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What the Chinese Super League teaches us about China

This article can also be read at Asia Times

Forget the choreographed yawnfest wrapping up in Beijing right now. For any understanding of the Chinese model of development, one might as well behold a Beijing sunset, in all its glorious opacity, as try to make sense of the Communist Party’s smoke signals. Alternatively, one might ponder a prominent undercurrent – a meme, if you like – of Chairman Xi’s Chinese dream: football. As the 2017 Chinese Super League season draws – wheezing, limping, splint-shinned – to a close, here are some takeaways.

#1 In the grander scheme of things, the Chinese still aren’t all that interested in watching Chinese football. While the growing market in China for European football – notably the English Premier League – has put the latter’s marketing warlocks in a froth of activity, average attendances at CSL matches haven’t risen enormously in recent years, despite an ongoing whirlwind of interest from Xi and a regiment of newly-minted Chinese billionaires. In a nation of 1.4 billion, the average CSL game in 2017 drew around 24,000 spectators, which is actually respectable by European standards, but once you strip out a handful of top sides, that figure falls away significantly. An absence of quality on the pitch remains a factor, but so too does the fact that China only got a proper league going in 1994 and has now set itself the task of building a sporting imperium from the top down. The league lacks domestic heroes, folklore, a sense of history and – barring some emerging needle between Shanghai SIPG and Shanghai Shenhua – meaningful rivalries.

#2 The suspicion that there may be something pyramid-shaped about Chinese football has yet to be dispelled. Some of China’s richest men have put very large sums of money in, without the league developing any kind of sustainable revenue streams. Seemingly sold on the promise of jam tomorrow, China Sports Media Ltd (CSM) acquired broadcasting rights to the CSL in 2015, agreeing to pay 8 billion yuan (US$1.18 billion) in instalments over a five-year period. In 2016, the company farmed online broadcasting out to the tech giant LeEco in a two-year deal worth 2.7 billion yuan. Owing to a “cash crunch,” however, LeEco, in turn, sold its 2017 rights to the video streaming site PPTV for 1.35 billion yuan. Then, in July this year, CSM – after withholding its 2017 instalment – announced it is seeking to extend the period of its initial deal from five to 10 years, complaining that new regulations (see #3, below) from the Chinese Football Authority (CFA), a government supervisory body that is the largest shareholder in the CSL, hurt its ability to recoup its investment. Could it be that the projected subscriber base just doesn’t exist?

#3 The current campaign has been, in one respect at least, the proverbial season of two halves. In the winter transfer window, CSL clubs shelled out some jaw-dropping sums to acquire players that have been big names in the global game. Shanghai Shenhua’s capture of Carlos Tevez, regarded a decade or so ago as one of football’s finest strikers, in a deal that reportedly made him the world’s highest-paid player, on an annual salary of $41 million, raised eyebrows among aficionados everywhere. SIPG’s signing of Brazilian midfielder Oscar from English giants Chelsea involved similar levels of cash and suspension of disbelief but at least brought on a player in his prime who could easily be lighting up a higher stage. Others leaving European football for China on tidy contracts included Belgian international Axel Witsel; another former Chelsea man, Nigeria’s John Obi Mikel; and Brazilian forward Alexandre Pato.

The CFA had, in fact, already signaled its dissatisfaction with the influx of money-grabbing foreign talents by reducing the number of overseas players teams can field in a game from four plus a substitute to three. Then, in June, came the coup de main – overseas transfers in the mid-season window would carry a 100% levy. If a club paid less than 45 million yuan ($6.63 million) for a player, the same amount again would have to be put into the club’s own youth system; if more, then a matching sum would have to be rendered unto Caesar, or rather the state’s football development fund.

The whole idea is to nurture more young Chinese players – a laudable aim, but one hedged in by commercial imperatives that create something of a Catch-22. If the league is banking on foreign stars, however superannuated, for box-office appeal, then what happens to the whole enterprise if they’re removed from the picture? It’s unclear if the rule will remain in place for next season or what impact it might have in the long run. But certainly, summer signings were significantly more mid-market, which is probably a good thing, as teams built around a small nucleus of bling-encumbered big-shots famously struggle to find balance. Tevez, incidentally, has been utterly useless, scoring just three goals in a meager 14 appearances to date.

#4 Similarly, it’s no longer enough just to appoint a European or South American manager and expect success on a plate in the CSL. OK, Guangzhou Evergrande have just sealed their seventh straight league title, and their second under former Chelsea and Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, and SIPG have had a good season under another former Chelsea manager, Andre Villas-Boas – they will finish second in the table and got to the semi-finals of the Asian Champions League. But other foreign coaches have fared less well this term. Beijing Gouan showed Spaniard Jose Gonzalez the door in June, after just six months in the job, and Shenhua – who sit a lowly 12th in the standings – parted company with Gus Poyet (yeah, he used to play for Chelsea) last month. Fabio Capello, hugely successful at the helm of AC Milan back in the 1990s, took over at struggling Jiangsu Suning in June but has only just been able to ensure their top-flight survival.

#5 As one might expect given the mishmash of coaching influences in Chinese football – Italian, German, Portuguese, Brazilian, Korean – and the lack of a tried and trusted formula for the national team, which remains calamitously feeble, there is still no identifiably Chinese style of football. It can be a task getting anywhere near Evergrande’s or SIPG’s Brazilians but games otherwise often seem to have a pronounced physical edge. There is also the occasional dust-up, with the fiercest of them this season coming in an SIPG-Guangzhou R&F clash when a couple of over-enthusiastic interventions from Oscar – for which he was subsequently, and quite unfairly, banned for eight matches – sparked a mass brawl. His team-mates Hulk and Wu Lei were also suspended later for wearing t-shirts supporting Oscar, and Villas-Boas earned his own sanction for an Instagram post that questioned his player’s treatment. The Chinese are all about the rule of law, you understand.

#6 Chinese football displays a glaring lack of transparency in terms of relationships between clubs, their investors, players, fans and the powers-that-be. In July, Jiangsu Suning’s owners – the retailers Suning – were as good as accused of using football to launder money by Chinese state TV. And in the same month, 13 CSL clubs were forced to deny that they were in breach of regulations in relation to unpaid player transfers, salaries or bonuses. Non-resolution, they were told, could see them kicked out of the league next season. Some issued statements denying irregularities; others said they were investigating matters. Then, miraculously, the issue just went away. Who paid what to whom, and when? Cui bono, apart from some young foreign men with tattoos and their agents? Who knows? Perhaps the skies over Beijing hold the answers.

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