By Cali Nelson
The Chinese Super League, the top league in China, has gained considerable international attention over the last few months due to a spectacular spending spree during China’s winter transfer period, which ran from January 1st to February 26th. During this period, Chinese clubs spent a record $365 million. To put that in perspective, the Super League spent almost $90 million more than the English Premier League spent during its winter transfer period. 1
This spending spree is noteworthy, as China is still considered to be a soccer backwater. The Chinese National team is ranked 93rd, 40 spots behind South Korea, and just ahead of North Korea and Oman2, and has made only one World Cup. Yet this transfer window appears to be an effort to change that. Chinese President Xi Jinping, is one of the key forces behind the push to improve Chinese soccer, encouraging clubs to attract big name stars.3 The hope is that better competition and international recognition will place the Super League on the same level as some smaller European leagues, and help develop better Chinese players. 4
To that end, about half of the $365 million was spent on just six players, none of them Chinese, or even Asian. The largest deal was the purchase of Alex Teixeira, a 26 year old Brazilian, by Jiangsu Suning, who outbid Liverpool for his services. 5 The fee of $53 million was the largest transfer fee in Super League history. 6 It was also $11 million more than Shakhtar Donetsk’s rumored asking price of $42 million. 7
The second largest deal, and an even more egregious overpayment, was Guangzhou Evergrande’s purchase of Colombian striker Jackson Martinez from Atlético Madrid. Atlético Madrid purchased Martinez for $39 million last year, and he has been a disappointment ever since. Less than a year later, Guangzhou Evergrande purchased Martinez for $47 million.8 Despite his subpar play at Atlético, Martinez made them $8 million.
The deals for Martinez and Teixeira are indicative of why this trend is a bit worrying. These two deals, and the many others made by Super League clubs this winter, show that money is no object when it comes to securing talent. In fact, after Jiangsu Suning paid $53 million for Teixeira and $35 million for Chelsea’s Ramires, they offered Chelsea about $80 million for star midfielder Oscar. 9 Jiangsu Suning and other Super League clubs are ready to spend whatever it takes to bring in top level talent from Europe, even if it means wildly overpaying for players and spending money at a rate few clubs in the world could match.
However, the largest obstacle in China’s quest for talent is the players themselves. Even though Super League clubs are willing and able to pay huge salaries and transfer fees, the fact remains that China is probably not a particularly attractive destination for players, especially those who have spent the last few years living in England, Spain, Italy, Germany, France, or Portugal. 10 Moving from Europe to China could also hurt a player’s chances with his national team, as the level of competition in China is lower than the level of many European leagues. For now, Europe is still a more attractive destination for most players than China. In fact, Alex Teixeira has just arrived in China, yet he reportedly told friends that he eventually wants to make his way to Liverpool, who Jiangsu Suning outbid.11 So while money is no obstacle for Chinese clubs, it’s going to take more than just cash for China to attain its desired status as a soccer superpower.
- “Chinese Super League Clubs Wind up Record Spending Spree.” Channel NewsAsia. February 27, 2016. Accessed February 27, 2016. http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/sport/chinese-super-league/2552106.html. ↩
- “Fifa/Coca-Cola World Rankings.” Men’s Rankings. February 4, 2016. Accessed February 27, 2016. http://www.fifa.com/fifa-world-ranking/ranking-table/men/afc.html. ↩
- Morshead, Sam, and Simon Jones. “China Set for Super League Deadline Day… Who Will Be the Late Movers and Shakers in the Far East’s Big-spending Division?” Mail Online. February 25, 2016. Accessed February 27, 2016. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-3464004/Chinese-Super-League-deadline-day-Cheick-Tiote-John-Terry-Joleon-Lescott-demand.html. ↩
- McGowan, Colin. “The Chinese Super League Splashing Cash In Talent-Lust.” RealGM. February 4, 2016. Accessed February 27, 2016. The Chinese Super League Splashing Cash In Talent-Lust. ↩
- Morgan, Richard. “Chinese Super League Transfer Window: All You Need to Know.” SkySports. February 24, 2016. Accessed February 27, 2016. http://www.skysports.com/football/news/11095/10169919/chinese-super-league-transfer-window-all-you-need-to-know-about-footballs-fastest-growing-economy. ↩
- Chinese Super League Clubs Wind up Record Spending Spree ↩
- “Alex Teixeira to Liverpool: Shakhtar Forward ‘pulls up with Hamstring Injury’ Hours after Reds’ £24.6m Bid.” Independent. January 21, 2016. Accessed February 27, 2016. http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/transfers/alex-teixeira-to-liverpool-shakhtar-forward-pulls-up-with-hamstring-injury-hours-after-reds-246m-bid-a6825371.html. ↩
- McGowan, The Chinese Super League Splashing Cash In Talent-Lust ↩
- Stevens, Samuel. “Oscar: Chelsea Reject £57.5m Bid from Chinese Club Jiangsu Suning – Reports.” Independent. February 5, 2016. Accessed February 27, 2016. http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/transfers/chelsea-reject-575m-bid-for-oscar-from-chinese-club-jiangsu-suning-reports-a6854851.html. ↩
- McGowan, The Chinese Super League Splashing Cash In Talent-Lust ↩
- Thomas-Mason, Lee. “Alex Teixeira Still Wants to Make His ‘dream’ Move to Liverpool.” Metro. February 25, 2016. Accessed February 27, 2016. http://metro.co.uk/2016/02/25/alex-teixeira-still-wants-to-make-his-dream-move-to-liverpool-5717104/. ↩
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the spending spree by teams in Chinese Super League recently. I definitely agree with your point that, given Chinese’s soccer current mediocre performance and ranking on the international stage, the Chinese’s Super League is hardly an ideal destination for legit foreign players (especially players still at their peak status) to play at.
