So, What’s This Chinese Super League About, Then?

by | Feb 10, 2016

In spite of the enormous amount of money spent by Premier League clubs over its duration, the January transfer window was not dominated by clubs from any of the game’s traditional European powerhouses. Where there were headlines to be written about it all, those headlines were all written by the clubs of the Chinese Super League, whose financial largesse may have sent a cold chill through the corridors of UEFA and the European Clubs Association, and whose new season starts in less than a month’s time and under greater scrutiny than it has ever seen before.

Over the course of the last ten days, the Chinese transfer record has been broken on three occasions, with Ramires, Jackson Martinez and Alex Teixeira all joining Chinese Super League clubs for a combined total of transfer fee of just over £94 million. And with more than two weeks until the Chinese transfer window closes, there s a strong possibility that we haven’t seen the end of the league’s sudden growth spurt just yet. Just this week, it was reported that the Barcelona defender Dani Alves has been offered £27m over three years by an as yet unnamed CSL club.

The Chinese Super League was formed in 2004, in the slipstream of the national football team’s first – and to date only – appearance in a World Cup finals. This appearance wasn’t particularly successful – the team failed to score in its three group matches prior to elimination – but the formation of the league was intended as a stepping stone towards greater success for the national team as well as attempting to move on from match-fixing scandals that had plagued its predecessor, the Jia-A, since its formation in 1994. As things turned out, these scandals would take a while to clear. As late as 2010, the CSL was beset by a scandal going right to the top of the CFA. The Chinese government took nationwide action against football gambling, match-fixing and corruption, which led to the demotion of two clubs, Guangzhou and Chengdu, and to the arrest of more than twenty officials, including the former head of the CFA.

However, such state intervention did eventually force the entire structure of Chinese football to clean its act up. Crowds and sponsors returned, and an inevitable trickle of overseas players started to arrive in China. At first, those who arrived in China were treated somewhat dismissively in the Western press. Players such as Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka were effectively accused of treating the CSL as a lucrative pension fund, but the financial muscle being displayed by clubs from this league over the last couple is now starting to force a re-evaluation of where this league might be heading.

Ramires, Martinez and Teixeira join a league that already counts such familiar names as Gervinho, Edu, Tim Cahill and Asamoah Gyan amongst its players. As well as these names, such coaches as Felipe Luiz Scolari, Dan Petrescu and Sven Goran Eriksson are amongst the league’s coaches, and with no restrictions on the number of overseas coaches in the league, we can probably expect the calibre of coaching in the league to significantly improve in coming years as well. The Chinese Super League does have restrictions on overseas players, though. For this season, each club is limited to five players from abroad, of which one should be from another nation within the AFC confederation (which includes Australia.)

As such, the idea of seeing a league overflowing with foreign players would, for the time being, seem to be unlikely, although there will undoubtedly be pressure from owners to relax this rule further if it’s likey to bring greater overseas interest in the competition. At present, the CSL is starting to show signs of to being able to compete as one of the strongest leagues in Asia. Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao won the AFC Champions League in 2013 and 2015, but whether this is just one club or a league-wide trend is as yet unclear. Only one other Chinese club has ever won the tournament – Liaoning Whowin, in 1990 – and last year only one other Chinese club, Beijing Guoan, made it through the group stages of the competition, and they were eliminated in the next round, by the Korean club Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.

Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao dominate the Chinese Super League at present. On top of their two AFC Champions League awards, the club has won the last five successive CSL titles and will start the new season as hot favourites to add to their list of honours this season. Founded in 1954 under the name of “Central and Southern China Sports Institute Football Team”, the club has undergone several identity changes over the course of its history, most recently becoming Guangzhou Evergrande Football Club in 2010 (where Evergrande Real Estate is the name of the majority shareholding company that has put so much money into the club), and adding “Taobao” to this last year. The club became the first Asian football club outside of Turkey to list itself on the Chinese stock exchange, and home matches last season were watched by an average crowd of 45,889 people, the highest in the league.

The team is currently managed by Luis Felipe Scolari, who, of course, won the World Cup with Brazil in 2002. The only club to come close to Guangzhou are Beijing Guoan Letv, the other Chinese club to reach the group stages of last year’s AFC Champions League. Based out of the capital city, Beijing Guoan attract home crowds of almost 41,000 people, although they’ve only won the Chinese Super League the once, in 2009. Although a natural rivalry between the club and Guangzhou is starting to grow, its traditional rivalry is with Shanghai Shenhua, and is one which reflects a broader rivalry between the cities of Beijing and Shanghai that goes some way beyond mere football. Last season saw the two clubs finish in fourth place and sixth place in the final league table respectively, and both missed out on a lucrative Champions League place.

