FIFA credited Linzi, China as the cradle of football. Two years since, the Chinese Super League is out to reclaim its rightful place in the world.
Money, it’s a gas
Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash
New car, caviar, four star daydream
Think I’ll buy me a football team
How bad a trip Roger Waters was on back in 1973 to make such an accurate premonition of the current economic situation, is a topic of discourse for another day, but how it’s everywhere in the sport – holistically combining the fans, the media, the players and the owners. If football is to considered a religion, money ought to be Ram, Rahim, Jack in the Green, Czernobog or Moloch. So, what about the ones who are in search for their personal god?
Not drawing parallels to Martin Scorsese 28-year project Silence, but the present scenario does involve individuals going through the ordeal of the mysterious, in an unknown land to reaffirm their faith in such a higher power, money. Let’s turn our heads to China while we’re on the topic of mysterious pastures: Home to the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, China has been setting off tremors in the sector of football economy with its recent takeovers of clubs in Europe and the uprising of the Chinese Super League. It’s as if this recent windfall is the personal manifestation of President Xi Jinping’s infatuation for football, an attempt to make China the next footballing “powerhouse” of the world by uncoupling the game’s administration, Chinese Football Association (CFA) from the General Administration for Sport (GAS), giving it more independence from the alleged corrupt central government institution.
Economists, journalists and football theorists all over the world have their differing perspectives on whether much of the investment in European football clubs represent a genuine passion for the beautiful game or whether it’s only a device solely meant to tap into a new market in the club’s home country. How the recently relegated Aston Villa can manage to spend around £60 million strengthening their ever-depleting squad is almost analogous to a distinct Russian businessman’s time at a London club. And look where it got Chelsea a decade later – at the very top of world football, now sitting pretty at the head of the table with a 9 point lead. Same can be said for their counterparts in Manchester in a lighter shade of blue. So long as there is a promise of silverware, most are often largely unquestioning of their new owners and welcoming them at face value.
Some of the clubs have acquired controlling ownership stakes (ranging from FC Sochaux, ADO Den Haag, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Newcastle Jets, Granada’s case); others have purchased a minority shareholding (as in Atletico Madrid, Manchester City, OGC Nice and Slavia Prague’s cases). As for adverse effects, there is no need of looking further than the condition of Inter Milan, currently owned by ChemChina. According to Tronchetti Privera, former CEO of Pirelli, the recent ordeal involving the Nerazurris is because of how “the Chinese are unlike Berlusconi or Agnelli” — investing in managers who have had zero experience managing in Italy which explains why the recent stint of Frank de Boer at the helm was cut short just four months into his job. Not every picture can be as beaming as the famous selfie of Sergio Aguero and President Xi Jinping, photobombed by the then British Prime Minister, David Cameron.
A long time ago in China there were cities with high walls around them, with huge magnificent gates. The gates weren’t just doors for letting people in or out, they had greater significance. People believed that the city’s soul resided in the gates. Or at least that it should reside there. —Sputnik Sweetheart, Haruki Murakami
Murakami knew a bit about the pride the Chinese had for their homeland, about staying resolute through all the invasions through the ages. The Japanese invasion of Manchuria began on September 18, 1931, when the Kwantung Army of the Empire of Japan invaded Manchuria immediately following the Mukden Incident. The Japanese established a puppet state called Manchukuo, and their occupation lasted until the end of World War II. The Mongol invasion of China spanned six decades in the 13th century and involved the defeat of the Jin dynasty, Western Xia, the Dali Kingdom and the Southern Song, which finally fell in 1279. The Mongol Empire under Genghis Khan started the conquest with small-scale raids into Western Xia in 1205 and 1207. It would only seem appropriate that they are the ones to invade the market of the world game armed with their surreptitious wealth acquired over centuries. The paradigm shift is already underway, considering the outrageous amount of movement to CSL the transfer windows have seen in the past couple of years, making the 32-year-old Carlos Tevez the game’s highest paid player on £615k a week, more than what Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi earn, the two dominative forces in modern day football.
The Eastern storm that has unnerved most of the owners in Europe owe most of it to its growth to its partnership with CCTV (communist China’s ominously-named national television broadcaster), which has resulted in a monumental increase of 81% in its value. With the amount of money that is being freed from their coffers to bring in reputed foreign players, it’s clear about their intent which clearly reflects their results both in the development of their league and their ascendancy over other teams in AFC Champions League.
