‘This is a new reality’ – Why the world’s best are now choosing China
Jackson Martinez, Atletico Madrid’s landmark summer signing, decamped for Chinese Super League and AFC Champions League holders Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao on February 3 for some €42 million. That was quickly followed up by Jiangsu Suning’s axis-shifting €50m capture of Alex Teixeira from Shakhtar Donetsk ahead of Liverpool.
If the Martinez deal had a hint of damaged goods about it then the Teixeira transfer emphasised that Chinese clubs can now go toe-to-toe with elite European teams for the best players – and win. The football transfer order has been disrupted forever.
“A new reality is about to happen,” says Mads Davidsen, part of Sven Goran Eriksson’s coaching staff at last season’s runners-up Shanghai SIPG. “Things will never be the same again when Chinese clubs can not only compete with Europe but can beat clubs like Liverpool on the transfer market. Players like Alex Teixeira and Gervinho – a starting eleven player at Roma – want to play in China.”
Established international stars like Ramires and Fredy Guarin were also attracted to Chinese football this winter while Elkeson – a Brazilian who could “easily play in the Premier League or the Bundesliga,” according to Davidsen – swapped Evergrande for emerging force SIPG – also now home to expensive imports Asamoah Gyan and Argentinian Dario Conca.
The allure of Chinese football for the best South American and African players is now at least as strong as the more traditional European leagues. South Americans and Africans at the highest levels of the game are making a living thousands of miles away from home in Europe and perhaps the sense of cultural dislocation is no more acute for them in China having already departed their homelands. This, in part, may explain why major European players have yet to relocate in the same numbers as their South American and African counterparts.
“We have been offered starting eleven players from some of the best clubs in the world,” says Davidsen. “Only a year-and-a-half ago, we were offered good players – but fringe players or players who hadn’t played for a long time – now we are being offered starting players from the top clubs in Europe. That’s a big, big change.”
The recent influx of high-class foreign players will inevitably now raise the standards in the league and encourage other stars to continue their careers there. While accusations of an easy pay-day have to constantly be fought off, Davidsen says that foreign players are expected to play a massive role – on and off the field.
“It’s a little bit of fear of change,” says Davidsen of those attitudes from Europe. “It’s not like these players have small contracts in Europe.
“This is actually a big part of the misunderstanding. People think that it’s an easy job to come here, that he just comes here for the money and now he can relax.
“The expectation on the foreigners is absolutely massive because the Chinese literally expect them to win games. When things become difficult, they want to pass the ball to the foreigners and if they can’t make the difference, they won’t support them.
“It’s very, very difficult to be a foreigner in China. If you don’t deliver – you see how much we change players now. There’s no patience here.
“Of course we have expectations as coaches, but the owners are determined that these players deliver. We brought them here, we paid a lot of money for them. Also the fans have power and the media as well, so coming here thinking you are going to do an easy job, you are a goner.”
Elkeson, a two-time AFC Champions League winner with Evergrande, Gyan and Conca are leading SIPG’s continental charge this season which began with a 3-0 play-off win over Thailand’s Muangthong United on Tuesday. Conca scored late on and was the star of the show alongside native talent Wu Lei, who scored twice. At the top levels of the game, the foreign players are now expected to lead their Chinese counterparts by example.
“If a player like Conca speaks to the younger Chinese players and tells them something they will respect him more and they will listen more than if someone else did it,” says Davidsen.
“He’s a fantastic professional. He’s 32, probably has a lot of money but still he comes here with a great attitude. He wants to win.
“If we are behind at half-time, he’s the one telling the other players to get up and get back in and taking some talks with some players in training as well. Even with my analysis, coming and asking to watch his own clips in the video – still hungry.
“This we can use as an example in front of the Chinese players to show how professional he still is about everything – food and taking care of his body and all that.
“It’s good, the Chinese are also professionals but of course this is also a new football culture so they still have things to learn.”
Each Chinese Super League club is permitted four foreign players plus another with Asian nationality in their squads and the job of integrating the foreign stars with the Chinese is a considerable one. Moreover the foreign stars cannot expect to coast through games despite those preconceptions back in Europe.
