China is a major world superpower, but is it about to become a footballing superpower too?
That certainly seems to be the aim. The Chinese people have long been passionate about soccer. In fact, the oldest recorded semblance of early soccer comes from China, during the Han Dynasty.
Chinese President Xi Jinping recently declared that the expansion and rejuvenation of soccer is part of the “Chinese dream.” The Government have also mandated football programmes in 20,000 Chinese schools.
Football fans in the western world don’t have much exposure to Chinese football, and it has never been considered as one of the world’s major leagues. The Chinese national team are ranked at 81st in the world. They have only qualified for the World Cup once – in 2002 – when they failed to win a game.
Some Premier League supporters will remember Man City’s Sun Jihai, or when both Nikolas Anelka and Didier Drogba signed for Shenghai Shenua. Those links aside, most Premier League fans will have little knowledge or interest in Chinese football.
The Chinese Super League has been marred by allegations of corruption and match-fixing, but Xi Jinping and the government are intent on changing that.
The Chinese Super League has recently signed a television rights deal worth $1.3 billion over five years.
The recent transfer activity of Chinese sides has raised eyebrows internationally. An increasing number of high profile players have moved to Chinese teams in the last few months. The Chinese transfer window runs until February 26th, and clubs in the Chinese Super League have spent more than £200m already.
Long term Liverpool target Alex Teixeira (Shaktar Donetsk, Brazil)also signed for Jiangsu Suning in January for a fee reported to be a record €50 million.
Many people were also surprised when Colombia and Atletico Madrid striker Jackson Martinez signed for Guangzhou for a whopping €42 million in the January transfer window.
This wasn’t the only big money signing.
Just a week earlier, Jiangsu Suning previously broke the Chinese Super League transfer record by signing Chelsea midfielder Ramires for €28 million.
Just today, West Ham striker Nikita Jelavic signed for a side in the Chinese Second Division! Yesterday, Australian and former Everton midfielder Tim Cahill was released by Shenghai Shenua. A few years ago, it would’ve been incomprehensible to envisage a Chinese side letting such a profile player go for nothing, but this is just further evidence that a change is occurring.
There have been similar cases in Europe. Newly wealthy sides such as Anzhi and Monaco used financial incentives to secure high profile signings, but none of these cases are comparable to the sudden surge in China.
The MLS has been a popular destination for high profile European footballers in recent years, but most of these players have been in their mid-thirties, whereas the Chinese league seems to be enticing players who are still in their prime, such as Teixeira (26), Martinez (29) and Ramires (28).
It is impossible to predict what effect this will have on football worldwide, and whether the Chinese can create a league as strong as the English, Spanish, German or Italian leagues.
It will be interesting to monitor how the CSL evolves over the coming years, and whether the Chinese can break the monopoly of the dominant West in terms of footballing prowess.
Watch this space.
by David Smith