London (AFP) – China’s astonishing spending spree on foreign players could all end in tears like the United States’ first foray into building a football league in the 1970’s, according to Brighton chief executive Paul Barber.
Barber, whose side are on course for promotion to the Premier League for the first time in their history, said the China Super League could be just ‘lightning in a bottle’.
Chinese clubs have acquired the likes of Argentinian star Carlos Tevez — reportedly on a record 38 million euros ($40 million) a season — and splashed out a reported 60 million euros on Chelsea’s Brazilian forward Oscar.
However, with a a few days remaining in the Chinese transfer window major deals have largely dried up after the announcement of salary caps and other curbs in January.
Barber, who revealed Chinese clubs had come calling at his club’s door regarding several of their players but they rejected them out of hand, said the galling experience of the North American Soccer League (NASL) should serve as an example to China.
“When I went to (MLS club) Vancouver Whitecaps Bob Leonarduzzi was the president,” Barber told a small number of journalists including AFP after speaking at the Sports Industry Breakfast Club sponsored by BT Sport.
“He was one of Canada’s most capped players appearing at the Olympics and the World Cup and had played in the heady days of the NASL when the Whitecaps had emerging players such as Frans Thijssen, Peter Beardsley and Bruce Grobelaar.
“However, the league also had Bobby Moore and Pele who were amazing players.
“Bob coined the phrase the NASL was like lightning in a bottle as in it was bright and attractive and people couldn’t help but be fascinated by it.
“However, it was also very contained and almost as soon as it appeared it was gone.
“For me it was a brilliant analogy and really stuck.”
Barber, who has also had senior roles with the Football Association (FA) and Tottenham, said the Americans had learnt from their errors first time round and ensured there was depth below the elite level.
“After they hosted the 1994 World Cup they said we want to create this again but with a pyramid and be more sustainable.
“They have achieved both those things and it is growing. There is huge participation levels, the crowds are becoming significant and yes they spend money but only on two or three players per team.
“I would say China are in the first phase as in the NASL of 1974/75.”
Barber, who came into football after a career in banking, said like the American clubs in the 1970’s it was no surprise the Chinese were spending heavily on players.
“When you are new and emerging you have to pay a premium for the best talent and that is what is happening like it did in the USA in the 1970’s,” said Barber.
“The best players did gravitate towards it and why wouldn’t you if you are at the end of ones career.
“Was it sustainable? No.
“It doesn’t seem sustainable in China with the amount of money being thrown around.
“But there again China is China.
“You never know.”
Barber said while bids for Brighton players was flattering selling them would hinder their ambitions.
“Interest in our players shows how far Brighton has come in a very short space of time,” said Barber.
“Not only from EPL teams but Chinese Super League.
“However, our priority is to focus on being the biggest players in Sussex, we will worry about China another decade.”