Much to the chagrin of the world, European athletic clubs have dominated football (known as soccer in America), since becoming the “Beautiful Game” after the 19th century. Ranging from the $3.2 billion worth of Manchester United, F.C. Barcelona’s 69 domestic titles, the Galácticos of Real Madrid and Bayern Munich’s five Champion’s League trophies, European club teams have long been seen as hehe most competitive, displaying the best quality of football. The world’s two greatest players: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, along with former greats like Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff, Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldinho, all cemented their legacies in Europe. Today, however, the world of soccer is changing. Modern players are more tempted by financial incentives and are willing to sacrifice their legacies for extravagant wages. The recent rise of the Chinese Super League (CSL) demonstrates a new era of football and the ever-changing landscape of the football world.
The Chinese are attempting to rapidly build a high-quality football league by spending large quantities of money. However, it is unlikely that a league will succeed without sufficient role players and lower leagues, despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars.
The CSL is the top tier of professional football competition in China, and was very recently founded in 2004. It originally consisted of 12 teams, but has since expanded to include 16 teams. Guangzhou F.C. Evergrande are the current champions of the league and have the most titles in the short history of the CSL with six in the last 13 years. The top ten Chinese Super League teams are worth an estimated $198 million and generate an estimated $28 million each year in revenue.
However, the public’s support of the CSL was nonexistent just a few years ago. The league’s inaugural season was plagued with controversy because scandals of match-fixing and gambling were uncovered. This resulted in loss of interest in the game domestically, low attendance among fans and significant financial losses for the teams and the association as a whole. In 2006, the league had plans to expand to 16 teams, but Sichuan Guancheng withdrew before the start of the season. Likewise, in 2007, the league tried to expand again, but Shanghai United’s owner Zhu Jun bought a major share in local rival Shanghai Shenhua and merged the two teams, again leaving the league one team short of their goal of 16.
The actions of the Chinese Government resulted in the tide turning for the top flight of football in China.
And yet again, in 2008, the season started with 16 teams but after a match, Wuhan withdrew from the league to protest punishments from the Chinese Football Association (CFA). Finally, in 2010, the league was beset by scandals going all the way up to the governing body of football in the nation, the CFA.
Its failure to expand made it difficult for the league to gain advertisement money and grow the game as a whole in China. Additionally, it was harder to attract fans because most of the teams were located on the east coast of China.
As a result, the Chinese government took nationwide action against football gambling, match-fixing and corruption. Additionally, the former CFA vice presidents Xie Yalong, Nan Yong and Yang Yimin were arrested.
The actions of the Chinese government against corruption within the league resulted in the tide turning in favor of the league. The anti-corruption movement has visibly improved the image of the CSL, and with increased attendance along with more funds, bigger clubs in China started investing in foreign talents to continue the league’s development.
The investment in foreign talents is what has turned the heads of football fans and professionals around the world. Some of the earliest players from Europe to have joined the CSL in 2012 include the likes of former Chelsea forwards Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka and Demba Ba, former Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita and former Borussia Dortmund forward Lucas Barrios. Demba Ba’s transfer fee was listed at $15.7 million, and he is estimated to be making around $3.7 million each year. Similarly Didier Drogba was making $300,000 a week while playing for Shanghai Shenhua. All of the players listed were at the latter stages of their careers, and were most likely looking for a big payday before departing football completely.
Even though many of the players were approaching the ends of their careers, their talents were considerably greater than that of the other players in the league.
“The other players would just stare in wide-eyed amazement at some of our moves, what we did in practice and how we played within a team,” Drogba said after speaking to a local news reporter after having completed his first training session for his new Chinese.
Along with players signed around this time, the league also focused on signing top-flight managers from around the world. The former England boss, Sven-Göran Eriksson, was one of the first managers to make the leap. He managed Guangzhou R&F in his first few years, but is now the manager of Shanghai. Luiz Felipe Scolari is another top notch manager in China who is widely known for having managed the Brazilian national team. Many accomplished managers made separate moves to China, for example, after being sacked at Manchester City, the former Real Madrid boss and Premier League winning manager Manuel Pellegrini moved to the Chinese club Hebei China Fortune.
