Writer Gideon Welles analyzes China’s football (soccer) industry, exploring the past, present and future of the sport.

Turn back the clock to June of 2012 and the eyes of the football world were fixed on China.

Ivorian star Didier Drogba had just announced that he was joining Shanghai Shenhua, making him the latest in a wave of foreign stars to join the Chinese Super League (CSL).

A formidable player with a trophy cabinet that many would envy, Drogba was the most illustrious player to have joined the CSL yet, a notion reinforced by his reported salary of $300,000 a week.

Leading the attack alongside his former Chelsea teammate Nicolas Anelka, Drogba’s arrival heralded a new era for Chinese football.

Or so it seemed.

A case of Conspicuous Consumption

By April 2013 that dream had turned sour. Drogba left in January amid unpaid wages to join Turkish club Galatasaray, while Anelka has found some relief with a short-term loan with Italian giants Juventus after having difficulty settling.

“I thought that Drogba and Anelka were arguably the most important [signings] in Chinese football history,” says Simon Chadwick, Professor of Sport Business Strategy at Coventry University.

“[Their departure] really has set Chinese football back at a time when it needed to be moving forward”.

While the pair may have brought the spotlight to Chinese football during their short stints, they will undoubtedly go down as vanity purchases by another wealthy Chinese club owner, a trend that has become all too familiar in the CSL.

With UEFA, Europe’s footballing governing body, requiring European clubs to adhere to more stringent financial regulations, players are finding transfers to Chinese clubs more attractive due to their ability to offer lucrative salaries.

For Chadwick, this shift is simply a case of economics.

“If you have two markets running alongside each other, one regulated and one unregulated, you’re going to get resource drift over to the market where the returns are greater.”

“That’s what you see in China.”

Last year as many as 94 foreign players moved to the CSL, the majority of which came from Europe and South America. Their combined wages equaled a hefty $370 million, constituting 40% of total wages paid by clubs.

Chadwick likens the redundancy of clubs diverting resources to high-profile signings instead of grassroots development and organizational infrastructure to owning a Ferrari in the traffic-ridden roads of Beijing.

“People would stop and look and go like ‘wow this guy is driving a Ferrari’. Likewise, you might be the owner of a Shanghai Shenhua and you’re able to buy all these players and it looks fantastic.”

“But the reality is that you can’t drive a Ferrari in Beijing as you can around the open motorways of Europe and I simply don’t think that China has the organizational architecture to successfully deliver football.”

“You need a dual strategy to invest in the top and bottom as well.”

The Wrong Way Round

While nowadays the Chinese men’s football team is synonymous with underperformance, this was not always the case.

Following the PRC’s founding in 1949, sports was marked as an integral part of the country’s socialist reconstruction. As a modern sport, football was seen as a way to showcase the intent and power of a modern China. A professional league was assembled in a few years, and a centralized system of sport was established.

It was here that the current top-down bureaucratic structure originated, where decisions were channeled from the Communist party and state administrations in hierarchal fashion.

China soon began playing against other socialist and communist bloc countries. No expense was spared as foreign experts were sought after for advice, and players were sent abroad for training.

By the end of the 1950s, China would become an Asian football powerhouse.

China’s rapid progress, however, would come to a halt as the political and social ramifications of the Great Leap Forward and the subsequent Cultural Revolution took its toll on the country.

Amid the turmoil, China was notably absent from FIFA between 1958 and 1974.

2002 China World Cup Team. Original Photo by The Diplomat

Critics of the national team often cite the nascent youth development and grassroots infrastructure in China’s footballing structure as reasons for its underperformance.

“True grassroots values and infrastructure have yet to be introduced to the game [in China].” says Rowan Simons, author of Bamboo Goalposts and founder of ClubFootball FC, the first foreign-invested and managed amateur football club enterprise in China.

“It is still following a Soviet model in which sport is widely considered as a punishing career for poor countryside kids.”

For Patrick Xiang, a former Chinese youth football player currently completing his Master’s in Strategic Public Relations at USC, Chinese football athletes are not receiving the proper level of training and education in the current system.