And at the same time, I would just like to point out that while it seems like the spending spree from Chinese Super League is extravagant and meaningless, it’s actually beneficially for the development of China’s soccer system and culture in the long run. Historically, although China has always had a huge fan base for soccer, people are more attracted to oversea leagues such as Series A in Italy or the Premier League. And local teams usually weren’t able to gain enough attention. Consequently, that results in low tickets sales and cheap TV-programming contract, as well as low salary for professional soccer players in China. Therefore, less and less parents in China want or support their kids to play professional soccer, or even join the youth camp. All of these just created a vicious cycle that limits the development of professional soccer in China.
However, during the past years, with sponsorship from resourceful and rich corporations (the CEOs of many of them are soccer fans), teams from Chinese’s Super League started to spend large amounts of money to recruit famous players that were past their peak (but still have lots of popularity and large fan base in China) to play at China. Gradually, more and more people became to watch Chinese Super League games, and eventually became loyal fans. And I would argue that the presence of foreign players helped a lot through that process.
Nowadays, the Super League has been improved a lot in terms of players’ salary, commercial value, brand image, etc. More and more kids are hoping to play soccer on the professional level. And I believe that with this trend, China’s soccer environment will definitely get better and better.
While it’s ridiculous that some of the players, especially such promising ones like Alex Texeira, are seen as dollar signs rather than people, a move to a smaller league where the flow of cash seems endless is embraced by others for various reasons including a more laid back life style, more financial security for their families and future generations, and being a part of a movement to make the league relevant.
The big spending to bring big names reminds me of the NASL here in the 1970s and the 1980s when the likes of Pele, Beckenbauer, and George Best played in the US. We know now that didn’t sustain and the kind of spending in China right now will not either. But China is looking to boost the popularity of the league in the coming months and although I don’t even know if any TV stations here in the US air Chinese games, I’m going be to be a lot more curious about the league and will want to see how the new foreign players perform and if the investments do, in fact, work out according to plan.
It is sad that most of these players have been sold to the Chinese teams without their will and instead of the clubs caring about what would benefit the player the most, all they really care about is what they can do to make the highest profit. This is especially evident when one takes a look at the picture of Martinez signing his contract, instead of being happy and looking excited for the future, his facial expression is more of a “Where am I, and what am I doing here?” type of look.
This feeling is also relevant in your post when you speak of Texeira telling his friends and family about how he wants to play for Liverpool even though he just signed for a new team. So instead of him looking forward to a new stage in life he is instead thinking about his possible transfer in the future. This, can then be related to the problem that when soccer players are under professional contracts they are not seeing as workers of the soccer club but instead as property of the club who has the power to do as they want with them, instead of the player at least having the power to tell the club the option that the player prefers.
I think you make a good point about China’s ability to buy its way into the competitive soccer market. Although money may not be an obstacle per se for the teams and league as a whole, the Chinese Super League is going to face issues similar to those laid out by David Goldblatt in The Game of Our Lives. In his book, Goldblatt consistently mentions that English teams are bought out by rich oil tycoons, American millionaires and investors around the globe, but cannot always turn their money into success on the pitch. For instance, Goldblatt points out how Newcastle United thought that it could buy its way up the ladder of the Premiership—which it did for its first season back with a third-place finish in the mid-1990s—but the success did not last. Money may have helped, but it could not penetrate the rest of the league or sustain the ability on the pitch that other historically top-tier clubs possessed.
In this manner, the Chinese Super League reminds me of the MLS in the United States. Although the location is much more attractive to players based on market size and the American sports market itself, the lack of skill in the league compared to Europe and the overall aura of the league seems to be one of negative connotation. Consider David Beckham when he moved to the U.S. Like your point about the Chinese leagues, Beckham’s chances on the English national team declined, the skill of the league was down and he became a less attractive player for non-American audiences to watch. As Benjamin Jackson pointed out in a similar post on the blog about the MLS, there are a number of players that make this move to other leagues, but even with a value increase for clubs in terms of branding, there is not as much to say about the skills and respect for the teams as a whole. As a result, though the Chinese Super League can throw around all the money it wants to get better, more traditional players in the league—like Jackson Martinez, Tim Cahill and Ramires—it does not necessarily mean that the league will gain respect or worldwide recognition for the play on the pitch.
Until China can become a destination for players and skills, rather than just a payday and marketing venture, then it may be hard for the league to excel globally, which hurts its competition against establishment football in Europe. Based on your analysis, I think this is a good starting point for conversations on where the league should go next, and what it can do to become a more recognizable place for football.