Football: Few believers in China league's spending spree

A throng of fans welcoming Brazil midfielder Oscar at Shanghai Pudong International Airport. He is set to earn around £400,000 a week with Shanghai SIPG after joining from Chelsea.
A throng of fans welcoming Brazil midfielder Oscar at Shanghai Pudong International Airport. He is set to earn around £400,000 a week with Shanghai SIPG after joining from Chelsea.PHOTO: REUTERS

Many fans say impact is short term and is unlikely to lift local football standards

It is a long way to the top, but China is determined to try spending its way to being among the elite footballing nations.

It has been a formidable show of spending strength by the Chinese Super League (CSL) clubs in the past two years, as they signed up talented stars such as Carlos Tevez, Gervinho, Jackson Martinez and Oscar in a bid to draw crowds - and revenue - to raise their global profiles.

Certainly they have already created a sensation in the transfer statistics. Last month, Oscar was bought by Shanghai SIPG from English Premier League giants Chelsea for a staggering US$63.5 million (S$90.6 million) - easily setting an Asian transfer record in the process.

Not to be outdone, their city rivals Shanghai Greenland Shenhua, acquired former Manchester United and Manchester City striker Tevez and handed him a £615,000 (S$1.07 million) weekly wage - making the Argentinian the highest-paid player in the world.

Even a modest club such as Tianjin Teda, which finished 10th in the CSL table last season, were able to attract Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel, who signed earlier this month for £140,000 a week.

All eyes will be on the start of the league season in March, but do the fans support such profligacy?

  • The big players of the CSL

    SHANGHAI SIPG

    Owned by: Shanghai International Port (Group), the exclusive operator of all the public terminals in the Port of Shanghai. It is also a component of Shanghai Stock Exchange's (SSE 180) Index.

    Club value: €76.83 million (S$116 million) - 1st in league \

    Best finish: Champions (2007, 2012)

    Last season: 3rd

    Key signings:

    •Oscar (attacking midfielder, Brazil): €60 million from Chelsea, 2017

    •Hulk (winger/striker, Brazil): €55.8 million from Zenit St Petersburg, 2017)

    GUANGZHOU EVERGRANDE TAOBAO

    Owned by: Evergrande Real Estate Group, China's second-largest property development by sales, and Alibaba Group, world's largest retail e-commerce company.

    Club value: €48.08 million

    Best finish: Champions (2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016)

    Last season: Champions

    Key signings:

    • Jackson Martinez (striker, Colombia): €42 million from Atletico Madrid, 2016

    •Paulinho (midfielder, Brazil): €14 million from Tottenham, 2016

    JIANGSU SUNING

    Owned by: Suning Appliance Group, a holding company with total assets of over 20 billion yuan (S$4.2 billion).

    Club value: €45.7 million

    Best finish: 2nd (2012, 2016)

    Last season: 2nd

    Key signings:

    • Alex Texeira (attacking midfielder, Brazil): €50 million from Shakhtar Donetsk, 2016

    •Ramires (midfielder, Brazil): €28 million from Chelsea, 2016

    SHANGHAI GREENLAND SHENHUA

    Owned by: Greenland Group, a publicly traded real estate developer. By the company's own estimate, in 2014 it was the largest real estate developer in the world by floor space under construction and sales revenue.

    Club value: €38.9 million

    Best finish: 2nd (2005, 2006, 2008)

    Last season: 4th

    Key signings:

    •Carlos Tevez (striker, Argentina): €10.5 million from Boca Juniors, 2017

    •Fredy Guarin (midfielder, Colombia): €13 million from Inter Milan, 2016

    •Demba Ba (striker, Senegal): €13 million from Besiktas, 2016)

    SHANDONG LUNENG TAISHAN

    Owned by: Luneng Group, which is a subsidiary of Shandong Electric Power Group, the biggest supplier of electric energy in Shandong province and itself part of the State Grid Corporation of China.

    Club value: €30.9 million

    Best finish: Champions (2006, 2008, 2010)

    Key signings:

    •Graziano Pelle (striker, Italy): €15.25 million from Southampton, 2016

Many think such extravagant spending is not worth it. Said football fan Liang Wenzhen, 33: "The coming of such players may raise the entertainment value of the league in the short term, but it will not bring any obvious effect to the standard of local players."

