This past July, Gonzalo Higuain was at the forefront of the world’s soccer consciousness. The Argentine striker had just come off an astounding season with Italian club S.S.C. Napoli, had just won the Capocannoniere (given to the top goal-scorer in the Italian league, Serie A) with 36 total goals, and had been a factor in the Argentine national team’s route to their Copa America final appearance against Chile. Clubs across the world were vying for him, and it seemed that he would have his pick of the lot.
Then, Chinese club Hebei China Fortune appeared out of nowhere and offered Mr. Higuain the equivalent of £800,000 (roughly $1.1 million) a week to play in the Chinese Super League. For comparison, Cristiano Ronaldo earns roughly £288,000 a week after taxes playing for Real Madrid.
In reality, the absolutely insane move for the Argentine was born of China’s efforts to become a global soccer superpower. The country’s president, Xi Jinping, is somewhat of a soccer fanatic himself. In the summer of 2011, when he was still vice-president, he laid out three wishes for Chinese soccer as part of his running platform: 1) To qualify for the World Cup, 2) To host the World Cup and 3) To win the World Cup. Less than a year later, Jinping became president and began putting his plans into action with actual legislation. However, we must remember one key factor; traditionally, China has not been very good at soccer.
This may come as a surprise. In a country with a population equal to roughly 1/7 of that of the entire world, one would expect to find at least 11 world class players, with hopefully a handful more to allow substitutes and depth in case of injuries. Furthermore, one of the earliest recorded ancestors of soccer, cuju, originated as a military exercise in China some time between the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. With the history and player potential in the country, it’s relatively baffling that the Chinese men’s national soccer team currently sits 78th in the world rankings, averaging only 72nd historically. The team has only ever qualified for one World Cup, 2002, failing to score a single goal in the group stage. The women have been far more successful, ranking 13th in the world, yet have fared no better in China’s quest for a World Cup title.
Worldwide, soccer has become a business for the wealthy.
If President Jinping has anything to say about it, China’s fortunes will soon be shifting. The president fell in love with the game as an avid youth player in the 1950s and 60s.. Now he plans to improve soccer education among the nation’s children as part of his plan to make China a “world class” soccer power. Earlier this year, the Chinese government released a plan focusing on short, medium, and long-term goals to develop the game domestically. Among these goals are to increase the soccer-playing population of the country to 50 million by 2020, by 2030 to have the men’s team as a dominant force in Asia, and then by 2050 to achieve absolute world domination. The country’s hopes for its women’s team are even loftier, expecting them to eviscerate all other competition by 2030.
To do this, the government has taken extensive measures to drive development of youth players. Plans include having roughly one soccer pitch per 10,000 people as well as installing dedicated soccer education programs in 20,000 schools across the nation. This number doesn’t even take into account the dedicated soccer academies that have popped up around China, including the Evergrande International Football School, where 2,000 children train under the tutelage of coaches from Real Madrid’s academy. The physical education programs that the government initiated have their own textbooks and curricula written with the focused aim of using population to their advantage; the more children that are introduced to the game, the more likely that the next star could be discovered, a star that very well might lead China to glory.
Of course, Jinping’s grand plan to climb the world’s soccer pyramid is not solely rooted in his love of the game. These plans are a large part of China’s continued economic development. While the country is still technically a Communist country, Western capitalism has been sliding its way into China for years. Worldwide, soccer has become a business for the wealthy. Oil money pumped from the Middle East into top clubs in England, Spain, and France has engendered the development of super-clubs. These are not just historically successful clubs like Barcelona, but also upstarts such as Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain that have only risen to global prominence in recent years. Using this influx of cash, these clubs purchase world-class players, develop state-of-the-art facilities, and invest millions into merchandising and advertisements to grow their brand.
Now, China is getting in on the act. Yet again, our Jinping is behind the antics. On top of international dominance, he plans to develop the nation’s club league into one of the world’s best to drive national fervor for the sport. Crafting China’s Super League into a top-flight league requires big spending. The influx of money into the Chinese league is led by investors including the Evergrande Group, one of China’s largest property developers, and China Fortune Land Development. Realizing the economic potential in the sporting industry, government officials have begun actively encouraging financial investment in soccer clubs, specifically through the purchase of foreign players. Aside from the absolute blasphemy that is the proposed weekly wage for Higuain (which never came to fruition; he was sold to Juventus, a far worse outcome for many Napoli supporters), the figures that the owners of Super League clubs have been throwing about are absolutely mind boggling. Ezequiel Lavezzi, an Argentine national forward formerly of Paris Saint-Germain, is paid roughly £222,000 a week to play for Hebei China Fortune. Former Sunderland man Asamoah Gyan makes just a tad more per week, right around £227,000, kicking about for the very snappily-named Shanghai International Port Group F.C. Brazilian striker Hulk rakes in even more at £320,000 from the same club.
Time will tell if their success will compound, but clearly Xi Jinping’s dream of global relevance for Chinese soccer is beginning to see some results.
Remember that Cristiano Ronaldo makes £288,000 playing for Real Madrid, one the most successful clubs in athletic history. This is not to say that China’s teams couldn’t one day become just as revered, but it does beg the question of value. These players are not being paid based on their skill level. Despite being very talented players, Lavezzi, Hulk and the like are most likely not going to be stealing the Ballon d’Or from Ronaldo or Messi. What is driving their wages is a multifaceted amalgamation of name recognition, branding, and attention. The teams in the Chinese Super League are held to a strict limit of five foreign players per team, with one being required to come from an AFC (Asian Football Confederation) country. Brazilians dominate the market, including the likes of Alex Teixeira and Paulinho, with the AFC majority coming from South Korea.
The primary reason for bringing foreign players to the League is centered on improving its popularity within China, with a secondary goal of pulling in further international support. It’s quite similar to what MLS is doing at the moment. One of the first international superstars to be brought to the US was David Beckham. After the success that he brought the LA Galaxy, other clubs began purchasing well-known players such as David Villa and Andrea Pirlo. While often thought to be in the twilight of their careers, it’s no question that these stars are pulling new fans into MLS as well as driving interest in the sport as a whole for the people of the United States. Why should the same not work for China?
For Jinping and other high-ranking individuals, investing in domestic clubs is the first step in bringing fans’ focus back home. Guangzhou Evergrande is leading this charge with both domestic and international success. Along with winning the Super League title each of the past five seasons, they are the first Chinese club to win the AFC Champions League twice, as well as the first Chinese club to play in the FIFA Club World Cup, having appeared twice against teams including Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Time will tell if their success will compound, but clearly Xi Jinping’s dream of global relevance for Chinese soccer is beginning to see some results. It’s fairly likely that the Premier League, Bundesliga and La Liga will not be toppled as the world’s most-followed leagues any time soon. Yet, given time, the Super League could begin to see its own rise in popularity. The world’s game transcends borders. On the pitch, everyone can be united behind a crest. Whether China can achieve the three goals that have been charted for the next 30 or so years is yet to be determined, but if current trends continue, we may soon see another country join the ranks of soccer royalty.