The Chinese Super League (CSL) – a sickening reminder of how far gone elite sport is? Or part of an exciting football revolution in the Far East? Whatever your view, the CSL is here to stay.
South Asia is a hot bed for lucrative sports nowadays, especially when you look at the popularity of the Indian Premier League (IPL) in cricket. Many find the lack of soul and tradition characteristic of disposable franchise clubs and absurd wages, offensive. China’s Government itself recognised in 2009 that thirst for immediate glory among owners and fans had bred a negative football culture.
With a newly signed TV deal worth an estimated $1.25 billion and essentially the brainchild of Chairman Xi Jinping, the CSL clearly has both financial and political muscle. But should this new beast in the Far East prepare for a similar backlash to the one the IPL received from sporting purists? Well, yes really… many view the CSL as basically a shameless blend of every ailment present in Millennial football.
That is to say, clubs as corporate backed businesses rather than century-old clubs, forged by communities, for communities. Businesses that engage in relentless branding and who seem more interested in extortionate ticket pricing and shirt sales than their own fans. Clubs whose structure seems geared towards chasing lucrative league finishes by neglecting silverware in the form of cup competitions.
Clubs like these fail to shock us anymore. We’ve seen clubs become overly possessive of players, frequently leading to spats with international coaches and selectors. We see modern day clubs fail to show a shred of sentimentality or loyalty to previously successful managers (Leicester City with Claudio Ranieri) or senior players (Real Madrid with Iker Casillas). We watch them shell out astronomic wages and transfer fees that, in Europe at least, make a mockery of UEFA’s financial ‘fair play’ rules. No doubt, the CSL clubs are and will be guilty of the same old practices. Nevertheless, there’s undoubted potential in China to be fleshed out too.
Do CSL clubs really rank so lowly against our idyllic expectations of ‘proper football clubs’? What springs to mind are those ‘special’ crops of academy graduates, whose game is strengthened by friendship or at least chemistry, as they break into the first team one after the other. A few imported superstars grafted onto this strong spine and you have yourself a great team. The great Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich teams of recent years have used this method, one which has made them prolific at club level and also brought success to the Spanish and German national teams respectively.
You just have to look at the talented youth products who’ve made the first team in recent times:
Barcelona – Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Pedro and Cesc Fabregas.
Real Madrid – Iker Casillas, Alvaro Arbeloa, Dani Carvajal, Lucas Vazquez, Guti, Jese, Alvaro Morata and Raul.
Bayern Munich – Phillip Lahm, Holger Badstuber, Mats Hummels, David Alaba, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos and Thomas Muller.
When I think of a high-end football club that is well run with the perfect game plan, I think Bayern Munich. Bayern are renowned for their low ticket prices compared to other top European clubs. As of 2013, the average price of the cheapest tickets in the Bundesliga equated to around £10 – whilst Premier League fans pay £28 plus. What’s more, the cheapest match day tickets of Germany’s premier clubs in Bayern and Borussia Dortmund cost just £12 and £9 respectively. Hardly breaking the bank, and these pale in significance to prices of £30 upwards for Real Madrid and Manchester United. Meanwhile, average Bundesliga season tickets go for £207 compared to £468 in England and Wales.
Bayern also pay shrewdly lower transfer fees for their First XI compared to Barcelona and Real Madrid:
Manuel Neuer – £19.5 million
Phillip Lahm – Free
Jerome Boateng – £11 million
Mats Hummels – Undisclosed (reportedly £30 million)
David Alaba – Free
Xabi Alonso – Undisclosed (reportedly £7.5 million)
Arturo Vidal – £25.5 million
Arjen Robben – £22 million
Thomas Muller – Free
Franck Ribery – £17 million
Robert Lewandowski – Free
Whilst Vidal, Robben and RIbery may have all cost in excess of £20 million, these fees are peanuts by modern valuations. What’s more, these are players who have undoubtedly strengthened that team and brought the club success. All at the same time, bringing through world class academy graduates in Lahm, Alaba and Muller combined with the shrewd signing of Lewandowski on a free has eased the burden of these lucrative deals on Bayern and totally sums up their forward planning as a club.
Bayern and other German clubs boast a rare business model through their fan ownership. The German ’50 + 1’ rule obliges the club (its members) to have overall club control at the expense of commercial stakeholders like Audi and Adidas. The clubs are far from free of commercial interests, hence ‘Allianz Arena’. This is deemed by many as a sly means of bypassing UEFA’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules by drawing revenue from sponsorship deals with companies affiliated with their owners as opposed to one majority owner injecting endless sums of money into any given club. But, generally, fans and members can take solace in the fact that this added corporate sponsorship enables their football club to squeeze less revenue out of them than their English and Spanish counterparts do.
