to turn into trophies for the national team — and could even be counter-productive.
Foreigners coming to play in the Chinese Super League often earn millions of dollars, and Gao Zhaoyu, an expert on Chinese sport at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, said club money that could be spent on training young players was instead going into transfer fees and salaries — while China’s salary cap only applied to domestic players, rather than foreigners, and owners had ignored it in any case.
“Some European clubs have also suffered financial instability,” he added. “They would like to transfer players to major clubs, including the Chinese clubs.”
Regardless of whether or not they are getting value for money, some observers doubt the high rates of spending are sustainable once the enthusiasm wanes.
“It is most unfortunate and equally unsurprising that this investment is concentrated at the very top of the football pyramid,” said Simons, the author.
The national team will not significantly improve its results before Xi completes his two terms in office, he predicted.
“That’s how little time this new politically-led football revolution has to run… unless his successor is also a football fan.”