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Inside China’s Quest To Dominate 21st Century World Football

Make no mistake. Chinese football has arrived. In fact, if it were a train, it would already have departed from the station. And we are not talking about the music band  that plays in Wuhan, China. We are talking of the growing juggernaut, that plays out of at least 16 Chinese cities every weekend and threatening to follow Uber into the other 1 00 of the 400 Chinese cities.

The is year 2004, restructuring of the Chinese domestic game sees the birth of the Chinese Super league (CSL). Over in England, the premier league still reels in shock of Arsene Wenger’s Invincible whose invincibility hangs on akin the smog any given Hong Kong morning.

Twelve years on, zero titles since that extraordinary triumph,at the traditional pregame presser three nights before Burnely’s visit to The Emirates this Sunday; Arsene Wenger in his usual role as football’s remaining sophist
sums up China’s uphill task in its quest to be football powerhouse come 2050:

“You do not create a top league overnight, it demands years of hard work and culture,” the manager said.
“Professional football in England was created 150 years ago but we still struggle! I believe it’s a slow process of creating a football culture. Football is quite strange because you are educated as a little boy, you hear about football from your parents and you give that to the next generation. That takes time to be a part of the population.”

Chinese Football: China’s People’s Republic Latest Soft Power Play in Geo-politics

As Wenger spoke, China’s other 21st century world conquest play: One Belt, One Road initiative materialized. London just became the 15th city in Europe to receive a ‘care package’ via a train that departed from Yiwu West Railway Station in Zhejiang province, some two weeks prior across Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany, Belgium and France over circa 8000miles.

China means business. Not just the items ferried in that train: clothes, electronic goods and household items; but the business of football. Ask Chinese premier and he will let you know of his wishes:

  • Qualify for another World Cup
  • Host a World Cup
  • Win a World Cup

Alongside that add:

  • 50 million soccer players (including 30 million school children) by 2020
  • At least 20,000 football training centers and 70,000 pitches in place by 202
  • One football pitch for every 10,000 people by 2030

Chinese football is BIG business

For instance, with the expanded 48 team World Cup, achieving Xi jipings wish three could come as soon as the 2030 World cup. There are whispers that Japan, (ignore until otherwise as this is in all possibility geopolitical rhetoric), is preparing a joint bid alongside China and South Korea.

The Chinese could as well go solo given that hosting 48 teams is a logistical nightmare. With the One Belt, One road initiative, European football fans can already picture that epic road trip across continents to indulge in the world’s favorite pastime. Couple that with a Chinese economy keen to up domestic consumption ( Read: merchandising, franchising, Tv viewership) so as to drive its next phase of 21st century growth, the ka-ching!does get louder.

With such mega cities like Shanghai, Chinese football is set to explode with CSL offering entertainment to city dwellers

To be precise, 800 billion dollars loud! To get there, the Chinese called upon the English to craft a grand master plan: China’s Football Mid-Long Term Development Plan 2016-2050 (April 2016), jointly published by the National Development and Reform Commission, the Chinese Football Association, the General Administration of Sport and the Ministry of Education.

Enter Chinese Skepticism: A prophet is not feted at home; they say

The plan reads up like a constitution: just enough detail to agreeable. In many ways, it does feel like one too given the narrative that the push to make Chinese football a powerhouse this 21st century, is a Xi Jiping vanity thing.

“It will take time, and even then we do not know if China will still do it in 10 years. Sometimes it’s a
political decision which can change. I personally am very happy and I expect
India to come to the game. I hope it will happen.” – Arsene Wenger

Moreover, if anything, life in the 21st century is not a beat. As James Porteous writes in south china morning post, in spite of the plan and other drivers without like expansion of the World Cup, pessimism over Chinese football success persists thanks to years of under achievement. It is even feared that a comical end looms. Sampling Weibo comments, James presents a picture of a people adamant that even at 1.3 billion strong; they simply don’t know football enough to flourish.

“In China, it’s new. I know that well because when I went to Japan it was 1995, and the professional league was created in 1993 so it was the third year of professional football in Japan. You expect reflexes from people who are not there, who are not used to the culture of professional football.- Arsene Wenger

The few good men of Chinese football: Fighting financial doping through salary Caps & transfer fee taxes

It when things are thick, insurmountable; that China thrives. It these moments that call for a few good men. Such is the caution sounded over by a spokesman at the General Administration of Sport of China spokesman on CSL clubs spending on foreign players at the back of the arrival of Argentine forward Carlos Tevez to Shanghai Shenhua from Boca Juniors for a reported transfer fee of U.S $49.5 million, and Brazilian midfielder Oscar from Chelsea to Shanghai SIPG for U.S $74 million.

“Burning money,” he called it. The Chinese official went on further to outline steps to set a cap on transfers and salaries, and control “irrational investment”, echoing sentiments captured in the body’s official website describing the level of spending as “a grave phenomenon” in a recent question and answer session.

It should dissuade the skeptics of this Chinese journey to 21st century football domination to find Chinese officials already in tune with the language of football. In apparent reference to recently instituted UEFA measures against financial doping, he added that the goal should be to build “100-year clubs” and stated that any seriously insolvent clubs will be removed from the professional league.

Given a chance, Arsene Wenger would this pronouncement by the Chinese government official. Indeed it is such sentiments by the Arsenal manager that have placed him at the chagrin of being mocked. Observers have labeled Wenger a failure for  attempting to muddy his own failures by calling out of irresponsible money flooding the game as  financial doping.

Nonetheless, however true the statement, through clever accounting Asian and American billionaires continue to spend their pocket change from yatch acquisition in the snapping up European clubs. It is such kind of vain profit seeking capital that the Chinese government official must have been wary of. Because once it’s gone CSL clubs will be left with depreciating assets, that are expensive to maintain and difficult to offload (players).

Your Guide to Chinese Football and CSL pro status

Though still in its nascent stage, the Chinese Super League has suffered the brunt with a score of football clubs insolvent way before the party starts. With Chinese Super League clubs breaking the Asian transfer fee record four times last year, the danger of a bubble is real. More so, with the CSL where a majority of clubs are privately held by companies (real-estate developers, insurance companies, internet companies and electronics retailers) who as any MBA would offer, will readily ‘restructure’ if the honey stops flowing.

Until then:

  • To Keep up with musical chairs that is league football, bookmark Sky Sport’s up to date Chinese super league table.
  • Keep up with the latest official news out of Chinese football via the Chinese Football Association official website. Follow the Chinese Men’s national team, Chinese Women’s national team across all age sets. Keep up also with Chinese Super league clubs as the fight for honors in the Asian Football Confederation Champions League.
  • Where does all this money come from? Well, this article by The Daily Mail tries to explain the Chinese Super League.

Additional reporting: scmp.com, arsenal.com,  events.trade.gov.uk, english.cctv.com

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