German clubs often run at a profit whilst Premier League clubs remain in debt. In the 2011/12 season, Bundesliga clubs made a profit of £47 million compared to a £207 million loss in the Premier League despite English and Welsh clubs being richer than German ones. Despite all this, Bayern Munich remain an elite club in European and world football, having won five consecutive Bundesliga titles, the Champions League, Super Cup and Club World Cup in the last five years. Along with the rest of ‘the big three’ (Real Madrid and Barcelona), they have won the last four Champions Leagues and Club World Cups. Bayern aren’t perfect, but they are successful because they put into practice some big ideas and operate a sound business model.
But enough about European football…
Xi Jinping claims that he wants to ‘realise the dream’ of building a ‘great sporting nation’ through his Chinese Football Development Programme. He views this as of great benefit to the ‘economy, society and culture’. Now many of us are left wondering where Jinping’s priorities are given China’s patchy human rights record, high levels of pollution and relative poverty throughout. Richard Conway and David Lockwood (BBC Sport – Football) have argued that football remains the final industrial frontier for China to conquer. The only problem is, do Chinese people actually like football? Previous attempts at building China’s league made some in-roads, but were derailed by ‘insufficient appreciation of football’ and even ‘ignorance about the rules’. Far from ideal.
There is currently no Chinese or global equivalent to UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules. This allows CSL clubs, through inflated fees and wages, to outspend the entire European market – if players are willing to sign of course. This, coupled with their reliance on financial muscle from owners rather than other sources like matchday revenue and sponsorship means that CSL clubs don’t have to worry about spending more than they earn. For example; Carlos Tevez’s weekly wage is reportedly £615,000 a week whilst his transfer fee was £70 million. Although fees paid for Gareth Bale, Gonzalo Higuain and Paul Pogba in the UEFA have topped this – Tevez’s age at the time (32) leads us to speculate; what are Chinese clubs willing to pay for ‘the next big thing’ (like a Kylian Mbappe)? Scary really.
In response, Zenit St. Petersburg General Director Maksim Mitrofanov called last year for Fair Play rules to apply worldwide during the ongoing saga of winter approaches for Hulk from Chinese clubs. Hulk has since joined Shanghai SIPG. Whilst this has potential to level the global playing field, could we begin to see hoarding of the world’s galacticos in China?
Despite its investment, the CSL continues to draw heavy criticism for its attendances. In 2015/16, the CSL’s average matchday attendance was a mere 24,159. Although, amazingly, this trumped Italy’s Serie A (22,199) and France’s Ligue 1 (20,976) – it fell short of the German Bundesliga’s 43,309, the English Premier League’s 36,452 and Spanish La Liga’s 27,775. I.e. the world’s ‘big three’ leagues – and certainly those that the CSL aspires to compete with. China’s population totally dwarfs these European countries put together, which begs the question – is this truly the Chinese people’s football revolution?
Beyond entertaining and enriching the knowledge of Chinese fans, what else does the CSL do to strengthen an authentic Chinese footballing culture? At the core of this of course are the players – will the CSL actually nurture or develop them? Or inhibit them? It’s an all too common trend for lucrative new investors to neglect truly homegrown talent pools, which in turn has an adverse long-term impact on the fortunes of national teams.
For example; of Paris St. Germain’s 2016/17 25 man-squad, only nine are French, two of which are first team regulars – Alphonse Areola and Blaise Matuidi. Similarly, there are a mere five English players in Manchester City’s squad including, again, only two first team regulars – John Stones and Raheem Sterling. Casting our minds further back, Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan infamously won the 2009/10 European Champions League without a single Italian player in their starting XI in the final (and only two Italian outfielders on the bench). Granted that these are all trophy-laden clubs, but these extreme spells of little homegrown talent are hardly sustainable when we consider that they have coincided with patchy to miserable form for the French, English and Italian national teams in this decade. So could the CSL be heading in the same direction?
These are obviously the worst-case extremes of what vast transfer fees and wage capability can do to domestic leagues and international teams. What’s more, the CSL is too much in its infancy for us to judge in this regard. In actual fact, despite the CSL’s extravagant reputation, there is an eagerness within the Chinese Football Association (CFA) to regulate the influx of foreign footballers. Flagship signings of Tevez and Oscar have provided the CSL with an instant boost to its international profile, but we’ve cause to believe overseas stars don’t fit with the grand vision of the CFA – that is to systematically transform Chinese football.
The CFA stress the need for sustainability for the of the CSL. They aim to avoid a similar situation to that of the Anzhi Makhachkala saga of 2011 to the present time. Ukrainian and Russian clubs were once true powerhouses in the 2000s transfer market, but a combination of war in Ukraine and economic downturn in Russia played a major role in the clubs’ decline. Meanwhile, the CSL is fast becoming the most regulated league in world football. The CFA demands that all clubs meet strict regulations (like quotas) regarding Chinese personnel and youth development. Whilst England and Italy are recent exponents of such quotas regarding home or club-grown players in 25-man squads, China’s stern but innovative approach has taken this to the next level. If professional football clubs are truly obliged to act as breeding pools for national teams, as the CFA see them, then the Premier League and others certainly have something to learn from the CSL. That’s if, they’re willing to listen!
