The Rise and Stall of Chinese Football


The dawn of a new era is upon us. The balance of power has shifted. A new global force stirs in the east. No, I’m not quoting Lord of the Rings, although I probably could be. Rather, these are the kind of phrases you will have encountered when reading of the rampant rise of Chinese football. But is the hype justified? 

In recent times there has been something of a mass exodus of big-name players to The Chinese Super League. It is true that the notion of a cosy swansong in the sun-kissed backwaters of the developing football world is nothing new – Messrs Beckenbauer, Pelé and Pirlo can all attest to that. Yet there is something radically different at work here. The sheer speed with which it has happened and the sheer scale of money being thrown at it have made the world sit up and take notice. In a big way. In the last seven months, The CSL has amassed four of the top eight earners in world football, with Carlos Tevez’s absolutely unfathomable £615k per week taking the biscuit by a margin that is, quite frankly, revolting.

However, when you scratch beneath the diamond-encrusted surface, the CSL is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s true, some eminently recognisable names have made the journey east, yet Asia’s gain is not necessarily Europe’s loss. Not to any great extent anyway. 

A look at the rollcall of émigrés reveals a number of Premier League cast-offs, who were nowhere near the top of any elite club’s shopping list. Whilst the likes of Pelle, Ramires, and Mikel were undoubtedly good players, they didn’t depart amidst a clamour of eager suitors, let’s be honest. Even the comparatively young age of these Premier League defectors is not as much of a worry for the established order as some are making out. Last month Oscar joined Shanghai Shenhua at the tender age of 25; hardly a swansong by any means. However, in truth he left a Chelsea squad of which he was only a bit-part, despite becoming the world’s second highest earner. 

And herein lies the crux of the issue, the thing that marks the emergence of the CSL as more hype than substance. There is an enormous discrepancy between the money being paid and the quality being bought. Tevez would have been a genuine scalp in 2008, when he was lifting the Champions League with Manchester United, but he’s been airlifted from his retirement home in Buenos Aires some nine years later. Hulk scored for fun in Portugal and Russia but never in England or Spain, and at 30 it is safe to assume he never will, content as he must be to collect his £320k each week in Shanghai. For Jackson Martinez, a similar story.

Axel Witsel, it is true, was on the radar of Juventus before he chose the exorbitant money on offer at Tianjin.  However, he is the anomaly. And the proposed spending, salary, and foreign player caps due to be introduced next year should ensure that he stays that way. When it does, you’ll hear the European elite breathe a huge sigh of relief. Not that they ever had reason to be worried. Not really.

Edward Capstick


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