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Things India can learn from the Chinese Super League

What should India do apart from creating a good business model to woo sponsors and investors?

Jackson Martinez’s big-money move has signalled a statement of intent from China

Earlier this week, Jackson Martinez of Atletico Madrid signed with Guangzhou Evergrande for a whopping £31 million. Having moved from Porto to the Spanish capital in the summer of 2015 for a sizeable fee of £27 million, Martinez netted just 3 goals and clocked a mere 1,051 minutes.

He was, by no stretch of anyone’s imagination, a hot property in Europe and was completely at odds with manager Diego Simeone’s playing style. Yet, Guangzhou moved on him, offering an enormous amount of money to play in China.

The Chinese Super League was founded in 2004 (3 years before the inception of the I-League, and was rebranded from the Jia-A League) and originally consisted of 12 teams. It is well known that the Chinese sporting fraternity switched focus to Olympic sports, with the 2008 Beijing Olympics on the horizon.

Since football is restricted to an under-23 event at the summer games, less focus was given to the national side. However, the Chinese Super League had just caught the eye of the fans, of whom around 4 million attended the league games in 2008, the Olympic year.

The model was starting to work (a two-tier model and 16 teams in the premier division) and by 2011, the CSL was beginning to look at the next big step.

Drogba, Anelka, Ramires, and Keita all moved to China

Ramires moved to China on a lucrative deal

After winning the Champions League with Chelsea in 2012, club legend Didier Drogba decided to move to China, along with the likes of Nicolas Anelka, Lucas Barrios (who had been playing for Borussia Dortmund), Aiyegbani Yakubu of Blackburn Rovers and Seydou Keita of Barcelona among others.

This was probably the precursor to what we are seeing today. The incentive was clear for these players who had entered the twilight of their careers – plenty of money and recognition in a growing Asian market.

China was recording the highest economic growth in the world until 2013 when India overtook their neighbours who seemed to be struggling due to the one-child policy and other economic policies. So, the money was always available and hence we are seeing exorbitant amounts of money being spent of Brazilian and European talents.

The most important thing is that Chinese clubs are now competing with second-tier European clubs in terms of financial power and this is seemingly disrupting the traditional European transfer market.

Ramires of Chelsea, Fredy Guarin of Inter and Gervinho of Roma have all moved to China on lucrative deals that see them earned twice or even thrice a number of wages while still being wanted by a host of European clubs. This trend is only going to grow in the coming seasons, and this is where a country like India should take a few bold steps.

What is ISL lacking?

The Indian Super League has generated plenty of fanfare, and while the focus has been on ‘grassroots development’, there have been a handful of players who have really made international players sit up and take notice of their potential.

In a League that has celebrities and businessmen with deep pockets as its owners, it really needs players who have something new to offer in order to move to the next level. For example, Mumbai City FC suffered adversely when their 39-year old marquee player, Nicolas Anelka, played on the left wing instead of the regular option in Sunil Chhetri.

Clearly, playing at an extremely slow pace and only on the wings isn’t going to suit rising Indian players who need to play at a much higher level. Being a 3-month event, the fatigue factor also kicks in which restricts the performances of many.

So, how does India learn from China?

Raising the standard of pitches is one big step.
  1. Look to sign players that still have something to offer, like Steven Mendoza, Bruno Pellisari, Nico Velez and Elano. By playing with these players, Indians can learn faster also play at a better level.
  2. Form one unified league with a minimum of 16 teams (for which the AIFF needs to act fast) with a league span of 7-9 months.
  3. Raise the standard of pitches, training facilities and stadiums.
  4. Publicize the successes of the league on a global scale, thus catching the attention of European or South American players.
  5. Extend their transfer windows to periods of closure in Europe (China’s transfer window closes on February 26th, which has led to the potential signing of Alex Teixeira who was also wanted by Liverpool in January).
  6. Create a good business model (like the ISL has) to woo sponsors and investors.
  7. Target household names and marquee players to comprehensively boost the image of the league.
  8. The AIFF can learn a lot from the CSL’s relative success as a business model and a league with big signings and a high level of fan following. Though Indian clubs will not be able to part with crazy amounts of money, sensible loan deals can be made with a high salary to players plying their trade in 2nd-tier European clubs. This is probably the big step that is required in Indian football, but the first smaller steps need to be taken now.

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