Money talks. And often, it talks louder than the rest. While the last decade has seen a steady shift of the globe’s financial center of gravity eastwards from the west to the thriving state of China, the west (Europe in particular) has been able to maintain their stranglehold on the globe’s most popular game. That is till now. It was always going to be just a matter of time before the shift in economic power would translate into a shift in footballing supremacy. The wheels have been put in motion and the signs of the power shift are becoming more and more discernible. Because in football too, as in most things in life, money talks the loudest.
Marquee signing in Super League of China
Last month, Shanghai Shenhua, a club in the Chinese Super League (CSL), made headlines by signing up a bona fide marquee footballer in Didier Drogba. Even though the two time African Footballer of the Year was snapped up on a free transfer from Chelsea, a club in which he had played a talismanic role for nearly a decade, the wage he will earn is astronomical to say the least. The eye watering $ 315,000 which Drogba stands to pocket every week is a figure at which even the money men of Manchester City and Chelsea would normally baulk. What is even more staggering is the fact that the Drogba deal is not a one-off. While he may be the most high-profile, Drogba is not the first global superstar to arrive at the shores of Chinese football.
Drogba’s former Chelsea teammate Nicolas Anelka had joined Shenhua in January and is reportedly on a £ 200,000 ($ 300,000 approximately) per week deal. Apart from Shenhua, there is the incumbent table toppers Guangzhou Evergrande who have players of the caliber of Paraguay’s Lucas Barrios and Argentina’s Dario Conca, both of whom are among the highest paid footballers in the world.
Addition of experience in Chinese Super League
At the helm of Evergrande is Italy’s Marcello Lippi and it goes without saying that World Cup winning coaches do not come cheap. Drogba and Anelka are managed at Shenhua by former national coach of Argentina, Sergio Batista. Other notable big names plying their trade in CSL include former Seville striker Frederic Kanoute (at Beijing Gouan), Nigerian forward Aiyegbeni Yakubu (at Guanzhou R&F), Colombian midfielder Giovanni Moreno (at Shehua) whereas moves for the likes of recently released Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita and Michael Owen have been mooted in Chinese press.
Such lavish splurging by football teams can be linked to the sudden growth spurt experienced by the Chinese economy in the recent years. Most of the clubs are owned by business tycoons, who have amassed their wealth in a relatively short period and are keen to make a name for themselves by now splashing the cash. Zhu Jun, the owner of Shenhua, is the founder of a company holding the Chinese distribution rights to World of Warcraft video game franchise and made £ 60 million by taking the company public in 2004.
Guangzho Evergrande is owned by the Evergrande – one of the largest real estate groups in China – whose stocks have soared with boom in the country’s real estate sector. All this has paved the way for men with very deep pockets willing to invest in the football clubs even when the returns do not justify the scale of investment. The annual income of Shenhua is a meager £ 2 million. To put things into context, this is less than the revenue generated by most clubs in England’s second tier, Championship. However, in spite of the huge losses they are bound to incur, the owners are carrying on undeterred.
The reasons behind such extravagance are manifold. Investing into the football clubs gives the owners and their brands a sort of domestic and global exposure which is difficult to achieve through other routes. Even as this article is being written and read, their purpose is being served. Apart from that, there are political considerations as well. Mr. Xi Jinping, the president-elect of People’s Republic of China, is a football fan. Hence it makes perfect sense for the businessmen to invest in football in order to get in to the good books of the soon-to-be anointed leader and gain favorable political influence.
Whatever the motives may be, it is for certain that football in China needed this dose of glitz and glamor in order to sustain itself. In recent past, the popularity of the sport in the country had taken a severe battering due to rampant corruption rearing its ugly head at high levels of the administration. Match-fixing had become commonplace in Chinese football and millions of yuan were paid in bribes to determine results of league matches.
Finally in 2008, a crackdown on match-fixing implicated some 20 high-ranking officials, many of whom were ultimately handed lengthy prison terms. Even so, in the minds of the viewing public doubts about the integrity of the game still linger. The arrival of a host of high-profile footballers may go some way in eradicating those doubts and bring back audience interest in the sport.
The true revival of football in China though will ultimately be measured by the performance of the national team. It seems confounding that the country which topped the medals tally by some distance in the previous Summer Olympics in Beijing has a football team languishing in 68th position in the latest FIFA rankings. Their only previous appearance at the World Cup in 2002 finished with 3 defeats to Brazil, Turkey and Costa Rica without a single goal being scored. The country’s latest attempt to qualify for the World Cup has already suffered a dismal ending.
Corruption has a large role to play behind such parlous state of affairs. Until recently, spots in the national team were reportedly up for sale and in a stretch over two years, players called up to the national squad numbered over hundred, a suspiciously high figure. Furthermore, the administrative set up at China puts sharper focus on individual sports which would garner higher number of Olympic medals than on team games like football. As a result, children are encouraged to take up athletics, swimming and gymnastics over football. The rigorous education system and one child policy further whittles down the pool of budding footballers in China.
Overcoming all these barriers will take time. Players like Drogba and Anelka plying their trade in CSL will undoubtedly help raise the standards but investments are also required at the grassroots. Mr. Xi Jinping recently stated three wishes he had regarding Chinese football: first, qualify for another World Cup; second, host a World Cup; finally, win a World Cup. As things stand, let alone the third, even the first two seem remote possibilities. The situation can be best summed up in this famous joke.
The Buddha tells the people he can fulfill only one of their wishes. Someone asks: “Could you lower the price of property in China so that people can afford it?” Seeing the Buddha frown in silence, the person makes another wish: “Could you make the Chinese football team qualify for a World Cup?” After a long sigh, the Buddha says: “Let’s talk about property prices.”