The Chinese revolution has begun so Oli Fisher looks at the growing investment and interest in the game from the Far East.
Whether you like it or not, for better or worse, football has changed for good.
Over the last decade, the money in the ‘beautiful game’ has snowballed, resulting in mindboggling sums of money being paid to clubs, agents and players, until those amounts just lose all relevance amongst a tide of seemingly endless cash injections.
It can be seen from the very top level right down to the lower spectrum of football. The fact that Manchester United were willing to break records (be that the correct decision or not) to bring back a player they allowed to leave, all the way down to Newcastle signing a central defender from a mediocre Blackburn side for over £5million.
China meanwhile have been an emerging economic superpower for quite some time. In fact, it is definitely fair to call them an established supereconomy, being second in the GDP (Gross Domestic Product, the standard measurement of an economy’s size and strength) rankings for the last few years now.
Maybe it was just a matter of time before these two money-driven entities locked horns, and we are starting to see it now. The whole idea of Far East investment infiltrating the western football world is a contentious issue, and it draws a wide range of different opinions.
This can even be seen in the TEAMtalk forums, which while discussing the possibility of a Chinese group taking over Liverpool drew the following comments:
“If I was a Liverpool fan I would question the involvement of the Chinese Government and other than investment in infrastructure whilst FFP still it exists and it does having a very rich owner has no real benefit.
Overall I think the Chinese buying up our clubs is probably not a good thing for football.” – Nine nine nine
“I knew FSG were reluctant to sell outright,but money talks doesn’t it? If they were offered a big enough sum,I think they’d seriously consider it. The stand is near to completion,and I always said that when that was completed,there’d be movement on the ownership front. Fingers crossed!” – Suarezsteeth
For some fans, it’s all about money. This is perhaps more so understandable from the perspectives of certain clubs such as Liverpool, who have seen themselves fall behind in success terms since their glory days.
However, observations seem to suggest that these Chinese consortium are either being very smart, or very indecisive.
On the one hand, we have all seen the mega signings that the Chinese Super League has wheeled out. Jackson Martinez made the £31million move to Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao (part-owned by Chinese billionaire Wang Jianlin) from Atletico Madrid, even turning down what was reportedly a completed move to European giants AC Milan.
Jiangsu Suning spent a staggering £38.4million on the Brazilian midfielder Alex Teixeira, which subsequently broke the transfer record for the third time in ten days back in February of this year. These are high profile players, but even the sums paid by Suning for players like Chelsea’s Ramires at £25million (with all due respect) are downright ludicrous.
The past has seen most transfers to China follow a similar pattern; older players, past their best, looking for one last payday. Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka, Demba Ba, Paulinho and Obafemi Martins all sort of following that trend.
Then there is the case of a player like Graziano Pelle, a 31-year-old Italian striker who completed a move to Shandong Luneng this summer where he will be, depending on which reports are accurate, anything from the third to the tenth best-paid player in the world. His salary works out at roughly £260,000 a week.
Ultimately, the question becomes whether you can really blame the players for making the move. The kind of money that Chinese clubs are paying out for players who are by no means established megastars is both laughable and worrying at the same time, but it can set a player up for life financially. And of course the agents have no problems brokering these deals as it keeps their own pockets lined.
On the other hand, we are starting to see some of this attitude of artificial growth being imposed on Europe, so it’s as if there is either no commitment/agreement to grow the Chinese Super League solely, or it is a planned assault. Don’t get me wrong, the passion for football in China is unquestionable; as evidenced by the fanbases of clubs such as Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Real Madrid and AC Milan.
Speaking of which, Milan is a city that has witnessed first hand the intentions of Chinese consortiums to get involved in elite clubs. Indonesian businessman Erick Thohir sold his 40% stake in Inter Milan, with Chinese investors Suning Commerce Group taking a majority 70% stake in the club. Thohir’s attitude summed up just why these takeover bids are becoming more prevalent and more successful.
“In the past two and a half years we have built on a solid foundation, making the club stronger” he told the media.
“Now this new partnership will allow us to take a new, decisive step forward in our bid to restore Inter to their rightful place among the world’s top clubs.”
The argument is that a cash injection to put Inter back to the top is artificial, and it is in fact years of mismanagement that have caused them to slip from that position in the first place, meaning a ‘quick fix’ is unfair and untrue to the tradition and spirit of the game.
It hasn’t been a smooth path for Inter though. Roberto Mancini ‘mutually parted company’ with the club following a reported disagreement over transfer policy, leaving the club in relative turmoil heading into the new season, perfectly summed up by new boss Frank de Boer sending out his team in a 3-1-3-3 formation that saw them lose 2-0 to ChievoVerona on opening day.
Then comes the case of the Nerazzurri‘s traditional rivals, AC Milan, who are following a similar path with a preliminary agreement signed. This agreement means Silvio Berlusconi will relinquish his entire share in the club after over 25 years at the helm of the Rossoneri, showing that tradition is suffering too. A controversial character he may be, but nobody can deny his heart and passion in bringing Milan from near bankruptcy in the late 1980s to seven-time Champions League winners.
He said they will be paying at least €400m (£220m) over the next two years, which may value the club at up to €750m including debt.
“Milan has now embarked on this path towards China,” he said, and those words may ring true for all of football.
Looking a little bit closer to home, and Wolverhampton Wanderers are the latest team subject to a big-money takeover. Wolves confirmed the club had been bought by Chinese investment group Fosun International late in July.
The deal is supposedly worth about £45m, and Fosun (a huge Chinese investment group) have pledged to invest £20m to £30m in the club during the next two years to take them back to the Premier League.
“We owe a great debt of gratitude to Steve Morgan for taking such good care of the club and for placing his trust in us to become the new custodians of Wolves” Fosun representative Jeff Shi said in a statement on the club website.
“Football is enjoying a huge growth in China and, of course, is England’s national sport. As part of our strategy, it makes perfect sense to buy a great football club.”
Sports business journalist Mark Dreyer explained to Sky Sports that there is perhaps method behind the madness.
“Towards the end of last year, China Media Capital (CMC) led a group that invested $400m into the City Football Group, Manchester City’s parent company, in exchange for 13 per cent of the company.
“The franchise model, with clubs in the US, UK, Japan and Australia, plus Manchester City’s impressive academy set-up are both elements that Chinese football is known to favour.
“Instead of attempting to buy the whole thing, the idea is that this investment can be used as a way to see how the club is run and some of that expertise can be brought back to China.”
Call it sneaky, or call it smart business. Either way, the Chinese revolution has begun and will only get bigger. The money is there, so perhaps it is only a matter of time until a club like Liverpool comes under Far East ownership. Those who want success and success at any cost will be delighted, however the older generation might be right to question what football has become.
The monster is growing, but how much longer can it continue until something has to give?