Children are taught strategies on winning instead of tactics and technique says Xiang. “You must pass, you can never dribble. Teams wouldn’t win because kids were taught to play safe”.

Premier Skills China. Original photo by the British Council Sport (Creative Commons)

“But imagine if I spent the first eight years focusing on tactics and techniques! Then, as I grew older I would learn the complicated strategies as they became easier to understand. Spend four years learning those – then see who will win”.

“They have it the wrong way round”.

Xiang believes that many of the negativity towards Chinese football players stem from a lack of education, with no emphasis on personal development.

“These players quit primary school to go to football school,” says Xiang, “but they are not well educated, and once they turn 18 it becomes difficult for them to understand complicated strategies.

Another problem is the lack of transparency afforded by the Chinese Football Association, which has continued to operate despite conflicting with Article 17 of FIFA’s constitution, which mandates that national football organizations must be non-governmental and nonprofit in structure.

“There is a direct and hugely negative impact of government control,” says Simons.

As all of the officials are appointed by the State General Administration of Sport, the CFA essentially functions as a department under the Chinese government.

“Most of the top professionals are not from the field,” says Xiang. “For example, [the government] sent a guy who knew a lot about water sports to the CFA. He suggested that the youth players should play in the professional league”.

As officials are in position for no more than 4 years, policymaking has become increasingly myopic.

“This short-termism creates ridiculous policies that waste huge financial resources with minimum change of success and with serious implications for the healthy development of fragile youths” says Simons.

You Scratch My Back and I’ll Scratch Yours

When Deng Xiaoping announced his ‘Opening Up’ reforms in the late 1970s he planted the seeds for the company-driven model of ownership that we see today in the Chinese league.

The transition to a market economy saw the CFA exerting greater autonomy on affairs, with diminished government funding as a result.

Instead, the CFA turned to non-governmental funding with clubs relying on state-run enterprises that in reality ensured government backing. With debt no longer an issue, salaries eventually ballooned to retain players.

In the current climate, political favor has been the main catalyst for the recent increase in transfer spending, with club owners and corporations seeking to use it to help them generate business through state contracts and licenses.

“These corporations tend to fall into one of two camps,” says Chadwick. “One type will be property or real estate corporation involved in acquiring, developing real estate and construction projects”.

“The second type would be what we call entertainment corporations, with interests in new media rights, mobile networks and platforms”.

“Both types are using football as a lever to create favor with the state”.

One only needs to look at the recent fortunes of the club Guangzhou Evergrande to understand the influence Chinese corporations have had on the game.

Relegated to the second-tier league in 2010 following a match-fixing scandal, they were promptly bought by the Evergrande Real Estate Group, led by Xu Jiayin who has a net worth of approximately $5.5 billion.

(From left) Guangzhou Evergrande’s Lucas Barrios, head coach Marcello Lippi and Daro Conca celebrate after winning the league title. Most domestic clubs rely on overseas players or coaches to compete for the crown. Provided to China Daily

The team was then revamped with several key signings; CSL record signing Dario Conca, former Borussia Dortmund striker Lucas Barrios and Italian World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi.

The investments had an immediate effect, with Guangzhou Evergrande winning back-to-back league titles in 2011 and 2012.

In addition to privately owned clubs such as Guangzhou Evergrande, there also clubs that are essentially state-owned, such as Beijing Guoan (2010 title-winners) and Shandong Luneng.

Chadwick believes that both private and state-owned clubs are embarking on a form of ‘privatized football development’ on behalf of the state, with commercial gains in return. “Essentially their motives are to maintain government connections and win government contracts”.

 [These clubs] are raising profile, building facilities, signing players and identifying new players on behalf of China.”

For some, its no coincidence that the recent increase in spending occurred in the same year as the Communist Party’s leadership transition, a notion reinforced by new President Xi Jinping’s affection for the sport.

“[Almost all the owners] are businessmen with political minds and considerations, few really are true football fans” says Professor Xu Guoqi, Professor of History at Hong Kong University, who used a Bill Clinton slogan to characterize the recent spending increases as “Economy, stupid”.

