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How Big a Threat is China to European Football and The Premier League?

While there has been a parochial tendency to write off ambitious foreign football competitions in recent times, the Chinese Super League is different. Here’s why China poses a serious threat to European dominance.
Via Shanghai SIPG

This story originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

In regards to the future of European football, and certainly the Premier League, we have a tendency as fandom, punditocracy and press to be more than a little parochial. There is a feeling that, no matter what happens, European domestic leagues will always sit astride the globe. We have the history, the tradition, the football culture, and nothing will be able to usurp that, no matter how much money is ploughed into enterprising foreign leagues with pretensions to feasting at football's top table. Overseas investors have so often attempted to build their own divisions, and to forge successful brands elsewhere. Ultimately, they have usually had to scale back their ambitions. One only needs to look to Major League Soccer, the J-League, the A-League, the historical NASL, and various extravagant vanity projects in the Middle East to see that attempting to compete with the grand old clubs of Europe, whether directly or on a limited scale, is more often than not a fruitless endeavour.


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Now, however, European football is faced with a new form of competition. Why battle the titanic clubs of the continent on a level playing field, when it would be more effective to tilt the odds? When it comes to the latest overseas league to take on the old powers of Europe, there seems to be a comprehensive new strategy for overcoming the biggest and most illustrious clubs. That strategy could potentially spell disaster for Europe's footballing hegemony, and this is why the Chinese Super League must be considered a serious threat to the established order.

EPA Images/Wu Hong

As an overseas league that spends over the odds in order to attract big-name talent, the Super League is hardly the first of its kind. That said, Chinese owners are pioneering in the sheer amount they are willing to spend. Though the Super League has seen broadcasting revenues and the value of its television deals grow considerably in recent years, there can be little thought of clubs turning a profit when acquisitions are, in the case of Carlos Tevez, on wages of anything up to £615,000 a week. To seal his transfer from Boca Juniors, Shanghai Shenhua paid Tevez's hometown club a reported transfer fee of £71.6m. These are stunning numbers, amounts which would make eyes water at even the wealthiest of European clubs. For comparison, that is only £18m less than Manchester United paid for Paul Pogba, who reportedly takes home £290,000 a week. Chinese spending certainly isn't limited to Tevez, and this for a league with an average attendance of little over 24,000.


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Chinese clubs aren't recouping much of their massive investments on matchday, then, nor is it feasible that broadcasting money is covering their costs. Rather, they are benefitting from enormous injections of private capital, often at the behest of some of China's richest men and the lucrative corporations they command. This is investment on a scale never attempted before, with the money involved dwarfing that of Major League Soccer, for instance. The difference with the Super League is that Chinese businessmen are not interested in making a profit from their clubs, at least not in a direct financial sense, but rather in gaining political capital by furthering the objectives of the Chinese state.

PA Images

Judging by their behaviour over the last few years, it is clear that Chinese owners are at peace with the fact that, to attract the players necessary to establish the Super League as a serious force, their outgoings must be truly gargantuan. Their policy is to pay ludicrous sums to secure the services of foreign talent, and it certainly seems to be working thus far. Shanghai Shenhua made a major impression on European football with the capture of Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba in 2012, on weekly wages of around £170,000 and £200,000 respectively. Since then, things have been ramped up several notches. Far from another retirement league in which ageing players can grab a final payday, the Super League is now snatching major targets from underneath the noses of European clubs.


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So, during the 2016 January transfer window, Jiangsu Suning secured the services of long-term Liverpool target Alex Teixeira, trumping Liverpool's £24.6m offer to Shakhtar Donetsk with a stonking bid of £38m. In the following months, Chinese clubs signed Gervinho, Demba Ba, Graziano Pelle, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Hulk, Ramires and Jackson Martinez, to name but a few. These were players with decent domestic pedigree, all of whom could most likely have secured transfers to respectable European clubs. Now, China has begun to tread on Europe's toes in even more emphatic fashion. Oscar has just joined Shanghai SIPG from Chelsea for a fee of £52m, despite having long been linked to clubs of the size and prestige of Juventus. Likewise, Axel Witsel has apparently confirmed that he turned down Juve for the sake of Tianjin Quanjian. Reports suggest he is now set to make it onto the list of the top-10 best-paid players in the world.

