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Can China Buy Its Way Into Becoming the World’s Next Soccer Powerhouse?

Breaking transfer records is one thing. Fielding a quality team is another.

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As with so much else, China got to soccer first. As early as the 2nd or 3rd century B.C., the Chinese were playing cuju — literally, “kickball” — a sport in which two teams competed to boot a feather-filled leather ball into their opponents’ goal. Initially a competitive military exercise, the game morphed over time into something more stylized and, around the turn of the first millennium, became extremely fashionable. Though it waned in popularity during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), and though modern soccer is generally held to have derived from violent, mob-based games that originated in Europe in the Middle Ages, in 2004 soccer’s governing body FIFA identified the eastern Chinese province of Shandong as the game’s birthplace.

Cuju long gone, the modern game came to China around the time of the 1924 establishment of the Chinese Football Association (CFA), the sport’s governing body in the Middle Kingdom. But soccer’s development has been far from smooth: Though the domestic game expanded in popularity in the 1950s, during the early years of the People’s Republic of China, by the end of that decade Beijing had withdrawn from FIFA, to protest Taiwan’s membership. Soccer didn’t really rebound until the 1976 death of longtime leader Mao Zedong: China rejoined FIFA in 1979, and foreign coaches and players began to arrive in the 1990s. Shortly after that, Chinese players began to move abroad: A 2003 English Premier League game between Everton and Manchester City — midfielder Li Tie playing for the former, defender Sun Jihai for the latter — drew a Chinese audience of tens, if not hundreds, of millions of viewers.

If that figure demonstrates the level of potential interest in Chinese soccer, two forces have been working to counter this trend line. The first is corruption: Match-fixing scandals cropped up regularly throughout the 1990s and 2000s, to the point that fans began boycotting games, and it wasn’t until 2009 that a dedicated cleanup campaign really took hold. The other is that by global standards, China isn’t particularly good at soccer. The men’s team is currently ranked 81st in the world — sandwiched between Cyprus and Jordan — and has only qualified for the World Cup once, in 2002. The team’s most notable contribution to that tournament was the predictable jokes that followed the players’ inability to organize a defensive wall. (Though that might change this year: The men’s national team beat Qatar 2-0 in March to secure a place in the third round of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.) The women’s team has had more success internationally, finishing fourth in the 1995 World Cup and then losing the 1999 final on penalties; since then, however, it hasn’t made it past the quarterfinals.

But results are only one way to make noise in the soccer-playing world. The other is money, and the princely sums China is spending are dragging attention east. Professional soccer players are only permitted to move between clubs in two designated windows each year, generally around two months in summer and one month in winter. In the most recent winter window, Chinese clubs spent more than $280 million in transfer fees, outspending every other league in the world. (Actual expenditure has been significantly higher, since that figure doesn’t include player wages or signing-on fees, both of which are widely understood to fall somewhere between “significant” and “ridiculous.”)

What’s particularly notable about this recent spree is the age and standing of the players involved. Elite soccer players approaching the end of their careers often leave the traditional powerhouses of European soccer and take off around the world for a final, well-paid hurrah. But several of the players that moved to China in the last transfer window are in or near their prime — players who could well have continued at or near the pinnacle of European soccer. Take Jackson Martínez, a 29-year-old Colombian striker. After three excellent seasons with Portugal’s second-most successful club, FC Porto, he moved in the summer of 2015 to Atlético Madrid, the 2013-2014 champions of Spain’s La Liga. But come Feb. 3, he was off to Guangzhou Evergrande, the 2015 winners of the country’s top national league, the Chinese Super League (CSL), to be managed by World Cup-winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari. Evergrande spent roughly $46 million to acquire Martinez, a new record for a team in Asia. That record lasted two days. Brazilian attacker Alex Teixeira, 26, was widely expected to join Liverpool in the English Premier League, but when it balked at the fee, Jiangsu Suning FC stepped in. Though Teixeira’s new club has never finished higher than second in the CSL, it was happy to pay $56 million.

