As much as the purists would like to call it the power of money, football in China is undergoing a major process. While money seems to be drawing the big names to the cash-rich league in Asia’s largest economy, the fact is that finances are only the beginning of something bigger in the story of Chinese football.
The league’s rise is credited to China’s ambitions of becoming a footballing powerhouse. It is evident that with a population of well over a billion, China is the biggest viewer of the game. In such a scenario, it is a win-win for the government and the investors involved in the league. With the financial prowess of the private companies that own the 16 teams in the league, China are able to easily bully past second-tier European leagues such as the Dutch, Portuguese and Russian leagues, if not the top five leagues. And on the other hand, it allows the team owners to build up their investment in China and remain in the good books of the government. Under such a symbiotic relationship, China is able to draw in big players like Hulk, Oscar, Jackson Martinez, Carlos Tevez and even major managerial names such as Manuel Pellegrini, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Andre Villas Boas.
China has identified that football plays a major role in modern times. Most football fans in the country are primarily followers of the European giants. It is believed that almost 20-30 per cent of China’s population follows football. Imagine a situation where a certain portion of this could be drawn into the country’s stadiums. As is, the league has managed to draw massive amount of support from fans, with stadiums filling out for every game. Certain clubs also have core fan groups similar to ultras in Italy and England.
But what is it that draws the big names into China? Is it just the money or is there more to it?
Indeed, money does play a huge role. But for certain players, Chinese clubs offer an outlet away from the part role they play at their respective clubs. For players like Jackson Martinez, Ramires and Oscar, offers from Chinese clubs give them an opportunity at being superstars in a country that lacks the star power but on the other hand has all the ambitions. With private backing, clubs are able to offer exorbitant wages to beat off competition from even the biggest leagues in Europe. For instance, Belgian international Axel Witsel, who was a long-term target for Italian giants Juventus, was snapped up by little known Tianjin Quanjian for fees that Juventus could simply not match.
Of course, there is the question whether the money would match the quality yet. Players give up the opportunities to play at the biggest stage in club football for what is seen as a retirement league by critics. For now, China doesn’t offer much when it comes to quality. But if it goes on like this, it won’t be surprising to see even bigger names making their way to China. Certainly that would improve the quality of football being played as well, something that the fans would want to see more of not just in China but across the world.
But the league is not just looking at improving the game in the country for the short term. There is a grander long-term plan that is aimed at the grassroots. For instance, clubs can buy a maximum of only five foreign players. This cap ensures that the majority in the playing eleven remains to be a core of Chinese players. The local players also get an opportunity to train under the best coaches and play alongside the best players. While they are quite not the same quality as their international counterparts, Chinese players, under the existing conditions, could plug the gap in the future.
For all the criticism that it receives, China is looking to change the course of football in modern times. Money plays a big role in today’s game and China has identified that very well. And it won’t be surprising that at such pace, football could be headed in a different direction. Maybe towards the East.