CHINA’s dream of hosting and winning a World Cup looks a little forlorn at present, the national team has stalled and the Chinese Super League (CSL), once the destination for pension fund-building players and football mercenaries, is at something of a crisis point.
The world looked to China in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, along with Brazil, India and Russia, the so-called BRICS. These economies were supposed to take up the slack as more mature markets struggled to come to terms with debt, economic stagnation and banking crises. Over a decade later, China finds itself at the centre of the covid-19 pandemic and another economic challenge.
China grew at an alarming pace after the financial crisis and against this backdrop, the country’s football clubs started to go international, spending large sums on talent in a bid to make the Chinese Super League a compelling product, both domestically and internationally. Moreover, Chinese investors started to buy stakes in European clubs, including Inter Milan, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Manchester City, West Bromwich Albion and Atlético Madrid. Some investors overpaid for their assets and also took on high levels of debt.
The initial strategy – which appeared over-zealous at times – was to assist President Xi Jinping’s ambition for Chinese football by learning to run big clubs in other countries. Then they started to withdraw as the Chinese government discouraged further investment and insisted investors had to demonstrate synergies between their international business and Chinese football. The underlying concern was that money being poured into foreign football would be better spent at home. Furthermore, some critics believed Europe was literally feeding off of China’s huge resources and enthusiasm, and not just around football. China’s outbound cross-border mergers and acquisitions fell sharply. In 2017, there were 20 Chinese-owned clubs outside of China, that figure has halved since then.
With the world suffering from the covid-19 pandemic, China’s economy is bouncing back in 2021, GDP growing by 18.3% in the first quarter of the year. This was largely anticipated by analysts as a year ago, China’s economy contracted for the first time in decades. This downturn impacted China’s football, for most clubs are owned by major corporations. Hence, the fortunes of the clubs are precariously linked to their owners’ performance.
A case in point is the tale of 2020 Chinese Super League champions Jiangsu Suning, owned by the Suning Appliance group. In December 2020, all the shares of Suning Holding group were pledged to Alibaba’s Taobao to secure a loan. To stave off liquidity concerns, Suning announced it would buy back US$ 305 million worth of bonds with its own capital. This triggered a slump in the company’s share price. Despite China’s economic growth, many of its major corporates are having financial difficulties and Suning announced in February that it would dissolve the Jiangsu club. A lot of people are unhappy and claim that Jiangsu were sacrificed to ensure Suning’s other interest, the new Serie A champions Inter Milan, could continue. The Chinese government has bought a 23% stake in Suning, clearly to protect one of their most prominent commercial names. Another thought is that should China be responsible for the collapse of one of Europe’s greatest clubs, the president’s football dream would suffer a mortal blow.
Jiangsu are not the only club to disappear – 20 clubs have left China’s professional leagues over the past two years and in 2020, 11 were expelled for financial problems and five more opted for voluntary liquidation. The way Chinese clubs operate – 70% of total expenditure on player wages was commonplace – suggests that more may follow. For example, Guangzhou Evergrande, Chinese champions eight times in 10 years, earned only a third of the US$ 450 million they spent in 2020. In 2019, the average Chinese Super League salary was US$ 1.2 million per year, which was more or less at the level of France’s Ligue 1. Even though crowds have remained stable in normal times, tickets are cheap, often the equivalent of below US$ 10.
Without big-spending companies such as Fosun, Wanda, CEFC and TEDA, Chinese football would not have made the noise it has so far, but clubs are now forbidden from including their sponsors in their club names. Guangzhou Evergrande and Guangzhou R&F are now known as Guangzhou FC and Guangzhou City respectively. Some analysts believe Chinese football should abandon single-owner models and implement multiple stakeholder structures that include government, private enterprise, local communities and high net worth individuals. Instead of relying on regular injections of life-saving cash from their parent companies, Chinese clubs need to build more revenues from sponsorship, matchdays, player trading and broadcasting.
The government has also insisted on salary caps, imposing a limit of five million yuan for Chinese players (€ 650,000) and € 3 million (Yuan 23 million) for foreigners. Chinese players averaged € 709,000 annually (double the well established J-League) compared to € 7.5 million for foreign players. As a result, there has been an exodus of overseas players from China.
Unsurprisingly, the corporates are now being encouraged to keep faith with Chinese football. The President of the Chinese FA, Chen Xuyan told them they have a responsibility and to treat football as a public welfare issue and accept that it may be non-profitable. No other country could issue such a statement and expect to get away with it. And there’s more – there is currently a political move to get more players to join the Communist party.
Meanwhile, the new season is underway and China’s World Cup qualifying campaign is in progress. There are still some star names, but they are getting older – Oscar, the former Chelsea midfielder who went to China at the peak of his career, is now 29; Marouane Fellaini of Shandong Taishan is 33; Marko Arnautović is 32; and Mousa Dembélé is 33. With the restrictions on pay, the Chinese Super League is not as attractive to the “have boots, will travel” contingent.
The national team has beaten Guam and the Maldives in the second round of the World Cup qualifiers but they have Syria in their five-team group, who have already beaten them. World Cup qualification would be a boost to the domestic game, but China are still lowly-ranked (77th) and languish below countries like Curacao and Cabo Verde. More positively, soccer schools are opening all the time and youth development has also benefitted from foreign involvement, such as Bundesliga clubs. A football culture is developing in China, but maybe not at the speed government officials envisaged, fans are distracted by their interest in the European game, notably the Premier League. China may eventually become a powerhouse in the distant future, but right now the journey looks a long and patient one, but it will remain an interesting story.