Long are the days of confusion that led Didier Drogba and Nicholas Anelka to backtrack in the formative years of the Chinese Super League; given the knack for long-term investment in the Chinese, CSL is currently flourishing, where even clubs like Tianjin Quanjin can boast of a Ballon d’Or winning manager in Fabio Cannavaro, and can procure talents like Alexandre Pato, shelling out £22.5 million.
The concepts of Mian zi and guanxi, whose meaning fall in the arena of maintaining reputation through mutual trust, are integral in the channelisation of their zeal to establish business relationships, which has made China the threat they are. Is it because of this reason, Alex Teixeira chose to head to the land of dragons and emperors back in 2016, despite the unrelenting pursuit of such a prestigious club like Liverpool?
“Let’s put it like this: everyone always knew that I wanted to stay in Europe and move to the English Premier League club. But, unfortunately, all the proposals that came from them, were somewhat windy and did not contain anything concrete,” Teixeira had told Shakhtar’s official website at the time.
Oh, how Jay Gatsby wished that the chips had fallen in his favour, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s magnum opus of 1925 similar to how fortune has taken shelter behind the hordes of cash of the Chinese Super League. But despite The Great Gatsby’s best efforts, the debutante Daisy Buchanan couldn’t be lured away into his world of glamour, glory and gratification, depicting an era of decadence in the then America. It’s a matter of different concern that time is coming to a full circle with the upcoming ’20s, promising to be a period filled with trials and tribulations with the ascension of an “orange haired menace” to the White House, but what remains a matter of serious concern is whether or not the Chinese would be able to not succumb to their gluttonous appetite for international recognition. It’s evident that the model that has been set up after Jinping’s vision of China being a football juggernaut by 2022 FIFA World Cup, is quite similar to that of the Major League Soccer in the previous decade. While MLS didn’t have much of a venom in its bite back then or even now with the movement of midfield legends like Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard or Kaká in recent years, it remains to be seen whether CSL finds itself on a long road to victory or meet the same demise as the Americans.
“Football — a game in which everyone gets hurt and every nation has its own style of play which seems unfair to foreigners.” — George Orwell
Every time some investor takes interest in a club, or a player makes a high money move to China, the Western media goes into overdrive in ridiculing the league as a whole, where the prevailing narrative is that of “an early retirement home“. Due to their influence in modern day football, the billionaire owners splashing the cash, like Sheik Mansour or Nasser Al-Khelaifi has been incorporated in the norms, but when a threat arises to dismantle the European supremacy, it’s been looked down up and in this case, tagged as a “softer option”.
It’s evident that due to the sheer size of the China, the round trips are often overtaxing, (something that Steven Gerrard alluded to in his time at the MLS) including gruelling midweek fixtures at Adelaide for Jiangsu Suning for AFC Champions League. The varying climactic zones — the monsoons in Guangzhou, the frigid Dangbei region or even Nanjing’s intense summer heatwaves, makes the overused benchmark of playing at Stoke on a cold, sleety night, seem like a stroll in comparison.
The owners don’t help in making the lives of the players and managers all that lavish as everyone assumes it to be, with their ever competitive nature demanding sackings and transfer outs — Guangzhou Evergrande had dismissed Fabio Cannavaro despite being joint top in the league, back in mid-2015. Maybe this expedient approach to the game somewhat explains the migration of players like Oscar or Axel Witsel to the East, facilitating their hunger to reach to the top of the food chain easier.
Money may be considered as a tool to leverage the big money moves, a tool the President is using to shift the momentum in favour of China, and improve the condition of the national football team in the long run, whose record of qualifying for a World Cup for just the one time doesn’t inspire confidence. The exorbitant means may prove to be justifiable if the end sees some of that quality rub off. So, while the Chinese look to stir up the media with big, flashy headlines dedicated to them, the fans need to understand that it all isn’t going to happen overnight, because, “invention requires an excited mind: execution, a calm one”, as said by the famous German poet, Johann Peter Eckermann.
Meanwhile, brace yourselves for more conspicuous stories about an increasing number of European footballing superstars being lured by the vile, consumptive stratagem of the Chinese, by the promise of fortunes in the land of the Yellow Dzambhala.