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China Super League Fantasy football or the next world power?

[2023-03-16 02:38]

The new Chinese Super League season starts this weekend after a winter transfer spend of 200m, which eclipsed all of Europes major leagues.

Big-name signings such asAlex Teixeira,Jackson Martinez and Ramires are among the overseas stars who will be on show.

The influx of money and famous names is tied into the grand plan of the countrys president, Xi Jinping - a football enthusiast - to win the World Cup in 15 years.

Is China playing its own game of fantasy football, or can it really become the games dominant nation?

Chinese Super League - what you need to know

Estimated total transfer value of players: 268m

5.3 million fans attended games last season

Each team is allowed five foreign players, including one from an Asian Football Confederation country, such as Australia, Japan or Hong Kong.

Only four overseas players are allowed on the pitch at the same time.

No overseas goalkeepers allowed - to improve home-grown quality.

No cap on spending, no maximum wage and no European Financial Fair Play (FFP) equivalent.

Jiangsu Suning set a new Chinese transfer fee record in February, signing Brazil midfielder Alex Teixeira from Shakhtar Donetsk for 37.5m.

Average stadium capacity is 45,268 and the average crowd for last season was 22,193.

The 2015 most valuable player was Brazilian midfielder Ricardo Goulart of Guangzhou Evergrande.

The league went professional in 1994 and became the Chinese Super League in 2004.

The season runs from March to November.

Argentina forward Ezequiel Lavezzi was the most recent big name to move to China,joining Hebei China Fortuneon a two-year deal earning the 30-year-old a reported 400,000 a week.

Jiangsu Suning paid almost 60m for Brazilian midfield pair Teixeira andRamires,while Martinez made a 31mmove to Guangzhou Evergrandefrom Atletico Madrid.

Even second-tier clubs are raiding Europe, with former West Ham forward Nikica Jelavicat Beijing Renhe.

Ex-Chelsea and Newcastle striker Demba Ba, former Arsenal man Gervinho, ex-Everton captain Tim Cahill and ex-Sunderland striker Asamoah Gyan have all moved to China in the past year

Zhuang Chen, digital editor, BBC East Asia

The biggest factor is money. For some of the players, they dont even know where the club is located. They have to check on the internet.

Former Chelsea boss Luiz Felipe Scolari, ex-Tottenham goalkeeper Ian Walker, former Chelsea full-back Dan Petrescu and ex-England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson are all working in the Chinese Super League

The Chinese transfer fee was broken four times in a month recently. How long until the world record is surpassed?

China has fallen in love with breaking world records, says Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at Salford University. It is symptomatic of the Chinese culture.

They are conspicuous consumers who love to be seen to be the best and love to flaunt their wealth.

A Chinese entrepreneur and their club will want to be able to say they have set a new world football transfer record and I predict that within 12 months that will happen.

Gareth Bale is the worlds most expensive footballer, signing for Real Madrid from Tottenham for 85m in 2013

President Xis 10-year plan - running from 2015-2025 - is to create a Chinese sports economy worth $850bn (609m). Optimistic estimates value the entire global sports economy at about $400bn (286bn).

He wants to build 20,000 football schools by 2017, producing 100,000 players, and increase schools to 50,000 by 2025.

President Xi wants China to host and win the World Cup in the next 15 years.

Manchester Citys Sergio Aguero with President Xi and British Prime Minister David Cameron during the Chinese leaders state visit in October 2015

Ten years ahead, 15 years ahead, I am quite sure the China national team will compete to win the World Cup, says Shanghai SIPG bossSven-Goran Eriksson.

The much-travelled Swedish manager led his side to the runners-up spot last season. Although shocked at the amount of money spent in the transfer window, the 68-year-oldtold BBC World Servicethe CSL has moved away from the perception of another well-paid destination for semi-retired stars.

Having managed in Serie A in the 1990s and the English top flight in the 2000s, Eriksson says everyone should be worried about the emergence of the Chinese Super League.

The money is here and the football is getting better. I think attitudes have changed, said Eriksson. This is reality for a long time.

They realised they werent on the level in world club football and they want to reach it. China will soon be a world power in football.

China usually achieves its aims, says Chadwick. The country has excelled at the Olympics and Paralympics, yet has only ever qualified for one football World Cup - in 2002.

Premier League matches available free on IPTV, online, plus two matches per weekend on state TV. This is via a six-year rights deal from 2013-2019.

Premier League coaches go into schools to work with Chinese PE teachers.

Premier League has worked with Chinese FA to advise on CSL.

Premier League has Chinese language Weibo and WeChat social media accounts.

China qualified for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, but lost all three group games, conceding nine goals and scoring none

There are national branding issues, added Chadwick. It is about profile, image, reputation and prestige, yet China is not particularly good at football and that rankles.

China - 96th in the world rankings - may not qualify for Russia 2018. They are third in their group behind Hong Kong and Qatar, with only the top two going through to the next round of qualifying.