Via Shanghai SIPG

Chinese clubs may not quite be at the point of prizing away Europe's key assets, but they are already managing to poach players of substantial ability at the peak of their careers. This is more than the MLS ever managed, and certainly upstages the achievements of less distinguished overseas leagues. Major League Soccer is beginning to seem rather miserly in comparison to its Chinese counterpart, its financial sinews looking withered and scrawny next to the bulging might of the Super League. Meanwhile, China is beginning to make an impression on the European transfer market. This is significant, and could be the key to China's aspirations of domination on the world stage.


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By spending in such lavish fashion, Chinese sides are changing the way that their European rivals do business. Looking at the bigger economic picture, the outlay of Super League clubs will inevitably drive up the cost of transfers, wages and agents' fees in the major European leagues. There have already been reports from the Premier League of agents using offers from China as bargaining chips in contract negotiations, most notably in relation to Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. One only needs to look to the Teixeira deal to see how transfer costs are being forced ever upwards, while the power of agents, already an endemic problem in European football, will only increase as more cash changes hands.

Via Jiangsu Suning

For the Premier League, this comes at a time when a fall in viewing figures has shaken the industry. There has been much talk of the broadcasting bubble finally bursting and, while that might well be a premature surmise, there's a sense in which the upwards spiral of television money is no longer guaranteed. In terms of transfers, wages and so on, the Premier League and its European associates are already suffering from little short of hyperinflation. The causes of that inflation are manifold, but the arrival of Chinese billions on the scene is certain to make things even worse.

So, how big a threat is China to European football and the Premier League? In the context of purloining players and absconding with major transfer targets, the Chinese Super League is a considerable nuisance, but in the context of the global footballing economy, it is a menace which European clubs cannot afford to dismiss or ignore. Were declining viewing figures for the Premier League to become a trend in the longer term, and were similar trends to emerge elsewhere in Europe, football on the continent would already be in a critical financial situation. With transfers, wages and agents' fees still going up, the consequences could be disastrous, and waiting in the wings would be none other than the Chinese Super League.


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In many ways, the behaviour of Super League owners reflects China's approach to business more broadly. Chinese clubs appear to be manipulating market conditions in a concerted attempt to damage their international competitors, all the while using their vast resources to further the agenda of China itself. One only has to look to industry and manufacturing to see that, once China decides to flex its economic muscles, its European rivals struggle to respond in turn. The Chinese government has hardly been shy in setting out their vision of the nation's sporting future, with a decade-long plan in place to make China a behemoth in world football. President Xi Jinping has sanctioned massive state spending at a grassroots level, while the Chinese Super League represents an attempt to furnish the country with a domestic division worthy of its name.

To help achieve that aim, as long as it is expedient, Chinese owners will stop at nothing to outdo European clubs. They will continue to drive up transfer fees and wages, squeezing the football economy further. Even with a relatively limited use of the imagination, it is not hard to see how that could potentially jeopardise the financial security of Europe's top domestic divisions. It could feasibly come down to a decline in broadcasting revenues as precipitated by a stagnation in viewing figures, which combined with China's monumental spending could see the Premier League and co. flounder, or find themselves financially submerged. Worryingly, in their attempts to make China the foremost footballing nation on the planet, economic strife in European football would no doubt suit the Chinese government well.

EPA Images/Wu Hong

It should be noted that football in China is a powerful political tool as much as it is a form of entertainment. For the governing Communist Party, it represents a potential propaganda device as well as a prospective economic stimulus, hence the massive investment in their national footballing infrastructure. For owners of Chinese Super League clubs, it represents a way to build up political links by actively participating in the government's plans. There is much at stake here for the powers that be in China and, as with so much else in the country, football is inherently tied up with, and subject to, the guiding hand of the state.

Beloved as football is in Europe, our domestic leagues are not supported by the limitless economic resources of a global superpower. On such an uneven financial keel, the normal rules of competition are horribly, grotesquely skewed. It suits Chinese Super League owners to keep spending so lavishly, because lavish spending has the potential to compromise the integrity of European football. In China, the beautiful game appears primarily to be a Machiavellian tool of self-furtherment. What better way to further the cause of Chinese football as a global phenomenon, than to sabotage the complacent old order as embodied by Europe's grand old teams?