What is behind the Chinese football revolution?

In late 2015, Chinese investors bought a 13% stake in the parent firm of Manchester City, a huge UK football club. This dragged China’s renewed interest in football into the worldwide spotlight. While China is now the second largest economy in the world, it has never had much of a connection with football. It has only ever qualified for one football World Cup, and the Chinese people are generally more interested in NBA basketball than soccer. But over the past two or three years, Chinese investors have been buying up stakes in football clubs across Europe, from Netherlands, Czech Republic and France to Spain and the UK. President Xi Jinping has declared himself a huge football fan. Now, it seems that the Chinese are not only investing in football clubs, but also in bringing footballers themselves across to play Chinese football.

So why has this happened, and what does it mean for the economy?

It has been suggested that China is simply cottoning on to the importance of football to Europe. In order to look good on a world stage and build up a commercial presence in Europe, getting in through Europe’s football clubs is certainly a way to do it. China has never done very well in football, a game that is globally adored (except, interestingly, in the USA). But to become part of that international community, China has seen a need to become involved in football. By 2025 China, supposedly, wants to have a domestic sporting industry worth $850 billion.

Chinese Football Investments So Far

So what has China done so far to grow its football investment? It began, certainly, with buying up European football clubs. In September 2015, China Energy Company Limited bought up Slavia Prague, one of the oldest clubs in Czech football, to save it from relegation. Since China’s purchase of the club, it has gone up to fifth in the table and may qualify for the Europa League.

It is suggested that these club purchases have been preparing China by helping them gain competence in the football arena. Recently, China has been building American-style soccer campuses to help young people improve football skills, while also learning and preparing for university. China has also established a domestic football league similar to Japan’s J-League, which has been in five consecutive world cups since 1998. Before this, Japan was not a World Cup qualifier.

Other Chinese investments in European teams have included:

CMC/Citic Capital – 13% stake in City Football Group (Man City parent firm)
Rastar Group – 56% stake in Spanish club Espanyol
Dalian Wanda Group – 20% stake in Spanish club Atletico Madrid
CEFC China Energy Company – 60% stake in Czech club Slavia Prague
Ledus – complete ownership of French club Sochaux
United Vansen International Sports Company – majority shareholder in Dutch club ADO Den Haag

Chinese investors have been encouraged towards this kind of investment for straightforward financial reasons, too. Owning stakes in clubs like Atletico Madrid could open doors to Chinese people playing for European clubs, meaning these clubs would have more Chinese fans, and the clubs would be worth more in the Chinese market. Money could then be made by transferring international football players from Europe to Chinese teams, a very profitable revenue stream.

And now, it seems, China is moving on to this next stage in its football investment game.

 

The Chinese Football Superleague

It is being called the Chinese football revolution. Jackson Martinez was bought by Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao for £31 m, after his previous club, Atletico Madrid, was part-bought by Wang JIanlin, a Chinese billionnaire. £38.4 million was spent by Jiangsu Suning on Alex Teixeira, a purchase price that broke the transfer record for the third time in 10 days. The total investment by the Chinese Super League is now way above that of the English Premier League. The new money coming into football is coming from China.

As well as China moving into Europe, big names in football are now moving to China. Jorge Mendes has been pictured in China forming a partnership with Foyo Culture, a company run by huge Chinese investor Guo Guangchang. Guangchang wants to build the popularity of Cristiano Ronaldo and others in China. Football fans are confused about why people in football are looking to the East, but many businessmen are unsurprised.

Chinese investment in sport follows the footsteps of Qatar and other Eastern countries, and now investors are being told to put money into the growing networks of coaching academies that are spreading across China. This ties in with wider social aims about driving Chinese teenagers to global heights in new ways. Football is something China had previously missed out on: this Super League promises that China will now be fully involved.

The names being bandied about as likely to move to China soon are big ones. Why are the likes of Yaya Toure and Wayne Rooney being drawn to China, where football clubs are not world-renowned?

 

Wayne Rooney: potentially to be drawn into Chinese football?

Wayne Rooney: potentially to be drawn into Chinese football?

This seems to indicate the beginnings of a massive change. While at the moment, it seems that huge sums of cash are all China has to offer big name players, things may soon be very different. The standard of Chinese football is rising, based on commitments from both the clubs and the state. Managers such as Luiz Felipe Scolari and Sven Goran Eriksson are bringing up standards, and as bigger and bigger players transfer to Asia, the eyes of the world will of course follow. Plus, the tier one cities of China are exciting and urbanised, just as exciting for players as Manchester, Milan, Barcelona, and similar European destinations.

Chinese football has not yet exploded, but many big companies are expecting this to happen soon. The explosion is inevitable, although there is not yet the promise of a massive Chinese league that will work in the same way as a top European one. At the moment, it is more about establishing strong connections between Chinese football fans and European ones, and waiting to see what the football would hold.