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Rediff.com  » Sports » China's big bucks luring soccer's talent

China's big bucks luring soccer's talent

February 10, 2017 09:47 IST

Carlos Tevez will be paid £615,000 a week at Shanghai Shenhua, making him the world's best paid footballer -- his salary is now more than Cristiano Ronaldo's and Lionel Messi's!China is offering money world football has never seen, report Dhruv Munjal and Shakya Mitra.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

China's big bucks luring soccer's talented names

With great power comes the instinct to hoard.

China loves to claim ownership of land masses in foreign countries, international water bodies, and, perhaps a little more deservingly, to a series of inventions that have moulded so fastidiously the world we live in today: the compass, gunpowder, printing, tea, toilet paper -- and football.

The story goes that during the Song dynasty (960 to 1279 AD), the Chinese played a leisurely game called 'kickball', or cuju, which mainly required players to keep the ball air-bound with no use of hands allowed.

Cuju also finds a mention in John Woo's 2008 wondrous war film, Red Cliff.

Even though England is often acknowledged as the home of modern-day football, cuju is acknowledged by FIFA as the earliest form of football ever played.

Not surprisingly then, when China qualified for its first football World Cup -- hosted by Japan and South Korea in 2002 -- more than 300 million Chinese people tuned in.

Such was the pre-tournament fervency that the Chinese electronics markets were engulfed by fans wanting to get their hands on new television sets to watch the national team in action -- more than 150 million units were sold during the competition.

Despite the hysterical excitement, the tournament was the kind of cataclysm that critically dented China's otherwise snobbish sporting competitiveness.

They were walloped in all their three group games and exited the World Cup without finding the opposition net a single time -- the culmination of this misery arrived in the form of 4-0 pummelling at the hands of eventual champions Brazil.

Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Roberto Carlos had never had it so easy in a World Cup.

Brazilian international midfielder Oscar is thronged by fans as he arrives at the Shanghai Pudong International Airport, after agreeing to join China super league football club Shanghai SIPG from Chelsea in Shanghai, China, on January 2, 2017

IMAGE: Brazilian international midfielder Oscar is thronged by fans as he arrives at the Shanghai Pudong International Airport, after agreeing to join China super league football club Shanghai SIPG from Chelsea in Shanghai, January 2, 2017.

Cut to 2016. It is late December and Shanghai's Pudong International Airport is a picture of delirious anticipation.

Crowds are waiting for the flight of a 20-something Brazilian from London.

After weeks of acrimonious bench warming at Chelsea, he has finally made his way to their beloved Shanghai SIPG.

When he finally arrives, Oscar, a delightfully skilled number 10, is swamped by shutterbugs and autograph seekers, and in the end, needs security to be escorted out of the building.

"Oscar's arrival was perhaps the biggest thing to have happened to Chinese football. All the paranoia seemed justified at the time," says Dong Lin, a Chinese football pundit.

There was little surprise when the fag end of last year found itself abuzz with rumours that Oscar wanted out from Stamford Bridge.

Ever since the arrival of manager Antonio Conte in the summer, he had found himself on the periphery of a wildly talented squad that also included Eden Hazard, Willian and Cesc Fabregas.

'The money is just insane. Athletes, at the end of the day, have short shelf lives. Some of the younger ones are treating this as an opportunity to make some good money early in their careers.'

But at the time, Juventus -- and not some arcane Far East club that was founded a little over 20 years ago -- seemed like his likely destination.

Eventually, he dumped the Old Lady's exalted heritage and lustrous history for a monstrous pay package -- £400,000 a week -- from a club very few would have heard of in Brazil.

At Chelsea, he was being offered a paltrier £90,000 a week.

Oscar is not the first player to have had his head turned by the preposterous sums of money going around in Chinese football.

In fact, he joins a long list that includes Hulk, Jackson Martinez, Alex Teixiera, Ramires, Axel Witsel and Carlos Tevez. Why?

