The Chinese Spending Spree: Why now? And what lies in store for the Super League going forward?
As the 2016 January transfer window came to a close, football fans the world over were talking about the Chinese Super League. The young league (in only its 13th season post-reform) sent waves through the footballing world as high profile players one after the other left Europe to pen lucrative deals at various CSL outfits.
The most significant (and expensive) deal of the transfer window so far (as the CSL window remains open until the 26th of February) is Jiangsu Suning’s capture of Alex Teixeira from Shakhtar Donetsk for a reported £38.4million. In the form of Teixeira the Super League has not only signed a player still to enter his prime (instead of a more typical payday-seeking 30 something) but the Brazilian was also a target by andheavily linked with a move to Premier League side Liverpool.
The spectacle of non-European sides seemingly mixing it in the transfer market with the traditional European powerhouses has turned the attention of fans and journalists alike towards the Far East. Since the £200 million January shopping spree by Jiangsu, Evergrande & co., interest in the Chinese Super League (and Asian football in general)has never been higher. However, many fans are looking back at events in recent weeks and are unsure as to how they came about, as well as their implications for the Chinese & European game going forward.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be covering the reasons behind the Chinese Super League’s transfer strategy as well as giving some insight into the state of the league today, and where it can go hope to go in the future.
Part One: Xi Jinping, Aguero Selfies & Politics
Firstly, why are Super League teams choosing to invest so heavily? And what makes them so willing to pay over the odds for their transfer targets?
On the 22nd October 2015, the General Secretary of China’s ruling Communist Party (and lifelong Manchester United fan) Xi Jinping provided the Twittersphere with football’s answer to Kim Kardashian’s #BreakTheInternet when he, Manchester City star Sergio Aguero and British PM David Cameron posed for a selfie at the City training complex.
Xi has spoken openly of his desire to see China both host and win a FIFA World Cup, and he and the wider Chinese political & business establishment (very often the same people…) are displaying the political will to properly set that dream in motion. Most strikingly, in late 2014 government officials declared football “a compulsory part of the national curriculum”, as well as allocating state funding towards 20,000 ‘football-themed schools’ to produce future Chinese footballers by the hundreds of thousands. Xi and the Chinese government are evidently serious about their footballing ambitions for China.
As a result of these ambitions, the Chinese elites that own Super League clubs (well aware of their President’s enthusiasm) will rationally respond to the political incentives they face, and will therefore be perfectly happy paying seemingly over the odds for high-profile players from major European leagues. For a club owner in China, the return on signing yet another Brazilian superstar for their CSL outfit will yield not only the usual return in on-field performance & marketing revenue, but also a return in the form of future political favours arising from increased closeness with (and goodwill from) those high up in the Communist Party. It is these additional returns(‘political incentives’) anticipated by Chinese club owners that make the signing of a particular high-profile player worth more to them than clubs abroad, and this explains why Chinese sides appear so willing to outbid and outspend their European counterparts.
Perhaps the best example of this willingness to invest big in the Chinese game can be seen in the form of Suning Commerce Group chairman, Zhang Jingdong. Suning recently bankrolled CSL mid-table side Jiangsu’s signings of Chelsea’s Ramires and Alex Teixeira for a combined £63million, paying seemingly over the odds for both players (Liverpool valued Teixeira at £14 million less that Jiangsu’s fee for him, andChelsea ended up making an £8 million nominal profit on Ramires despite him being 6 years older & nearing 30 by the time they sold him). This huge outlay in the transfer market is coupled with Jingdong’s links to the ruling party and his 2015 attendance (along with most of China’s wealthy) at CPPCC sessions. Jingdong’s case just goes to show just how Chinese club owners can use football to work the cronyism-ridden Chinese political system in their favour, benefiting from maintained proximity to those at the top.
All in all, if the Communist Party’s will to see China rise to the top of the global game remains in place going forward, then so will the incentives for club owners to invest big in players for the sake of the political favouritism that the investment brings. Should this be the case (as it looks like it will be), then one shouldn’t expect the owners of Chinese Super League sides to be putting away their chequebooks any time soon…
By Tom Drissi @OutsideTheBig5
Part Two: The Domestic Market, Economic Bubbles & National Pride …