China is a new force in the global transfer-market. At present, the appeal of the country’s Super League remains purely financial but it must be hoped, not least by the government forces sponsoring its recruitment, that a tipping point will eventually be reached.
Three more Oscars, a couple of extra Axel Witsels, and maybe even a Diego Costa?
At some point, if the talent flow continues at the same rate, the quality of the league is going to start speaking for itself.
The hypocrisy of British resentment hardly needs explaining. The Premier League may have been birthed by a football league of substantial tradition, but its place in the contemporary hierarchy is owed to its economic reach – a reality reflected in the divergent fortunes of some of its most famous clubs. Organic appeal is a guarantee of nothing in modern sport.
China’s ambitions in football go deeper than this shiny veneer. While the sums being used for foreign recruitment have attracted internal criticism, they have also shifted attention away from the heavy infrastructural spending which has run parallel. The ratios might admittedly be skewed, but there is still evidence of a two-pronged approach: the Evergrande Football School in Guangdong, with its imported coaches and fairytale setting, is the biggest of its kind in the world and, in 2016, the Ministry of Education named just under 5,000 primary and secondary schools as specialist football academies – and, as of November 2014, the sport is even part of the national curriculum. It may be aggressive in the nature, but the intention is sincere enough: China wants to become a genuine player at home and abroad.
And, to those who object to their strategy, how else are they supposed to achieve that?
At the highest level, football exhibits cartel-like behaviours. Such is the disparity in television revenue across the various European leagues – and the opulent rewards for continental success – that it’s impossible to imagine even established competitions from developed countries enjoying significant growth. Could a situation ever be foreseen, for instance, in which the Eredivisie challenged the Bundesliga, Serie A or the Premier League for prominence? Without improbable investment, the answer is unquestionably no. The country of Cruyff, van Basten and Michels it may be, but its still a domestic division now contested by feeder clubs to Europe’s elite.
So what pathways are open to the Chinese, other than the one they’re treading?
There are cynical elements to their strategy, certainly. Their approach seems to rely on attracting a particular type of player (through a particular type of agent), but that’s a reality faced by an organisation with a shifting identity. In the early days of Sheik Mansour’s control of Manchester City, for instance, progress was limited to signing second-tier talent or players known for their transience. They wanted Kaka and David Villa, but they had to settle for Wayne Bridge and Robinho. It attracted derision, of course, and City were accused of trying to buy their way up the league, but that was the inevitable cost of progress. At the time of writing, the club are now in a position to benefit from their expansion of the Etihad complex and the academy within, but the construction, completion and harvesting of that initiative have all depended on those earlier, shorter term jolts. Recruitment in 2017 is no longer limited to local catchment areas and county schools and so clubs looking to attract teenager prospects depend on past success as much as they do physical infrastructure.
Kelechi Iheanacho likely wouldn’t be City player now if not for their 2011 title win. Brahim Diaz, a startlingly gifted 17 year-old, might not have left Malaga in 2013 had Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Yaya Toure not helped to make the club globally renowned. If future generations don’t believe in a club’s present or the value of its competition, it really does matter how developed the facilities are. Today’s success attracts tomorrow’s promise and that’s another sizeable obstacle for the Chinese to overcome, because future sustainability will depend on more than just sporadic procurement. Their academies, as well as exploiting the advantages which come with having the world’s biggest population, will need to attract future stars from all over the world – and doing that depends on a credibility which they don’t yet possess. European teams are able to use decades of success and visibility as recruiting tools, whereas in Asian no such opportunity exists: neither the clubs nor the league are brand new but, given how little coverage they’ve received in more traditional footballing territories, they might as well be.
The cost of that anonymity is the necessity of these transfers. To be taken seriously in a world which needs no invitation to look down its nose at outsiders, the Chinese are having to be pay their way past these barriers to entry. As of this weekend, the restrictions on overseas imports have been tightened (CSL sides can only field three at any one time) and the intention to safeguard Chinese players remains plainly evident. Nevertheless, external validation is still seen as essential in spite of its exorbitant cost – it’s the price of legitimacy and a toll which has to be paid if domestic Asian football is to be respected in the coming decades.
To be suspicious of the Chinese Super League’s rise is entirely natural because, for the first time in many fans’ lifetimes, talent is now flowing out of Europe rather than towards it. Beware of characterising the competition as a vanity project, though. The startling sums of money with which its associated may be easy to criticise, but they are really more reflective of how weighted the game has become in favour of European teams and how difficult it now is for anyone else to compete for the world’s attention.
And that, in a sport which often celebrates its global popularity, is the more worrying aspect.