“Sven is a very structured coach and everyone has to do a job defensively,” says Davidsen. “It’s not like someone has a free role and some other people have to do more. He’s very focused on that Asamoah is doing the same amount of work as the Chinese players.”
While the salaries on offer are certainly comparable and in some cases better than those in Europe – Gyan is rumoured to be earning some $17m per-annum – there is naturally a challenge in adapting to the lifestyle in China.
Living in Shanghai can bring creature comforts on the level of the world’s best cities; SIPG players and staff mostly live either in downtown Shanghai or else in compounds on the outskirts where they can select from the best international schools for their children. The same amenities, however, cannot be said to be on offer at all teams in the league.
“China is as big as Europe; not only in size but also in terms of cultural differences,” says Davidsen. “You might think all Chinese are the same but there’s a big difference living in north China and in south China.
“For us living in Shanghai, it’s relatively easy to integrate foreign players. Shanghai is an international city and for me it’s the same as living in London.”
“If you come to cities in the north with the idea that you want to continue the lifestyle you had and you want to eat the same food you had in Europe then life will be very difficult,” continues Davidsen.
“I know some foreigners up there are struggling because their expectations were different. No one speaks English and all these kind of things make it very difficult for foreigners.”
There is now the infrastructure for consistent investment in football in China and not only among one or two clubs making it a far more attractive and viable prospect for players on the move. A recent clean-up of the game’s administration means that fans can now trust that matches in the Super League are not fixed while long-term development plans have been put in place both by the government and private investors.
Shanghai SIPG is owned by the Shanghai International Port (Group) which enjoys backing, ultimately, from the government while clubs like Evergrande, Hebei China Fortune, Jiangsu Suning and Shanghai Greenland Shenhua are backed by some of the richest private companies in China.
“This is not just some rich guy throwing out money and then suddenly the bag is empty and then he stops,” says Davidsen. “These companies are actually earning money for themselves by investing in football.”
Despite the Chinese economy’s recent troubles there is no end to the money these clubs can access. SIPG alone has a market capitalisation of more than $16 billion.
“It’s correct that it’s the big companies which are behind it but what people have to understand is that this is not big spending,” says Davidsen. “If you isolate the football clubs, then yes, it’s big spending but what you have to understand is SIPG is the main shipping company and then there is the daughter company which is SIPG FC.
“SIPG FC will, isolated, of course give a negative balance economically, because we have high transfers, we have high salaries, we have quite low income. But the promotion and the branding we do for the main company has doubled the value of the main company SIPG which means that they basically are earning money if you put the two budgets together.”
The impact of President Xi Jinping on the game is occasionally overemphasised but the truth is he does have a keen interest in football. He wants China to bid for, host and win the World Cup and is determined to see the game developed as part of a well-rounded sporting economy in China. Chinese football and the power it is now expressing is here to stay so long as President Xi is around.
“The presidents always have their own personal projects,” says Davidsen. “They don’t take over other presidents’ projects. If a new president came in tomorrow then my fear would be that he wants to have his own project. If he suddenly turned all the attention away from football, the investment would disappear because the investment follows what the president tells the companies.”
Xi’s decision for China to diversify into businesses away from real estate is vital. Private companies as well as companies in which the state holds shares have been encouraged to feed into football to create a relevant, lasting sporting brand alongside other industries. Xi has also committed to building 20,000 school pitches by 2017 to attempt to train up native talent for export as well as use in the national leagues.
WHAT DOES CHINA’S $400M INVESTMENT MEAN FOR MAN CITY?
“The economic growth is not as big as it was before but it’s still the highest in the world,” says Davidsen who has been working as a coach in China for four years – first with Guangzhou R&F before moving to Shanghai with Eriksson.
“Xi now understands that the real estate market and the building will not continue forever. China has been building for 15-20 years, massively, in all cities, and now we have these big, big cities. You cannot continue just building.
“Now the economy needs to go into another phase. And he wants to make a huge sports industry. That will take some years to build up. Therefore, it’s a very detailed plan from the president to invest in sports.”
Sustained investment, landmark signings and a league on the rise all mean that football in China is growing ever more powerful and alluring by the day. The emergence of Chinese teams in this winter’s transfer window as spending forces to overpower even the best European clubs has left everyone wondering which player will be next to move. Nobody now seems off limits.