This is because foreign players take up key positions on the field such as the playmaker or the main striker, with Chinese players playing mainly in fringe positions, noted the accountant, who works in an Internet company and played recreational football weekly until he got married last year.

Others like football commentator Zhang Lindong thought some of that money would be better spent building up local talent.

Much of this big spending has come since 2015, after the Chinese government unveiled a plan to revive Chinese football.

It has been a perennial source of embarrassment for the world's most populous nation that it has qualified for only one men's World Cup - in 2002, the only time the Finals were hosted in Asia. Mediocre football aside, the domestic leagues were also rife with corruption.

The plan aimed to clamp down on match-fixing, restructure the football association, improve the national league, and promote wider public participation. It has the strong support of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who was a school player and is a football fan.

JUST DO YOUR SUMS

If you look at the price of a Shanghai Shenhua season ticket, it is 1,280 yuan (S$265). You don't need to be a master mathematician to see that it doesn't add up to paying many millions of dollars for the likes of Carlos Tevez.

CAMERON WILSON, founding editor of the English-language Chinese football website Wild East Football, on the big-money transfers being financially unsustainable.

Yet, this latest spate of spending by the Chinese clubs has sparked much soul-searching, about whether it is worthwhile to spend so much on players who have seen better days - even the younger ones like 25-year-old Oscar.

As Liang put it: "Basically, they are second-tier players who are on the decline. Even Oscar lost his first-team spot in Chelsea."

China's top sports body, the General Administration of Sport, said that the excessive spending by some clubs was a "grave phenomenon". It added that a ceiling on transfer fees and salaries should be set to reduce the mounting financial burden of the clubs.

For fans, reaction has been mixed. Some, like an Internet user who goes by the handle dunxiaojiangshidun, argue that having high-profile foreign players was a good thing because it could get people to like and play the game.

"I began to like football after the media reported that Chinese club Guangzhou Evergrande had won the Asian Football Confederation title, and after that I tried playing football and chose a football class to attend," he wrote.

Cameron Wilson, founding editor of the English-language Chinese football website Wild East Football, added: "The league has benefited (from the foreign players) because the profile of Chinese football is huge now. Everyone is talking about it and the increased attention attracts more people to the matches and most importantly helps inspire youngsters to get involved with playing the game."

Foreign players can also help raise the technical standard on the pitch and "they can also bring much-needed professionalism which can rub off on Chinese players", he added.

However, he conceded that the extravagant spending is not sustainable.

He told The Sunday Times: "If you look at the price of a Shanghai Shenhua season ticket, it is 1,280 yuan (S$265). You don't need to be a master mathematician to see that it doesn't add up to paying many millions of dollars for the likes of Carlos Tevez."

Noting that the clubs have strong backers like real estate tycoons, Chinese economist Hu Xingdou said if the clubs could not produce results after hiring foreign coaches and players, the investors may decide not to continue with their financial support. It would then be hard for such spending to continue to be financially sustainable.

Indeed, Zhang wrote in a recent column that "there will come a day when such big investment will subside".

"If during this football investment boom, the focus is only on playing up the international big names, then the result would be like that of a passing typhoon, with damage left behind," he warned.

Noting that there is a dearth of local talent, he suggested that football clubs should focus more on building up their reserve teams and put aside some of their funds towards training young footballers.

Indeed, the sports administration said in its statement that the CSL, which is profitable, should put aside funding from its revenues to support the development of reserve teams and youth leagues.

The government is also encouraging more young people to take up the game and has set a target of increasing the number of schools specialising in the game from 5,000 in 2015 to 20,000 by 2020, and 50,000 by 2025.

However, many believe such ambition is likely to be hampered by the Chinese culture which emphasizes paper qualification.

Many Chinese watch football - more than 30 million catch the English Premier League weekly and CSL matches draw an average of 20,000 fans to stadiums, equivalent to the numbers who go to Spanish Primera Liga games.

However, not so many play the game. In 2015, only 190,000 student players were registered with local sports authorities, or less than one-third of the number two decades ago.

Said Liang, the football fan: "Children have no time to play football, and even if some parents support their children to play the game - they still need to sit the university entrance exams, because without a university degree, it is not easy to look for a job."

Meanwhile, the spending spree looks set to continue, and whether the top-class talents would be motivated to perform their best to boost the CSL remains to be seen.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 15, 2017, with the headline 'Few believers in China league's spending spree'. Print Edition | Subscribe