There is a 'red revolution' in football and the genesis of this evolution might pass you by unless you are paying close attention to the various developments around the sport in China. Staggering and enormous would fail to capture the potential impact of a nearly trillion-dollar investment being planned in China to spur a new sports economy over the next decade.
While recent events have shone the light on an emerging trend, China has been at it for a few years now, investing heavily into the development of the Chinese Super League, hitherto ravaged by corruption and chaos.
The arrival of Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka in January 2013 was a harbinger of a new wave for football in China. It was the beginning of an invasion on the top leagues of Europe, after years of making do with a host of over the hill South American and Eastern European footballers.
The winds of change are now beginning to gather speed and turning into a serious threat to a European hegemony over the sport.
Three recent transfers have invited massive interest around the world - Jiangsu Suning stunned the European market when they acquired Ramires from Chelsea for a whopping $36 million.
Jiangsu Suning went one step further when they pipped Liverpool to the tape in snagging Alex Teixeira from Shakhtar Donetsk in another interesting signing.
Dominant Guangzhou Evergrande, winners of the CSL for the past five seasons, bought Jackson Martinez from Atletico Madrid for well over $43 million, proving money isn’t in short supply.
It is rumoured that Teixeira, yet to be capped by Brazil, is set to earn nearly $14 million a year. That is significantly higher than Neymar makes at Barcelona, a fact that will not be lost among football professionals.
There are also reports that Manchester United talisman Wayne Rooney has snubbed two approaches from Chinese Super League teams — because he wants to stay at Old Trafford.
But it isn’t just China’s ability to disrupt markets that underlies this new wave of change. The supreme leader of China, Xi Jingping, is an ardent football enthusiast, and the reform plan unveiled last year has given a fresh impetus to the sport in China.
“Revitalising soccer is a must to build China into a sports powerhouse as part of the Chinese dream. It is also what the people desire,” said the central reform group, led by president Xi at the unveiling of the reform plan in March last year.
The plan proposed to develop players from birth, a tested Chinese model for sporting domination. It also intends to deepen and strengthen the quality of leagues in China in a bid to achieve their long term dreams of winning the World Cup.
The international sports industry will only be too happy to dance to the Chinese tune, given the country’s 1.35 billion population and an ever growing audience for football. Chinese top clubs - Beijing Guoan, Chongqing Lifan and serial winners Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao – all draw average crowds of around 40,000 to their games.
Several other clubs among the elite 16 team league in China draw average audiences in excess of 20,000 and the numbers are rising. If the £8.4 billion price that the English Premier League attracted for television rights is any indication, the market is willing to pay a heavy premium for access to eyeballs.
On that count at least, there is no doubting that the Chinese have the necessary ingredients for a successful league.
But the product needs significant improvement — for years, football in China has been ravaged by corruption and rampant fixing. A lot has already been done to address the issues, but it takes a long time to build credibility.
The CSL also needs to show that they can go beyond trophy players and consistently bring in real football talent to the teams. The rules allow the teams to field a maximum of four internationals on the field, leaving plenty of room for the clubs to hire talent.
The league has already done well to attract some top flight coaches - Felipe Luiz Scolari, Sven Goran Eriksson and Fabio Cannavaro are all coaching teams. Scolari has already helped his team from Guangzhou win the Asian Champions League. It is likely that more European brains might make their way to teach the dragons.
Jorge Mendes, one of the most influential football agents in the world, has been doing the rounds too. His presence in China underlines a growing interest in the proposed blueprint from the land of the dragons.
The ties are running deep – investment giant Fosun International Ltd－has bought into Mendes’s agency Gestifute giving them access to a large pool of international players. Incidentally Jose Mourinho, a coach with a legendary propensity to break contracts and run, is also represented by Mendes.
Chinese investment has also made its way into England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France as they try and chase the secrets that make European league football such a successful product.
Quality is going to be key for China, if they are indeed as serious as they seem to be about their football. The money bags will lure some talent but it will be very difficult to retain it unless the CSL presents the opportunity and challenge for the players to prosper and build careers.
It is evident that China has begun the process of luring some really big stars to go play and coach in their league. It remains to be seen if they can use the collective skill and knowledge of their imports to try and build local talent.
Evergrande International Football School, a state of the art 167-acre facility, about 75 km out of Guangzhou, stands as testimony to China’s ambition. The world class academy is said to consist of 80 football pitches besides a host of other facilities as they look to nurture Chinese talent.
“The dimensions of the complex are unparalleled,” Real Madrid goalie Miguel Angel told the Financial Times. “No one else has developed a project of this magnitude.”
“Our long-term strategy is to use teenagers to turn Evergrande into a team of only domestic players in eight to 10 years, making them stars in China, Asia and the world,” proclaimed Xu Jiayin, Evergrande’s billionaire owner, long before the reform plan was outlined last year.
China will obviously take a long time to challenge for the World Cup, but there is no doubt that they are taking some confident steps in that direction.