The Rise Of The Chinese Super League: Why This Matters To Football

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Ten days ago jaws around the football world dropped with the news that Chelsea attacking midfielder Oscar is joined Chinese side Shanghai SIPG for a stunning £52 million. It is a hugely profitable move for the English Premier League leaders, as they bought Oscar for £19 million nearly five years ago and he had not started a game since September. Not only this, the Oscar’s deal also follows on from news that Carlos Tevez is set to leave his boyhood heroes, Boca Juniors, to sign a £615,000-a-week deal with Shanghai Shenhua (making him the highest paid footballer in the world!).

As outlined by Michael Church on ESPN FC, Chinese football’s transfer record has been broken a stunning five times this year, with another former Chelsea player, Ramires’ deal at the start of the year (for £25 million), seeming like a lifetime ago already.

Beyond all these surprising moves, all these transfers show the ever increasing muscle of the Chinese Super League. The causes of such mega-deals aren’t just political as some claim, (President Xi Jinping is said to be a big football fan), but are being driven by huge investments in the Super League, for example, online retail behemoth Alibaba invested $192 million to get a 50% stake in Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao. Meanwhile, China Media Capital (CMC) agreed to pay a whopping $1.3 billion in a five year deal to become the exclusive global broadcaster of the Chinese Super League.

This splurge is one  part of a planned rocket-fuelled expansion of the game in China. The second is planned by the powers-that-be of the Chinese game. In April of this year the Chinese Football Association (FA) outlined plans to make the country a “superpower” in world football. In a strategy document published by the FA, it outlined ambitious short term targets such as 70,000 pitches in place by 2020 and also longer term targets of one football pitch for every 10,000 people by 2030.

What Will Happen In The Near Future?

We’ll likely see a number of issues emerge in the immediate term due to the rapid expansion of the Chinese Super League:

  1. MLS Beware – In the most recent years, America’s Major League Soccer (MLS) has emerged as a favoured home for many fading football stars (such as Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard). However, the Super League is attracting world class stars still in their prime (Oscar is just 25), thanks to the offer of huge wages. Meanwhile, MLS average attendances and also investment in TV rights are both below China’s top tier. MLS, be worried, China may take your crown for both young and old stars looking to cash in.
  2. Over-Investment Won’t Yield Immediate Results – 2015’s TV deal for Super League rights was just worth just $7.6 million, an investment of over $1.3 billion for the next five years is bold, but will the audiences follow? Likely not quickly enough for CMC to recoup its huge investment. Continuing to attract top quality footballers will help, but the Super League’s quality can’t compare to the wealth of stars in European football.
  3. The Chinese National Team Is Still Likely To StruggleLying a lowly 82 in FIFA world rankings is unlikely to change in the near future and they currently sit bottom of their group to qualify for the next World Cup (having recently lost to Syria). With China qualifying for just one World Cup ever in its history (in 2002, and lost all their games in the tournament), they’re still won’t be troubling the top tier of international football for a while yet.