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Heart Of Football

China's reach extends to the biggest games in Europe today

All roads seem to lead to China, including the one taking Manchester United and Southampton to Wembley Stadium today, and including the crucial Atletico Madrid versus Barcelona match at the Vicente Calderon later tonight.

This is some turnaround from a few years ago when China represented the world's biggest pariah state in football terms.

The Communist government regarded football as decadent, and even when it did come out to play, the Chinese league appeared riddled with corrupt referees.

All this is changing under President Xi Jinping.

His vision of making China a football superpower is taken to extremes. The yuan attracts 62 foreign managers - among them Luiz Felipe Scolari, Marcello Lippi, Sven-Goran Eriksson and Manuel Pellegrini.

Huge industrial powers behind the clubs have imported hundreds of players - including Alex Teixeira, Hulk, Pato, Ramires and Oscar and others enough to field half a dozen Brazil national sides.

Atletico Madrid and France striker Antoine Griezmann is heavily linked with a move to Manchester United in the summer. His arrival is likely to result in United skipper Wayne Rooney leaving the English giants for China.
Atletico Madrid and France striker Antoine Griezmann is heavily linked with a move to Manchester United in the summer. His arrival is likely to result in United skipper Wayne Rooney leaving the English giants for China. PHOTO: REUTERS

In football, like any other business, the Chinese are coming and the old schools are receding. Once upon a time, Silvio Berlusconi ruled Italy, and his club AC Milan ruled Europe. Now, neither is true.

It doesn't stop at China's borders, or with the burgeoning Chinese Super League. Just like the mammoth Chinese conglomerates buying up real estate from New York City to London town, the same corporations are buying chunks of European football clubs.

It is all about economies of scale and rising financial power.

And in football, like any other business, the Chinese are coming and the old schools are receding. Once upon a time, Silvio Berlusconi ruled Italy, and his club AC Milan ruled Europe.

Now, neither is true. The year-long protracted buy-out of Milan by a Chinese consortium is said to be nearing completion and maybe then we might see the formerly great AC Milan rise again.

Or maybe not, because China's influence (its wealth) is backing rival teams.

Take today's top two contests in Europe. Wayne Rooney will be at Wembley, though possibly on the bench if Jose Mourinho decides so for Manchester United. This follows Rooney's announcement that he is not going East, or in any direction, for now.

The United skipper is hurting. Mourinho has dropped him down a pecking order that is topped by his pre-season signings Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba. And by Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who misses the League Cup final today with a hamstring injury.

"Without Mkhitaryan, if we want to play with a No. 10, obviously it's Wayne's position," Mourinho said. "It's where he was playing with us in many matches, so he is an option for me. A final is a special match."

Yes, but is Rooney, now that he's turned 31, special to his club any more?

"It's the best 11 players," Mourinho answered coyly. "We win all together. It doesn't matter if you don't play too much. I go for the best possible team."

It matters to Rooney. If you are captain of your club and your country, and if that is why the Chinese would pay US$1 million (S$1.4 million) a week to field you in a backwater, it matters that you put United before any of that.

At least for now. At least until the end of this season when whatever Rooney's agent was discussing in China a few days ago gets rolled out in front of the player when United sign another superstar - Atletico Madrid's Antoine Griezmann.

The haggling over Griezmann is tougher now that Atletico are part-owned by China, and no longer have to sell players to stay financially afloat.

By most accounts, Griezmann will have the final say on where he goes, if he goes, after giving Atletico one last shot at the Champions League.

Before that, his duty is to gun down Barcelona if he can tonight. The Barca president Josep Bartomeu should just about make kick-off after his trip to China and his stopover in Hong Kong.

Bartomeu, accompanied by former superstar Ronaldinho who has returned as a club ambassador, went to Mission Hills in the southern tip of China to sign an accord with the company behind the Mission Hills Golf Club.

The accord entails Barcelona sending coaches and other staff to run an academy for 1,000 youngsters at Haikou in Hainan province.

And that, too is a part of President Xi's vision, teaching the young to become a part of a Chinese football state once the foreign invasion has put the league on the map.

The power of it is washing over what we thought was the wealth (the absurd wealth some might say) of Europe's big clubs, backed by their ever increasing television payments.

I've mentioned Atletico and Barcelona both in different aspects of Chinese pay days.

Manchester United, too, are looking to China because, if they can offload Rooney not just for a transfer fee but for his £13 million (S$22.76 million) annual wage, they can help offset the £90 million fee, and the wages, for Griezmann.

The inference is that Mourinho helped Rooney to get past Bobby Charlton's all-time scoring record, now Rooney should do the decent thing and go quietly.

Football, as the Claudio Ranieri story has brutally reminded us, has no time for yesterday's men. The owners, whoever they are and wherever they be, will call time in their own time.

Finally, since it takes two sides to play any match, is there any connection between Manchester United's Wembley opponents and the Chinese football revolution?

You bet there is.

The Saints are one of those clubs who survive in top company on their ability to rear decent players. Rear, and sell.

Year after year, Southampton school the Theo Walcotts and Adam Lallanas of this world to exchange for cash from Arsenal and from Liverpool.

The same goes for managers. Mauricio Pochettino came, and went to Spurs. Ronald Koeman followed him at the Saints' St Mary's stadium, and moved on up to Everton.

Now, the quiet Frenchman Claude Puel is Southampton's manager. And, even with the team captain Jose Fonte departing last month to West Ham, even with the Saints' other centre-back Virgil van Dijk injured by a terrible tackle from Leicester's Jamie Vardy, Puel must dig deep to field a defence capable of stopping Ibrahimovic and whatever attacking options United line up today.

Southampton at this moment are under Swiss ownership. That might soon pass. Katharina Liebherr, having inherited the club from her late father, is in negotiations to sell the Saints for £225 million.

The purchaser? Need you ask?

It is Citic Group Corporation, a state-owned investment company of the People's Republic of China.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 26, 2017, with the headline 'China's reach extends to the biggest games in Europe today'. Print Edition | Subscribe