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Football's new power centre: China

ANALYST
Business
616   //    09 Sep 2016, 16:42 IST
Graziano Pelle
Graziano Pelle is just one of the big stars to have moved to China

Football is without a doubt the most popular sport across the world. And naturally popular football clubs are big brands especially the likes of Manchester United, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. Like major brands in various industries, these brands have their own style of functioning.

Over the next few weeks, we will be taking a closer look at certain aspects of a football club like the hierarchy in place and also analyze a few roles. In addition we will delve into the commercial side taking into consideration the cost and revenue aspects. Further, it will be interesting to see how big a business football really is and what do businessmen look to obtain by investing their money in such brands.

In the early 2000s, China set out to become a sporting superpower. Rigorous training programs were designed, the best coaches were brought in and a huge amount of money was spent in developing sports across the country. The results of those efforts reflected in the nation winning 51 gold medals at the Beijing Olympic Games and bagging 38 gold medals four years later in London.

At the Asian Games in 2010 and 2014, they bagged record medals leaving behind all other Asian powerhouses. However, one sport where China has failed to make an impact is football. Even in Asia, China had not been able to do well in football.

Guangzhou Evergrande
Guangzhou Evergrande won the AFC Champions League in 2013 and 2015

But that can well be a considered a thing of the past. Backed by political will, the Chinese have taken the world of football by storm. Chinese club Guangzhou Evergrande won the Asian Champions League in 2013 and since then the game has just grown in the country. The side once again lifted the title in 2015 and backed that up by signing Atletico Madrid forward Jackson Martinez in a record breaking deal worth £31 million.

That move was followed by Brazilian Alex Teixeria joining mid-table side Jiangsu Suning which then became a record-breaking deal. Since then the likes of Ramires, Paulinho, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Gervinho, Hulk, Obafemi Martins and Demba Ba have moved to the Chinese Super League.

Recently, former Southampton star Graziano Pelle joined former champions Shandong Luneng in a deal which made him the fifth highest paid player in the world. However it is not just the star players, the Chinese have brought in some of the top managers of the game. The likes of Sven Goran Eriksson, Manuel Pellegrini, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Felix Magath are currently part of the League. In the past, Fabio Cannavaro, Mano Menezes and Alberto Zaccheroni have graced the league with their presence.

Also read: Chinese Super League set to make Marcello Lippi the highest paid coach in the world 

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Investors in the country have time and again been urged to put money into networks of coaching facilities across the length and breadth of the country. The Chinese have also gone about buying stakes in clubs like Manchester City, Atletico Madrid, Espanyol, Slavia Prague and Aston Villa.

Further, the demand for viewing the game has risen by immense proportions in the country. The English Premier League is viewed closely by the nation while the likes of FC Barcelona and Real Madrid command a solid fan base in the country.

Is the football model sustainable?

The Chinese President, Xi Jingping’s dream of seeing his nation evolve as a football superpower slowly but gradually seems to take shape. However, one wonders whether this growth model is sustainable.

Football development in China has followed the same model as development in industries. Like industries where foreign companies and labour was brought in to upskill the domestic workers, the football sector has also gone about hiring foreign players and managers to improve the game in the country. Also one must realize that where there is political will, there is a way!

China’s rise as a footballing nation has got a great deal to do with the dreams of the nation’s Premier Xi Jingping, whose government has introduced a 50 point plan that will not only enable China to host the World Cup one day but also win it. The Central Reform Group headed by the President has unveiled plans to spend a mind-boggling $850 billion over the next decade to revitalize and improve the sport in the country.

One can question the economics of the entire project and there are doubts about whether both the government and the private players will be able to recover the money considering the fact that China’s economic growth seems to have stagnated over the past few years. However, with the government firmly supporting the private investors and backing the entire project, questions regarding sustainability can, for the time being, be laid to rest.

Will China become too big for Asia?

On the other hand, there is a potential problem resulting from China’s huge investment in the game. The Red Dragon, in a few years’ time, is all set to become the most powerful footballing nation in the region. This could create huge disparities which would adversely affect the football landscape in the continent.

Further, China would become too big for Asian football. Already there are signs pointing towards that inevitability. A Chinese side has won the Asian Champions League twice in the last three years. The quality of players at the disposal of the club sides cannot be matched by other teams across the continent (even Australia as well). The gap is going to widen as the years go by.

USA vs China

China’s growth in football is similar to that of the United States of America. The Major League Soccer not only took the nation by storm but also attracted some of the top players of the world. However, there is a key aspect where China trumps the USA. Most MLS sides signed big name players in the twilight of their careers. Clearly, they were playing for superannuation.

On the other hand, China has attracted the likes of Pelle, Martinez and Paulinho who have many years of professional football ahead of them. Clearly, it is just a matter of time before stars in the league of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo head to the land of the Hwang Ho.

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