Short-term goals include being able to boast the best club side in the world.

That could soon be Luiz Felipe Scolaris Guangzhou Evergrande. They have won the CSL five times in a row and are the only Chinese club to win the AFC Champions League twice, in 2013 and 2015. That gave them entry to the prestigious Fifa Club World Cup - which they were knocked out of by eventual champions Barcelona.

Its about more than the millions

I want to know about life. I want to know things and travel the world. I have the possibility of doing this while Im playing football,Demba BatoldBBC Sportsworldwhen asked why he had joined Shanghai Shenhua.

But the Senegalese former Newcastle and Chelsea striker, 30, admits it will take years and years to bring the CSL up to the standard of Europes best.

Its not about how many millions you spend, its much more than this, he said. The Chinese have got to take their time.

Discussing the appeal of the Chinese game, Liverpool defenderKolo Toure,35, was also pragmatic,saying:This is the power of the money. For this market to open to football is great.

Were playing for the love of the game but at the same time its our job.

Southampton-born Hong Kong internationalJack Sealyhas signed for Super League side Changchun Yatai from the Hong Kong national league, where he was playing in front of fewer than 5,000 people.

The 28-year-old defender told BBC World Service: The top teams in the league like Guangzhou Evergrande and Shanghai SIPG would fare quite well at the top of the Championship, maybe even the Premier League. The rest would be Championship and below.

The signings have definitely raised the profile. Ive only been with my team for a month and every day my friends are messaging me saying: Have you seen this new signing?

Its not a great place to play football

Former Rangers defenderMaurice Ross,now manager of Norwegian side Egersunds IK, is one of the few British players to have played in China.

Ross said he signed for Beijing Guoan for financial reasons and described the league as a false set-up with a lack of professionalism.

He described clueless double training sessions in 40C heat with no shape or structure, and insisted China will never catch up with the Premier Leagues global appeal.

So many deals are short-term because of the environment, said the Scot. You must really adapt to their lifestyle and not many can. Its not a great place to play football.

Tim Cahill is welcomed to new club Hangzhou Greentown after his contract was terminated by Shanghai Shenhua - a decision he called heartbreaking

Last month, former Everton midfielderTim Cahilldescribed the CSL as crazy and like a revolving door.

The Australia international was critical of players moving purely for personal gains. Shortly after hiscomments to Fox Sports Australia,external-linkCahill left Shanghai Shenhua, before joining Hangzhou Greentown.

The 36-year-old admitted the constant transfer activity would boost Chinas profile, but added: With this investment in the players, theres a Catch-22. Does it help the Chinese? To a certain extent, no.

The most difficult area for the Chinese national team is attacking - they cant score goals. Everything else, theyre technically gifted, theyre great. Ive spent a year with these kids.

People think its easy to play in China, says Shanghai SIPGs head of recruitmentMads Davidsen.You come here, earn a lot of money and take it easy. That is a massive misunderstanding.

You see players who are here for four or five months and theyll be changed in the next transfer window if they arent performing enough, said the Dane, who is Erikssons assistant. Theres no patience in China as you can only have four foreigners. The expectations are almost unrealistic.

Although Eriksson believes China will soon be able to attract the biggest names in world football, Davidsen is less certain, describing the outlay as significant, but just another step in the development.

I dont think well ever be able to buy the best players in the world in their best age, he said. But we are now buying second and third best players in their positions.

We have been offered players from the highest level in the Premier League and the Bundesliga. This tells me China has moved into another market now.

A lack of financial transparency means it is difficult to know how much is being spent by the Chinese government towards Xis grand plan.

Regional governments are contributing towards the $850bn vision, while state-backed organisations such as China Media Capital (CMC) - which took a13% stake worth 265m in Manchester City in December- are also making strides.

In China there is a cultural phenomenon called guanxi, explains Chadwick. It can be described in different ways, but is essentially an Ill scratch your back, you scratch mine approach to doing business.

A property developer looking to build a block of flats, for example, can gain planning permission leverage if they are seen to be promoting state policy on investing in sport, maybe by buying shares in a football club.

Chart shows overseas players bought by Chinese teams; Chinese businesses investing in overseas clubs; and Chinese businesses investing in other sports-related overseas companies. (Source: Professor Simon Chadwick)

Since this century began, China has had two footballing revolutions. Its now on a third, explains Chadwick.

The first was in early 2000s when they qualified for the World Cup, but they did incredibly badly and that fizzled away.

The second was three or four years ago with the vanity purchases of playerslike Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba,essentially driven by the conscious consumption of incredibly wealthy owners. That one, too, disappointed.

Were now into a third revolution, but this is very different. It is a presidential - and therefore state - decree. And youve got super-rich entrepreneurs leading the charge.

Chinas entrepreneurial lieutenants investing in football

15.4bn - Chinas second richest man

Bought 20% of Atletico Madrid for 34m in 2015. Bought Swiss sports-marketing company Infront Sports & Media for 889m.

