The Chinese Super League: A Quest For Soccer Domination

“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is a timeless book on military strategy. As the Chinese Super League mounts an assault to become the biggest, most expensive soccer league in the world, Sun Tzu’s philosophy fittingly provides some insight into China’s play for soccer domination — or at the very least relevancy.

Give Them A Reason To Cheer

The Chinese Super League was formed in 2004. It replaced the Chinese Jia-A League, the country’s first professional soccer league which had been around since the mid 90s.

Why would they do such a thing? Bottom line, the league was crap so they shut it down and created a new one. The goal was to create a league with higher standards both on and off the field. (See kids, world domination requires ample planning and vision and sometimes you gotta tear up the script and start from scratch).

The new soccer league was mainly made up of teams from China’s east coast. Though in its infancy, the league would be a platform for China’s domestic players.

With China emerging as a super power by the turn of the century, thanks to a cash-fueled boom, a massive sports league was only inevitable. As the Chinese middle class grew inside the Communist nation, so did the popularity of the game.

Cash Rules Everything Around Me (Get The Money)

While Sun Tzu may educate us on the way the Chinese think, the American rapper, actor, entrepreneur, and producer Curtis James Jackson III, better known as 50 Cent, might give us a better sense of what soccer stars think when presented with the opportunity to move East: Get Rich or Die Tryin‘.

The reality is that twelve years later the league hasn’t produced a star Chinese player. But more on this later. Instead, it has brought in stars from other parts of the world for a massive payday. This year alone players such as Graziano Pelle, Hulk, Freddy Guarin, Gervinho, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Demba Ba, Jackson Martinez, all made major money moves to Chinese clubs.

In the past players like Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka, Tim Cahill, Alberto Gilardino, Alessandro Diamanti, Osman Sow all made major moves to the Chinese Super League with varying degrees of success.

But how do you get talented, elite soccer players to snub the chance of playing in the biggest European Leagues or in the Champions League?

Money. And lots of it.

The Chinese Super League, like other young leagues around the globe (say Japan’s J1 League, Australia’s A League, the Indian Super League, and one could argue, MLS),lacks prestige. But unlike the aforementioned leagues, it has cash to burn. In other words, it can afford to offer astronomical sums to lure top players to the league. It’s a huge coup from a marketing standpoint.

In addition to established soccer stars, the league also boasts an astonishing number of Australian and Brazilian players looking to cut their teeth in the world of professional soccer.

Not Just For Players

Manuel Pellegrini spent three years with Manchester City and led them to two FA Cup titles and a Premier League trophy, following spells with Malaga and Real Madrid. Having had to make way for Pep Guardiola at City, the Chilean tactician is now in charge of Hebei China Fortune F.C.

But Pellegrini isn’t the only one who’s made his way to the Chinese Super League. 2006 World Cup winner Marcello Lippi, Fabio Cannavaro, Sven Goran Eriksson, Felix Magath, Dragan Stojkovic and Felipe Scolari are among the high profile managers who have taken their talents East.

“The bosses of Chinese clubs think they need big names and they also think that foreign coaches are better than local coaches,” Ma Dexing, one of China’s leading football writers, told ESPN FC.

And it shows. There are sixteen teams in the league. Only three are managed by Chinese coaches.

Which raises the question: if Chinese players and coaches are being overlooked when it comes to development and opportunities, who really wins?

The answer to that is simple — the owners. Take Guangzhou Evergrande for example. The team’s success on the field has meant an increase in the club’s value, at least according to some outlets, reported at over $3 billion. Cha-Ching. Yes, that would mean the team is worth more than Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United. The Wall Street Journal, however, is not too convinced.

While the league may have intended to build and improve China’s domestic soccer programs, over $350 million have been spent on foreign players and managers this year alone. Nevertheless, one could argue that the owners competition and desire to one-up each other has benefited the fans who get to enjoy more stars than ever before.

The New Normal

The spending trend is spreading overseas too. Chinese investors are buying teams across Europe, well, like crazy. And not just any clubs. Inter Milan, A.C. Milan, Aston Villa, are just a few. Add to that ownership stakes in Manchester City and Atletico Madrid.

“Chinese companies are actively looking for new areas to invest,” Chinese soccer commentator Dong Lu told Time magazine. “Italy is suffering from an economic downturn while Inter Milan, the giant in Serie A, is in urgent need of overseas capital. Chinese firms also want to expand their influence abroad.”

According to the South China Morning Post, Chinese investors in Europe see the continent as a strong business opportunity to make more money. Simple as that. Money talks, bullsh*t walks, fellas.

In fact, since 2010 there has been a real surge of Chinese investment in Europe.

Has the Sun Set on Chinese Players?

Has the league’s focus on importing starts hurt the development of Chinese soccer stars? Has the league failed them?

In the league’s twelve years, not a single Chinese player has made a switch from the Chinese Super League to a top European club. Contrast that to the Brazilian league where Neymar was a star with Santos before his move to Barcelona, where Kaka was one of Sao Paulo’s favorite sons before heading to A.C. Milan. Compare it to France’s Ligue 1 or Sweden’s Allsvenskan which nourished the talents of Thierry Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic respectively.

History shows us that soccer powerhouses generally have strong domestic leagues, where homegrown talent can flourish. Just look at the past four World Cup winners — Germany, Spain, Italy, Brazil. At least that’s how it goes in the men’s sport. China’s women’s team which hardly gets any investment tends to perform, like the USWNT, better than their male counterparts.

Though it might take a little longer to find China’s Neymar, Henry or Ibrahimovic, the influx of talent and soccer knowledge will only help Chinese players, who’ll build a better Chinese Super League by standing on the shoulders of giants.

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