The CSL allows clubs only three foreign players in each starting XI, with the other eight comprising seven Chinese players and one Chinese player aged under 23 (with another on every bench). The logic here is that the few marquee foreign superstars generate revenue and raise profile, but ultimately the CSL champions each year tend to be those with the strongest core of Chinese players. This lends to creating authentic Chinese characteristics in raising the bar and growing the prestige of Chinese football.
But for the time being, the match-winners in most games are mostly foreign signings. It’s an undeniable fact that the CSL’s best players are rarely Chinese. For instance, if I were to pick a CSL XI or ‘dream team’, based on the most talented players by position, then I would go with:
Goalkeeper: Zeng Cheng (VC) (Chinese, aged 30, Guangzhou Evergrande)
Right Centre Back: Kim Young-Kwon (South Korean, aged 27, Guangzhou Evergrande)
Centre Back: Ricardo Carvalho (C) (Portuguese, aged 38, Shanghai SIPG)
Left Centre Back: Zhang Linpeng (Chinese, aged 27, Guangzhou Evergrande)
Right Midfield: Hulk (Brazilian, aged 30, Shanghai SIPG)
Right Central Midfield: Axel Witsel (Belgian, aged 28, Tianjin Quanjian)
Left Central Midfield: Hernanes (Brazilian, aged 31, Hebei China Fortune)
Left Midfield: Ezequiel Lavezzi (Argentinean, aged 31, Hebei China Fortune)
Central Attacking Midfield: Oscar (Brazilian, aged 25, Shanghai SIPG)
Right Striker: Carlos Tevez (Argentinean, aged 33, Shanghai Shenhua)
Left Striker: Alexandre Pato (Brazilian, aged 27, Tianjin Quanjian)
Despite its defensive frailty, this team could certainly go toe-to-toe with some top European teams. Nevertheless, only two of the 11 are Chinese. What’s more, assuming that Witsel and Pato’s fees are entirely accurate, this team cost a combined £208.4 million compared to Bayern Munich’s £132.5 million. Hardly seems value for money.
£200 million maybe be around par for the expensively assembled Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Manchester City and Paris St. Germain. The critical difference being that at least three of those can claim to be historic, pretigious clubs that play in arguably the world’s best leagues, watched all across the world and therefore demand the singing of the world’s biggest names. Overall, China’s spending with regards to fees is not unheard of, but the CSL simply lacks history and therefore struggles to shake the ‘tinpot’ perception from many football fans. This may not always be the case though.
Much has also been made of the character profile of those joining CSL clubs. The CSL has been made out to be a ‘retirement home’ for players past their peak who are looking for their last big pay day in the form of bloated contracts. However, the average age of the nine non-Chinese players in the above XI is only 30, and this figure doesn’t change when factoring in other high profile foreign signings currently in the CSL:
-Paulinho – 28
-Ramires – 30
-Giovanni Moreno – 30
-Odion Ighalo – 27
-Papiss Cisse – 31
-Graziano Pelle – 31
-Obafemi Martins – 32
-Nikica Jelavic – 31
Not exactly ‘ancient’ it’s fair to say. This might go some way to busting the ‘retirement home’ myth. Crucially, the CSL recruits players with a lot left to give, as opposed to many other leagues like Major League Soccer in the United States.
But first and foremost, it’s the mentality and reputation of these players that has come under fire, generally from fans. Accusations about Tevez’s supposed attitude problems and lapses in professionalism (who seemingly refused to play for Manchester City in 2011/12) are well documented. Axel Witsel has also drawn criticism for turning down Juventus for Tianjin Quanjian purely because of wage concerns. Personally, I fail to see how this makes Witsel a journeyman.
Former Tottenham Hotspur defender Benoit Assou-Ekotto came under fire for his remarks in 2010; ‘I play for the money. Football’s not my passion’ whilst in 2012, Mario Balotelli remarked; ‘when I score, I don’t celebrate because it’s my job. When a postman delivers letters, does he celebrate?’. These quotes raise issues about how we should perceive footballers. On the one hand, they are young, working professionals with their own personal goals and priorities. Professionals that happen to earn astronomic wages. On the other – they are sportsman placed in a privileged position far exceeding the efforts that they put in. Footballers in most of the major confederations are generally millionaires, employed by businesses, which is what football clubs became long ago.
I would argue that there players aren’t total mercenaries or bad professionals. The way I see it, issues surrounding wages are a symptom of the industry. The industry is the cause of this lucrative bubble and not the players who benefit from it. Put plainly, players like Witsel earning astronomic money in China instead of Russia or Italy or England seems irrelevant.
