Insight 2017: Will China buy its way to a shift in world football?

Football these days is all money and no gimmicks. Perhaps, not as tersely accurate as that but it certainly sets the water-cooler conversation afoot. And nothing is more riveting these days than considering the money being thrown around in international football. On Christmas eve, Oscar, the 25-year-old Brazilian midfielder from Chelsea, signed on for Shanghai SIPG for a whopping amount somewhere in the range of $74 million. Oscar follows in the footsteps of countrymen Hulk and former Chelsea teammate Ramires in choosing to go to China. The likes of Gervinho, Graziano Pelle, Alexis Texeira and Jackson Martinez are already playing in the league. The league transfer record was broken five times in the last year alone.

And while we are looking at the players, take a gander at the managers as well: Felix Magath, Andre Villas-Boas, Fabio Cannavaro, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Gus Poyet and Manuel Pellegrini. Not too long ago this group of managers were good enough to turn out in any number of dugouts across Europe. Not too long ago they did. They still might. But what is incredible, and worthy of taking note is the sudden upturn in prizing these assets away from the footballing nucleus of Europe. Manuel Pellegrini, especially, could have probably put his finger on any footballing job on the planet, in light of his significantly good work in establishing the new Manchester City as a regular contender for top prizes across the continent.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

This is not the first time a foreign league, or a country, has tried to steal Europe’s thunder in an attempt to forge a footballing monarchy of sorts. The United States tried with the likes of Pelé, Johan Cruyff and George Best. But even the glitzy, sunlit coastal paradise that the US offers in compensation for the rain-and-snow smudged memory of playing in Europe, could only get players to consider where they’d park their car at sundown. It was a model (more like a motel of a league) that staked all on the names, their stature, rather than the age or time that their careers were being played out in. It sort of even helped. The US, despite its paltry presence in World Football, hosted the World Cup and threw in a few decent performances on the way.

The Chinese model, however, is different. And Oscar’s transfer is only the latest indicator. At the age of 25, Oscar, though peripheral now at both Chelsea and Brazil would have found a number of suitors among the biggest in Europe. The likes of Ramires, Hulk and Pelle still had a few decent years left. Oscar, Gervinho, Texeira, Martinez and the once promising Chelsea youngster Gael Kakuta had not even hit their prime. This is significant for it promises not only brand value, but also a slight hint of quality for a country that not too long ago lost a qualifier to war-torn Syria and is a lowly 84th in the Fifa rankings. There is also an acutely nationalist sentiment backing the Chinese Football project, that which the football-savvy premier Xi Jinping has declared as a necessary eventuality. Out of the traditional superpowers, only China has failed to underline its political reputation in the one truly global sport. Compared to neighbours Japan and Korea (South especially), that little statistic is demonically hurtful.

The Chinese president’s ambitious project of winning the World Cup before 2030 and siphoning the country’s economy to develop one worth billions around football alone, is still a far-fetched idea. For one it takes grass-root programs and an inbreeding of a kind of culture that can make such a revolution possible, as demonstrated by the thoroughly mesmerising rise of little Iceland in the last two years. To ferment that idea, so it looks like something truly inspired, you need a face, a superstar. And China has failed to produce one for years. What it did for the Olympics, it has simply failed to in football. So the project has taken the other route (instead of root). And it is interesting to read behind the broad print, of how this revolution is coming about.

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Consider Guangzhou Evergrande, where former Tottenham and Athletico Madrid players Paulinho and Martinez have set up shop. The club was in 2011 taken over by real estate giants the Evergrande Real Estate Group. In 2014 the Chinese online giant Alibaba bought 40 percent of the club’s stakes. They now have a former World Cup winning coach in Luiz Felipe Scolari as coach. Similarly, Oscar’s destination Shanghai SIPG was taken over by port giants Shanghai International Port Group based out of Shanghai (the busiest port in the world). Hebei China Fortune who somehow convinced Pellegrini to take the boat (philosophical) to China was in the same year, taken over by real estate giants the China Fortune Land Development Co Ltd. These are just indicators as to where the money comes from. The real estate market in China accounts for 20 percent of the GDP, and we know what trade means to them.

Combing the narrative of growth and prosperity into something as romantic as achieving a footballing dynasty serves well on two fronts. It nationalises a global ambition while globalising a national economy while giving it an international face. Corruption won’t be far off, and it has already reared its head. And while the astronomical numbers and mind-boggling career moves make for a corruptive, rotten reading of a sport already trying so desperately to clean a Fifa-sized blot off of its sleeves, there is no doubt that in the year 2017, a lot more of the same will happen. Perhaps, one of the more cherished and valued stars will make their way to the league. Everyone loves a good payday. And for China, it might prove to be the only way to corner the sport that has eluded them, much like nothing else.


Updated Date: Jan 01, 2017 08:43 AM

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