Bought 40% of CSL and Asian Champions League winners Guangzhou Evergrande for 137m in 2015.

Chinese champions Evergrande run an international football school with more than 50 pitches and 2,400 students, said to be the largest in the world. It has a 15ft World Cup replica at the entrance

Xi, elected in 2013 on a 10-year tenure, wants to leave a legacy. He has put football on the school curriculum to try to make future national sides world class.

His corruption purges on the domestic gameswidespread match-fixing problemhave resulted in hundreds of arrests in a country with a deep-rooted gambling culture.

Significant socio-cultural barriers also need addressing. Chinese parents do not see football as a profession and - in a nation becoming less physically active - want their children to pursue other career options.

One of the reasons Xi isso interested in Manchester Cityis its campus concept, where you get an education but play sport at the same time, explains Chadwick.

New YorkerTom Byerexternal-linknever made it as a professional, but is now leading the way in Chinas football revolution.

Byer became famous as an academy coach in Japan, and he went on to became a national celebrity with TV appearances, book deals and even an appearance in his own manga comic.

Byer has now moved to help develop grassroots talent in China, with the Government aiming to open 20,000 soccer schools and produce 100,000 players.

Former Denmark, Brondby and Schalke striker Ebbe Sand runs a private football academy in Shanghai and says China must focus on improving facilities to develop grassroots football and their own coaching structure.

Its not just about population, Sand toldBBC Sportsworld.The big difference between Europe and China is there arent many pitches. Im from a small village in Denmark and even a small village has 11-a-side pitches. This is a 10-year programme.

Chinas investments in European clubs will also enable it to acquire competence and knowledge in coaching future generations of domestic players,writes BBC News business reporter Bill Wilson.

And as part of Chinese LED light manufacturer Ledmans sponsorship of the Portuguese second division,young Chinese playerswill be placed in several clubs.

A lot of this is Xi-dependent, claims Chadwick. There has to be some doubt about how long his football strategy can be sustained.

It didnt work with basketball in a basketball country, and there has to be a concern that if China isnt seen to be making strides, will the political elite just go cold on the idea?

Can Chinas soft power win a World Cup bid?

China is very smart at using football as a means of exerting political influence around the world - Chadwick.

Stadium diplomacy programme has built

throughout Africa, the Caribbean and the South Pacific Islands.

football rights bidding specialists Infront

- run by Philippe Blatter, nephew of ex-Fifa president Sepp.

Buoyed by their own and Germanys recent triumphs, Bayern Munich score highly in China for fan engagement but Manchester United and Liverpool are not far behind

CMC has paid $1.3bn (900m) for a new five-year deal for global, all-media rights to the Chinese Super League from this season.

Last season clubs collected just $9m (6.4m) from broadcasters.

There are no immediate plans to charge viewers to watch CSL and little demand from overseas.

CMC will use access to exploit huge demand for social media content on platforms such as

WeChat and Weibo - the Chinese Twitter.

Games have an average attendance of 22,193 - on par with Italy and France, but behind Spain, England and Germany.

More than half of top-flight stadiums have a capacity of 50,000 or more, but are often half-full. There are passionate local fans, but clubs will need to attract new fickle supporters to build a fan culture and make any sort of financial returns, saysTori Widdowson,a marketing consultant who runs sports events in China

As for the die-hard fans, adds Widdowson, they lost hope in CSL years ago. They see the money being thrown at it now, are even more cynical and are happy to keep watching European leagues in particular.

Chinese fans need icons, the fan culture there needs individual heroes, says Chadwick. The star players are not vanity purchases, they are used to raise the standard of play, to teach the Chinese players and to become a point of fan engagement to get people into the stadiums.

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger on the CSLs spending power

Will they sustain their desire to do it? Lets remember, Japan started to do it a few years ago but slowed down. If it is a very strong political desire, we should worry.

BBC Sport asked Chinese football fans what they think of their national league:

Yu Zujiang:Nowadays I tend to follow Guangzhou Evergrande, because this team often wins the title. Internationally I follow the European Champions League the most. I like Manchester United and I also like players like Lionel Messi.

The majority of fans dont go to the games to cheer them on, theyll happily watch on TV or the internet.

There arent many knowledgeable pundits, and there arent many people that play football regularly. Even less are those that would expect to make a living out of football. Theres also a scarcity of people who watch football just for the love of it.

Shi Linqi:As a die-hard footy fan its hard to even answer questions about it - in a word, Chinese football stinks. I watch the international leagues, but the domestic scene I havent followed for years, I cant bear it.

The money thats been spent on the game, will it improve the football?

Many fans will get excited about it for a few years and then it will drop off again, as before.

The development of a few wealthy and influential clubs in China says nothing about the whole of football here.

LeShi Sports football punditDong Li:For the nurturing of a football culture and the improvement of the whole of Chinas football environment, all of the investors in this area need to work hard together. Its critical that people build it up, not tear it down.

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