Much of that answer lies in the big bucks involved.

"The money is just insane. Athletes, at the end of the day, have short shelf lives. Some of the younger ones are treating this as an opportunity to make some good money early in their careers," says Dong.

With a weekly salary of £615,000, Shanghai Shenhua's Carlos Tevez is now the richest footballer in the world

IMAGE: With a weekly salary of £615,000, Shanghai Shenhua's Carlos Tevez is now the richest footballer in the world. Photograph: Scott Halleran/Getty Images

The money on offer is indeed absurd.

Carlos Tevez, 32, is getting paid £615,000 a week at Shanghai Shenhua, making him the world's best-paid player.

To put that into perspective, Tevez's salary is now more than Cristiano Ronaldo's (£365,000 after tax) and Lionel Messi's (£336,000 after tax).

Former Southampton striker Graziano Pelle, a middling journeyman, gets paid £290,000 by Shandong Luneng every week.

The sluggish nature of the economy in West Asia has prevented clubs in the region from offering lucrative deals, as was the norm till a few years ago.

But even by Sheikhdom standards, China is offering money world football has never seen.

The other part of the answer to that question lies in aspiration. Christopher Atkins, a football writer and player intermediary based in Guangzhou, says that it shows ambition.

"It is Chinese ambition. The government wants to balance the economy: in addition to manufacturing, it sees sports and entertainment as big opportunities."

And what may seem as a challenging commitment is, in fact, not that strenuous.

"Cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou are not so dissimilar to London or Madrid; the lifestyle there is quite good. It is smaller cities that are likely to be more difficult for foreign players to settle in," says Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at the Salford Business School.

"That said, with high wages, even difficult towns and cities can become easy to live in."

The Chinese Super League's financial bulldozing and phenomenal clout is eerily similar to the rise of the J-League in the early 1990s.

After years of dreary football and abject stadium attendance, Japan restarted its premier domestic football competition with splendid pageantry in 1993.

Players were greeted by humongous crowds, giant colourful flags, laser shows and firework displays; it was a jamboree Asian football had never seen before.

Jack Ma, CEO of the Alibaba Group and the second richest man in China, is also an investor in the Chinese Super League

IMAGE: Jack Ma, CEO of the Alibaba Group and the second richest man in China, is an investor in the Chinese Super League. Photograph: Reuters

And the likes of Gary Linekar, Dunga, Zico and Patrick Mboma kept the crowds enthralled.

It was so freakishly enjoyable that even the generally stodgy Arsene Wenger couldn't stay away from it, not so famously managing Nagoya Grampus Eight for one season (1995 to 1996).

"In some ways, the China affair is like the J-League. But the Chinese Super League is about the money more than anything else. It is just exorbitant. Most of the players are treating this as a means to their retirement fund," says football commentator and analyst Novy Kapadia.

Somewhat contrary to popular perception, Atkins says that only six or seven clubs are spending big.

The others are going about their business in a more low-key manner.

'The Chinese Super League is about the money more than anything else. It is just exorbitant. Most of the players are treating this as a means to their retirement fund.'

A significant number of the 16 Chinese Super League clubs are owned fully or partially by companies that deal in real estate.

These teams include Hebei China Fortune, Guangzhou Evergrande, Shanghai Shenhua and Beijing Guoan, clubs located in the more prosperous areas of the country.

In his article, 'China's soccer spending spree', published in Policy Forum, Chadwick writes, 'Arguably, the most significant reason for this is that real estate and property companies are effectively dependent upon the State for planning permission. At the same time, in China there is intense competition for land, particularly in urban areas. Being seen to publicly support the State's pursuit of its football goals is, therefore, one way of navigating through the red tape, thereby easing the route towards successfully securing planning permission.'

Alibaba owner Jack Ma, China's second richest man, is also an investor in the Chinese Super League, owning 37.8 per cent of Guangzhou Evergrande.