So are these players looking for a big nest egg before returning to more prestigious leagues, their home countries or retiring? With this particular batch of marquee signings, only time will tell.
The next big focus of the Chinese Government and CFA is to ‘improve the physical condition of the Chinese people’ through football. Wang Jun from the Beijing Commission of Education stated that ‘we must start with children to improve the football standard in China and get more children involved’. Theoretically, this will take place through greater access and participation in grassroots football. To achieve this, the aim is to open 50,000 football schools in the next ten years in order to produce hundreds of thousands of players. Further, every county and suburban area is to have two standardised football fields and every inner city residence compound to have five-a-side pitches for Futsal – long deemed the stimulant for highly-skilled and successful national teams capable of one-touch, two-touch passing.
An influx of foreign coaches – whether they be football experts, senior coaches or retired players – is also a priority. For example; legendary managers like Marcelo Lippi and Luiz Felipe Scolari (both world cup winners). Whilst Lippi won the Asian Champions League with Guangzhou in 2015, Scolari won CSL manager of the season in 2015 and 2016. In practice however, this beneficial foreign influx won’t be present at nearly the same level in grassroots football.
The CSL itself doesn’t represent in any way the building of Chinese football from below. Both Four Four Two and BBC Sport – Football have reported that the divide in standard between the CSL and lower leagues remains a gaping one. The CSL for the time being remains in its own affluent bubble whilst fan attendances and grassroots participation still have a long way to go. Again, time will tell as to whether the CSL will enhance the growth of authentic Chinese football promised by the CFA.
Let’s look at the positives for the CSL. China certainly have a right to develop their professional football league – being the most populous country in the world – should it be inconceivable that they dominate the biggest sport in the world? Rather, If the beautiful game is truly for the many and not the few, then China can’t be exempt. The CSL has immense potential for making football just that, a global sport. That is to say, geographically. The CSL has big implications for the future of the Club World Cup. In theory, the Club World Cup should be the most prestigious club trophy on the planet, but in reality few take it seriously. The competition is crying out for higher levels of competition between the various confederations. UEFA has dominated the Club World Cup since its inception, with European teams winning it nine times and three times runners-up – whilst the next most successful CONMEBOL have only three wins and seven runner-ups.
No Asian Football Confederation (AFC) team has ever won the Club World Cup and only Kashima Antlers have made a final (in 2016). No Chinese team has ever even made the final. Guangzhou Evergrande reached the Semi Finals, finishing fourth in 2013 and 2015. Further, only one Chinese club has ever won the Asian Champions League – Liaoning Whowin back in 1990. They were also runners-up the next year whilst the now defunct Dalian Shide came runners-up in 1998. These seem like scant consolation. Clearly, China continues to underachieve in club football, especially compared to South American and European teams (the latter enter automatically into the semi-final stages such is the gulf in class). However, newfound investment in the CSL could see Chinese teams reach the pinnacle of the club game. A potentially expanded Club World Cup with far less predictability is simply a win for all football fans.
Lastly, a major positive of the CSL is its reasonable ticket prices. The preeminent Chinese club – Guangzhou Evergrande’s – prices range from £7.30 to £21 for matchday tickets whilst season tickets vary from £42 to £137. Given that Liverpool’s fans recently staged a mass walkout during a match at hiked up ticket prices reaching £77 for a matchday ticket since Anfield’s renovation, this is hardly steep. Chinese clubs are generally able to maintain these prices because of their acceptance that matchday profits are relatively low. They instead rely on the money of owners to sustain transfer fees and wages.
Meanwhile, there is a perception in Premier League teams that matchday tickets need to be hiked up and grounds expanded to maximise matchday revenue in order to compete with Chinese buying power. Although many would deem this unfair or even unethical, I would suggest that perhaps the CSL’s buying power embodies a necessary evil in football that is driving the game to become more global (culturally and geographically).
Hopefully this post has dispelled a few myths tossed around about the Chinese Super League and raises some even bigger questions about where world football is heading. The CSL represents just another league with big spending power – just like the Premier League of the last decade with its lucrative owners and TV deals. Time will tell as to whether the CFA puts its money where its mouth is by switching from foreign influxes of players and coaches in favour of the sustainable Chinese football culture that has been foreshadowed by the CFA. Whichever method is used, for now at least the standard of games is the priority and this certainly has a long way to go before we truly see a Chinese Uber League rather than a Chinese Blooper League.
Finally, a couple of questions for you guys and girls:
1.Will it be a CSL club to break the world transfer record (set by Manchester United’s purchase of Paul Pogba from Juventus for £89 million in 2016)?
2.With transfer fees going the way they are, will we ever see a hundred million or even billion pound player?
Let me know your thoughts everybody.
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