The third club to tower over the others in terms of attendances are Chongqing Lifan. In 2004, this club purchased the registration of another club, Yunnan Hongta, in order to maintain its place in the CSL, but this was the first of three seasons that the club finished at the bottom of the table with no relegation because of expansion of the league. By 2013, the club was still in the second tier of the Chinese league system and crowds had dropped to an average of just 2,725. In 2014, however, clubs jumped up as the club was promoted back into the CSL, and last season an average attendance of over 37,000 people saw the team finish in eighth place in the table. Chongqing is also by some considerable distance the most remote of the sixteen teams in the Chinese Super League.

The impact of the growth of the league upon the national team has been incremental rather than explosive. China currently sits in ninety-third place in the FIFA rankings, between Botswana and the Faroe Islands, which gives some indication of the scale of the task ahead if the country is to ever launch a serious bid for the World Cup finals. At last year’s AFC Asian Cup in Australia, China won all three of their group matches against Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia and North Korea, before losing to the host nation in the quarter-finals of the competition. It has been said repeatedly that the current growth rate of the Chinese Super League is linked to an eventual bid to host a World Cup finals, and when we consider that Qatar is holding the competition in 2022 it would certainly not be fanciful to believe that China would have a chance in any future bidding attempt. Much, however, may come down to the question of what FIFA looks like when the next round of bidding to host the 2026 and 2030 World Cup finals comes about.

If those involved do wish to grow a global audience, three main potential pitfalls would seem to stand in their way. The first is one thing that nobody can do very much about: time. Although China is big enough to straddle five different geographical time zones, it operates under one time zone, China Standard Time, which operates at eight hours ahead of British Standard Time. This doesn’t quite have to be as unsociable as it at first might sound. Mid-afternoon kick-offs would be shown early in the morning in the UK, and evening matches at around lunchtime. So, not ideal for a European audience, but not quite insurmountable for the dedicated, either.

The second question is, perhaps, the more intriguing one. How would those marketing the game in China be able to sell the notion of Chinese football clubs to audiences in lucrative European and North American markets when the time differences come into play and to those who may be interested in watching it but already have allegiances to other clubs that they may not wish to break. It has been suggested before that the global appeal of the major European leagues elsewhere in the world has come about because of the lack of a similarly high quality product at home. This would obviously not be the case if the roles are suddenly reversed. Even if Chinese clubs were able to tempt the majority of the best players in the world to their league, European clubs have a weight of history behind them. Their matches are significant because of who they are, and these bonds may well prove difficult to break.

The counter to this argument is that the very scale of China itself means that those seeking to monetise it might not even need to care too much about an overseas audience. We all know that the population China is enormous, but it’s easy to forget just how enormous it is. It currently stands at 1.357 billion people, and this is the same as the whole of the European Union and the United States of America. Oh, and Russia. And Mexico. And Saudi Arabia. In other words – and even taking into account that swathes of the Chinese population do still live in poverty, although urban poverty has been largely eradicated over the course of the last decade and a half – those concerned could be forgiven if they choose to primarily target their domestic audience and treat the overseas markets as an afterthought.

Finally, there is the small matter of how the top European and South American players can be tempted to China at the peak of their careers. Dani Alves is thirty-two years old and is moving inexorably towards the twilight years of his career, and whilst the others that have headed to China may be mildly diverting names, the real superstars, the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Neymar or Robert Lewandowski, for example, are specifically not being linked with moves there at present, and until they are there will be no parity between the Chinese Super League and its European counterparts.

Maybe this will come in time, but as of this moment there seems to be little interest in broadcasting this league to Europe, and without that sort of coverage players well be concerned that they may become only half-remembered, which could lead to their stock falling, in terms of the value of the contract this one and in terms of maintaining their places in international teams, which can be very valuable for commercial endorsements and the like. It’s a conundrum that the CSL, the Chinese FA and, indeed, the government of the country will need to resolve if the league is to reach the fullest of its potential without having to decide whether it wishes to be a pension fund for professional footballers or a petri dish for the planning of a China national team that can challenge for the World Cup.

With a couple of weeks left before the start of the 2016 CSL season, it’s likely that there will be further transfer rumours, based on both legitimate interest from CSL clubs and unfounded speculation started by those seeking to gain financially from such stories being in the public domain. It seems unlikely that the Chinese Super League will make many inroads into the power wielded by the European club game in the near future, but European club football may be about to change and it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that there is a case for saying that an imminent “threat” to their financial clout from the other side of the world would grant them all the excuses they need to push through “reforms” for their benefit and their benefit alone. And in these pan-continental arms races we might well come to find the direction that professional football will take in the twenty-first century.

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