Frenzied fans click pictures (blurred background) of Manchester United's Ashley Young and Wayne Rooney during the team training session at their pre-season tour of China at Shanghai Stadium in Shanghai on July 21, 2016

IMAGE: Frenzied fans click pictures (blurred background) of Manchester United's Ashley Young and Wayne Rooney during the team training session at their pre-season tour of China at the Shanghai Stadium, July 21, 2016. Photograph: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Journalists in China say that President Xi Jinping takes personal interest in the development of the sport in the country. He is a big football fan: Manchester United, apparently.

"He wants the World Cup to come to China. Japan, its biggest rival, has hosted it and China hasn't. This is all a part of a bigger plan," says a Beijing-based football writer.

China's fascination with the sport is nothing new.

Its football numbers remain stellar as ever. More than 350 million people in China watch Premier League matches every weekend.

Some English clubs have even ditched the United States -- the customary pre-season tour destination for a number of years -- for China.

Both the Manchester clubs, United and City, prepared for the new season in China.

But for all its honest enthusiasm, experts like Kapadia feel that China is seeking a "shortcut" to establish a foothold in the world game.

"They must understand that clubs aren't built overnight. Legacies and fan bases are set up during the course of a number of years. This is just them trying to flex their muscle," he says.

In a somewhat belated attempt, the Chinese Football Association has now tried to curb such ludicrous spending by imposing restrictions.

The foreign player quota has been reduced from four to three, and it is seeking to levy higher taxes on astronomical transfer fees, collections that will be deposited in a football development fund.

Chadwick, however, thinks that these interventions will not make much of a difference.

"The Chinese government is currently seeking to regulate currency outflows across all industrial sectors; its recent intervention in football is in keeping with the more general policy. It must be said that the country is addicted to breaking world records," he says.

"So I predict that despite some moderation of the market by the State, the spending will continue."

Over the years, fans from across the globe have been strafed with the spurious idea that the Premier League throws up the finest football in the world.

Luiz Felipe Scolari is coach of Guangzhou Evergrande 

IMAGE: Former Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari manages Chinese club Guangzhou Evergrande, two-time winners of the AFC Champions League. Photograph: Zhong Zhi/Getty Images

That notion is, of course, one of the great fallacies of modern football.

Tenacious competitiveness doesn't always ensure eye-popping quality.

In the last few years, some of the top English teams have made a habit of capitulating against the best from Spain and Germany.

England's delusions of grandeur can offer China a valuable lesson: Good players don't necessarily lead to good football.

Despite the hefty spending, the game in China is yet to spiral into something extraordinary.

Its clubs' representation in Asian continental competitions remains robust, but Chinese clubs barely ever set tournaments ablaze.

Guangzhou Evergrande is the startling aberration, having won the AFC Champions League in 2013 and 2015.

The Chinese national team, now managed by Marcello Lippi, is still ranked outside the top 50 in the world — a dismal 81st.

"They are still way behind the J-League and the K-League in terms of quality," says Kapadia.

China's fascination with the sport is nothing new. Its football numbers remain stellar as ever. More than 350 million people in China watch Premier League matches every weekend.

Perhaps that's why the 'threat' perception attached to the Chinese Super League may be overstated.

As Bayern Munich's Dutch winger Arjen Robben told a radio station: 'I do not understand players going to China at the age of 27 or 28. Those guys are at the peak of their career. That is a waste really.'

But what Robben might be missing is the psyche of the modern-day footballer and his surroundings: That of a world where club loyalty and fans' adoration are mere artifices and money is everything; a world where Diego Costa and Dimitri Payet episodes are becoming alarmingly routine.

It is difficult to say if China's idea of football actually results into resounding success, in the country as well as the continent.

It may, after all, turn out to be one of those money-spinning initiatives that bolster the economy but do little for the sport on the ground.

But one thing is for certain: The Dragon is breathing fire and the charring is being felt right across the football planet.

Dhruv Munjal and Shakya Mitra
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