The sums of money paid for players and managers alike was unexpected, but the world of football would be completely shocked for what was to come.
In 2015, the winter transfer window of China topped the Premier League in money spent on transfers, even though the current television deal for the Premier League alone is worth over $5 billion (not including any other sponsorship).
The CSL spent a total of $296 million during the winter transfer market, over $100 million more than what their counterparts in England spent. The Chinese spent considerable amounts of money on European talents like Alex Teixeira, who signed for Jiangsu Suning for $49 million from Shakhtar Donetsk in the Ukrainian League. He was a great talent expected to be making a move to Premier League giants Liverpool, but instead chose to commit to China.
The signing of Ramires from Chelsea F.C. for $31.3 million was perhaps even more controversial than the Teixeira signing considering that he was a large part in one of the biggest teams in all of Europe in Chelsea who had just won the title in the Premier League.
In the coming transfer markets Chinese teams signed top European players. Jackson Martinez, who was once seen as the best up and coming striker in the world, signed for Guangzhou Evergrande from Atlético Madrid for a staggering fee of $45.8 million. Gervinho also moved to China from Roma for around $20 million. Fredy Guarin from Inter Milan would also move to the Chinese club Shanghai Shenhua for $14.5 million. Yet the clubs of these players are not the only ones making the money, as all of these players have signed ridiculous contracts. Former PSG player Ezequiel Lavezzi also moved to China.
One of the most well known signings in the Chinese Super League includes Carlos Tevez. Tevez, who has played for both Manchester clubs, Boca Juniors and Juventus, signed for the Chinese club Shanghai Shenhua. Tevez was once regarded as one of the best strikers in the world as he scored 58 goals for Manchester City in 113 appearances and 39 goals in 66 appearances for Juventus, but made a move away from his home country of Argentina for one final payday at the age of 33. He is now the world’s highest paid player, earning an insane $760,000 per week. This sum is more than twice the salary of both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
The most surprising signings were yet to come, however. In the most recent transfer window, the spending of the Chinese changed slightly. In the past, people had become acquainted to them spending their money on talent which was no longer fit for Europe, and was coming to the ends of their careers. This all changed in 2017.
The most staggering transfer was that of Oscar from Chelsea to Shanghai SIPG for over $75 million. Oscar is only 25 years of age, was a regular starter with Chelsea and had a spot on the Brazilian national team, one of the most successful football teams in the world. The reason why this transfer was so unusual is because Oscar could have started on any team in the world. He the talent to be great, but the financial incentives were simply too much for him to give up. He will be making insane amounts of money, but will also be playing in a league with far less overall talent than any other league in Europe.
Similarly, Axel Witsel from Zenit St. Petersburg in Russia moved to Tianjin Quanjian in China. Axel Witsel could have made a move to Juventus in Italy, one of the biggest clubs in the world. Many will ask if he didn’t seek to be loved by the fans, or to play on a stage which every football fan ever would do nearly anything to be a part of? There is a very simple answer to this yet again. For others, the prospect of being able to support their families was too great to turn down. Witsel is currently on a contract which makes him one of the highest paid players in the world, making around $320,000 a week. Witsel explained his move in a comment with the Italian publication Tuttosport.
The jaw-dropping rise of the CSL has astonished fans and professionals around the world.
“It was a very difficult decision because on one hand there was a great team and a top club like Juventus,” Witsel said in an interview with Goal. “But on the other there was a crucial offer for my family that I couldn’t turn down. Maybe one day in the future our paths will meet.”
The jaw-dropping rise of the CSL has astonished fans and professionals around the world. They are now a league which is gaining both attention and popularity.
However, it remains to be seen whether money can really buy the quality needed to convert the CSL into become a quality league. It will not be enough for the league to simply buy players at the ends of their careers. It will also not be enough for each team to have one or two of these players. For the CSL to truly succeed in the world of football, they will need to establish a culture in their homeland. They will need to set up a youth system which will bring constant talents to the teams.
The CSL has risen unlike any other league ever before in the history of not only football, but sports in general. There is a future of uncertainty ahead of the league as a whole, but right now the future is looking bright for what only a few years ago was a league plagued with corruption problems and a lack of talent.