Soccer club owners can be notoriously extravagant spenders, but this isn’t just a spree for the sake of a couple of trophies. In March 2015, China’s cabinet, the State Council, published a reform plan for Chinese soccer. Driven by President Xi Jinping — a confirmed soccer fan, who in October toured Manchester City’s stadium with British Prime Minister David Cameron — the plan states that China will bid to host a World Cup, that its women’s team will return to being among the best in the world, and that its men’s international team will reach the “highest ranks.” Beijing also envisages Chinese soccer, spearheaded by a league at the “global forefront,” as the driving force of a domestic sports industry that it expects to be worth up to $850 billion by 2025, a five-fold increase from its current size.

What does it mean to be at the “global forefront”? Competing internationally for players is important, but a strong league must also produce its own high-quality players, dominate continental competitions, and attract attention — fans, broadcast viewers, sponsors — both domestically and internationally.

China is working to address all three fronts. In 2013, Guangzhou Evergrande became the first Chinese club to win the AFC Champions League, Asia’s premier continental competition: It repeated the feat in 2015. (Most of the clubs in the CSL are majority or wholly owned by private companies and conglomerates — Evergrande is China’s second-largest property developer, for example.) And there’s certainly domestic interest: Europe’s strongest soccer clubs regularly tour China before the European season begins in August, playing prestige friendlies to packed stadiums. A whopping 4,768 hours of the 2014-2015 English Premier League season were broadcast in China, reaching an estimated 350 million people. And though attendances for CSL games vary notably from team to team, average attendances have grown 16.7 percent from 2014 and are now above 21,800, just behind Italy’s Serie A and France’s Ligue 1.

This recent round of spending isn’t just a mass acquisition of soccer players and coaches from Europe. China’s assault on the game is taking place at the boardroom level as well. Chinese investors have bought shares in Atlético Madrid and Manchester City, two of Europe’s most powerful teams, and have taken over several smaller clubs, including Sochaux in France, Espanyol in Spain, and ADO Den Haag in the Netherlands. It is an exercise in buying influence and soft power — and extracting knowledge, competence, and connections. In November 2015, “super-agent” Jorge Mendes announced that his sports talent management firm, Gestifute — whose clients include star manager José Mourinho and perhaps the world’s biggest soccer icon, Cristiano Ronaldo — would link up with Fosun, a business conglomerate part-owned by billionaire Guo Guangchang. “We believe the Chinese football industry has a bright future,” said Mendes, who is rarely wrong.

But beyond imports, can Beijing improve its national team and produce the high-quality players it needs for success? China is reportedly considering nationalizing foreign-born players, as happens occasionally elsewhere, though this is by no means a straightforward process: FIFA’s rules mandate that a player must live continuously in a country for at least five years as an adult before he or she can become eligible to represent that nation; players that have already appeared in competitive international fixtures are not permitted to switch countries, so China can’t simply lure existing stars; and it’s far from clear how such a policy would play in an ethnocentric country with strict citizenship laws. In any case, China limits the number of foreign players that each club can employ to five, and only four can be involved in any given match.

In the 2008 book Bamboo Goalposts, writer and consultant Rowan Simons lamented that in China, “[soccer] has become an entertainment show based on a sport the people have forgotten they are meant to play.” High-profile imports naturally feed into the entertainment; if China wants to become a stronger soccer nation in its own right, it has to replicate the infrastructure of other soccer-playing nations. Simply put, it needs to ensure its people — its future soccer players — have access to facilities and competent coaching. Cognizant of this, Beijing plans to build 50,000 soccer schools in the next 10 years, up from around 5,000 now. Seventy-five miles outside the city of Guangzhou, the Evergrande International Football School might, at 167 acres, be the largest academy in the world. China lacks much in the way of a coaching tradition, so while coaches affiliated with Real Madrid are currently staffing the Evergrande school, academies are also being set up to train home-born coaches.

China is not the only nation that has attempted to transform itself into a soccer power, but it has two notable advantages when compared with other relatively recent projects in the United States and Qatar. Unlike Major League Soccer in the United States, which faces steep competition from the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Football League (NFL), there’s no well-established spectator sport tradition in China (though basketball is growing in popularity). And unlike tiny Qatar, which will host the 2022 World Cup, there’s a vast soccer-loving population to draw upon.

