Football, like life, is often ruined by free-market capitalism. This happens on a large scale, as the über-clubs of Europe use their financial might to monopolise the latter stages of the Champions League, and ensure that the world’s elite players almost all play in Munich, Madrid, Barcelona, London or Manchester. It also happens on the small scale, as once-proud footballing nations such as Portugal, the Netherlands, and, yes, even Scotland, are reduced into being little more than youth academies for bigger leagues.
However, the changes in the world economy over the past twenty-five years, with the rising power of Asia as an economic powerhouse, have barely seemed to make a dent in the football landscape – just as it was twenty years ago, the wealthiest and most powerful clubs all play in one of Europe’s ‘Big Five’. Moreover, the quarter-finals of the previous three World Cups have only featured two countries from outside the traditional powerhouses of Europe and South America, with only two of the twelve semi-finalists having never appeared in a final before. T
his hegemony seemed to be unchallenged, and yet, in terms of the transfer market at least, it is beginning to face a threat, in the form of the clubs of the Chinese Super League. After the winter transfer window, the tenth highest-paid footballer in the world, Alex Teixeira, now plays for Jiangsu Suning, a professional team formed in 1994, that plays in the Chinese Super League. He’s not alone in making the trip to play on the banks of the Yangtse River, either for at Jiangsu, he will be linking up with Ramires, a Brazillian international signed from Chelsea this January for a cool £25million, and Jo, the former Everton and Manchester City striker.
Jiangsu isn’t the only club spending its yuans. Guangzhou Evergrande, the five-time reigning Chinese champions, spent €42million on buying Jackson Martinez from Atletico Madrid, having already hired Luis Felipe Scolari, the Brazillian World Cup winner, to manage the team. When Guangzhou visit Shanghai in a meeting between the top-of-the-table clash early in the season, Scolari will at least see a familiar face in the opposing dugout: Sven-Göran Eriksson, whose England side he knocked out of three consecutive international tournaments, and who will be hoping to dethrone his team. At this point, a seasoned football fan will begin rolling his eyes and looking sceptical.
Just five years ago, it was Anzhi Makhachkala, a club plying its trade in Dagestan on the Caspian Sea, that was owned by a billionaire and spending money all over the place, buying Samuel Eto’o and Roberto Carlos, and hiring Guus Hiddink as a manager. Those with longer memories will think of David Beckham going to the LA Galaxy, or even Gary Lineker ending his career in Japan in the mid-1990s.
All of these were, however, entirely short-term propostions: In the case of Anzhi, the billionaire owner quickly lost interest, and both the J-League and the MLS were leagues in their infancy that needed the publicity that signing a “brand-name” player would get them. The Chinese Super League’s spending spree is altogether different: in buying Martinez and Teixeira, the owners of Chinese clubs, part of the newly-wealthy corporate China, have shown that they intend on buying top-tier talent away from top European clubs, not merely overpaying for one or two greying superstars. Both those players were highly sought-after in the Old World: Teixeira was strongly pursued to be Jurgen Klopp’s first signing for Liverpool, and Martinez had been a marquee signing for Atletico Madrid just last summer.
It seems we aren’t just approaching a world where Chinese clubs are in the market for world-class players we’re already living in it. It remains to be seen whether this makes the Chinese Super League a rival to European leagues, either in quality or in exposure. It definitely remains to be seen whether the Chinese national team sees any development as a result of this, given that they currently languish in third place in their five-team 2018 World Cup qualifying group, behind both Qatar and Hong Kong. At 93rd in the world rankings, between the footballing powerhouses of Botswana and the Faroe Islands, they certainly have a long way to climb.
Nevertheless, the massive investment in the Chinese Super League is a sign that 21st Century free-market capitalism will infect football eventually. In a globalised world, it is inevitable that the places with most football consumers, and the most powerful economy, will become powerful players in international football before too long. In the case of China, that might be sooner than we all think…