Indeed, other global leagues are perhaps the wrong point of comparison. Simon Chadwick, a professor of sports enterprise at the University of Salford Manchester, calls it “an industrial strategy for football that is comparable to China’s recent growth in other sectors.” Two decades ago, “China wasn’t a global superpower in, for example, the computing and IT industries,” he wrote. “Now, it is.”

And what about the World Cup? With regards to hosting, China is in a good position. Not only is most of the infrastructure already in place, but Beijing also has the desire and money — at a time when the expense of hosting the tournament is increasingly deterring other potential host nations. China’s domestic soccer industry has been dogged by corruption, but the recent problems at the highest levels of FIFA, which have included the arrests of a number of high-profile sports administrators and led to the resignation in disgrace of FIFA President Sepp Blatter, have so far failed to touch the CFA.

To be sure, it is important not to lose sight of the difficultly China faces. It’s going up against the Premier League, which has leveraged and strip-mined the rich history and atmosphere of English soccer; against the goliaths of Barcelona and Real Madrid, which have long dominated the imaginations of young soccer players from around the globe; against the juggernaut that is Bayern Munich; and against nations that have been playing and refining the game for decades, with established and deep infrastructures.

China amounts to “a naive new buyer in this very small market,” Simons wrote, and, as such, is “ill-equipped to negotiate effectively against the super-agents who wrote the book.” There’s also the persistent issue of profitability. Guangzhou Evergrande, despite its success, has posted losses every season since 2010, as revenues from advertising, television, and gate receipts fail to cover the spectacular player investment. While it waits for its investments in coaching and youth players to mature, it is reliant on the continued support of corporate sponsors and so is at the mercy of wider economic and political forces.

Previous attempts to bring star players to China from Europe haven’t always been successful. Allegations of unpaid wages marred former Chelsea players Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba’s 2012-2013 spells at Shanghai Shenhua. Tim Cahill, formerly of Everton and currently of Hangzhou Greentown, described a “revolving door” of recruitment and said that foreign players, largely motivated by money and personal gain, do little to improve Chinese soccer. Then there is the inevitable cultural jolt. Beyond the obvious differences in language and diet, Chinese soccer culture itself still has an amateur flavor. “Some people in the Middle Kingdom today think just putting 11 players on the field is enough to win the game,” Drogba noted, shortly after moving to China. “It’s up to us, foreign players and trainers, to teach them what professional football is all about.”

As a spectacle, Chinese domestic soccer has to compete with TV broadcasts of the very best from around the world. Guangzhou Evergrande has twice finished fourth in FIFA’s Club World Cup, which pits continental champions against each other, and was handily dismantled by first Bayern Munich and then Barcelona in the process. The suspicion is that, star power notwithstanding, the best of China might struggle to compete with even mid-table teams from England or Spain. While the quality of soccer is improving, Asian dominance is proving elusive, too: This season, reigning champion Guangzhou Evergrande was eliminated in the group stage of the AFC Champions League.

Even if China does markedly improve across the board, there’s no guarantee it’ll even near the biggest prize of all. Becoming World Cup champions is a monstrously difficult business, requiring excellence, preparation, and fortune in considerable proportions. Of the 20 tournaments in the cup’s history, only eight teams have lifted the trophy, a mere 12 teams have made it to the final, and only one team from Asia — South Korea, in 2002 — has ever made it to the semifinals.

While China may never lift the World Cup, over the next decade it could become an alternative destination for international soccer-playing talent from around the world. Chinese clubs will keep smashing transfer records, as more and more players are snatched from under the noses of the European aristocracy. Such is the early, noisy, public face of the most comprehensive program of soccer reform ever implemented at a national level. The deeper reforms will take half a generation or more to reach fruition, and if they do, it will stand as one of the most remarkable achievements in the modern history of the sport. And if not? Then, once again, it’s proof that conjuring a soccer superpower into being is more art than science.

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Correction, May 23, 2016: Simon Chadwick is a professor of sports enterprise at the University of Salford Manchester. A previous version of this article mistakenly said he was a sport business professor at Coventry University Business School.

Andi Thomas is based in London and writes for SB Nation Soccer and Ockley Books.

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