Culture and Corruption

However, the close business and political ties have consequences, with Chinese football having a notorious reputation for corruption and match fixing.

Critics say that the CFA’s lack of independence from Chinese government has created an environment of collusion, where organized crime and local officials are free to orchestrate match fixing.

“The CFA will punish athletes, or punish teams, or punish referees, but they haven’t [punished] any local government officials,” says Ma Dexing, deputy editor-in-chief for the Chinese sports magazine Titan Weekly. “In reality, it’s local government officials who are conducting things from behind the scenes”.

The Chinese Football Association recently concluded a 3-year investigation into corruption, banning 33 officials and players for life, as well as vacating Shanghai Shenhua’s 2003 title for match fixing.

The investigation follows last year’s sentencing of former CFA chiefs Xie Yalong and Nan Yong, who were given 10 and a half years each for taking bribes.

While the recent developments are encouraging, there is still skepticism as to how ‘clean’ the CSL can be, with critics saying that such moves only affect the surface of the game.

For Simons, the current state of soccer in China is incompatible with a clean league.

“It is virtually impossible to believe that the Chinese league, which is created artificially by the government, sold to big business, without community roots or sustainable revenue streams could become clean in a sense that would be understood by true sports fans”.

For Daniel Durbin, director of the USC Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society, the success of Chinese football doesn’t necessarily presuppose a cleaning up of the league.

“We tend to put our perceptions of sportsmanship on other cultures, and those things don’t necessarily hold the same value in other cultures” says Durbin, “after all the goal in China in all sports is to dominate.”

For example, when Beijing Guoan captured the 2009 league title, celebrations were beset by allegations that Beijing government invested money into supporting the team.

When Simons talked to Beijing Guoan fans about the allegations he recalled, “they replied that they would not care – [to them] it just meant that Beijing had bribed more successfully than the rival teams.”

Beijing Guoan Fans Guizhou Renhe Football Match. Original photo by Anton Hazewinkel (Creative Commons)

“That is how bad it is in Chinese football,”

Ultimately it seems that any true reform will have to come from the inside, which will require a change in how Chinese society views football.

Whereas football clubs are a fixed part of European culture dating back to the 19th century, its establishment in modern China has resulted in a demand for immediate success.

“The relationship between Chinese football fans and their clubs is a transient brand relationship,” says Chadwick.

“China likes success, and if you don’t get success, Chinese fans and business people become disillusioned with the product their consuming”.

Unfortunately it seems that Chinese football is stuck in a catch-22, whereby unless grassroots values and support systems are realized, cultural attitudes (entrenched in success) are unlikely to shift.

Moreover, unless Chinese soccer cleans up its image, parents are less likely to associate their children with the sport. In a country of 1.3 billion, the CFA found that the number of registered players in 2011 was 8,000.

“In China’s high-pressure educational system, ‘if it is not a career, don’t waste time doing it’ rules out almost all extra-curricular sporting activities,” says Simons.

“If the selected sport is football, the widely held perception is that there is no chance of that career leading to glory or riches.”

The Way Forward

Despite the current plight of Chinese football, Chadwick who runs training and development camps in China, is optimistic.

“I’ve dealt with internationally educated men and women with lots of good ideas, who are really keen to make sure that Chinese Football has a good future.”

“What the Chinese government needs to do is to create an environment where these people are allowed to come forward and shine”.

The signs that Chinese fans are becoming more engaged are promising; four of the past six seasons saw an increase in the league’s average attendance while last year’s match between Guangzhou Evergrande and Jiangsu Sainty attracted a record 65, 769 fans.

Xiang is equally optimistic, citing the potential of teams such as second-tier Beijing Institute of Technology FC, a collegiate-turned professional team with a huge fan base, as a model for youth development as well as the new football schools opening out throughout the country.

Xiang likens the development of Beijing FC players to collegiate American football programs, where players are developed as people too. “USC’s Matt Barkley took classes but spent a lot of time training. [Like him] these players go to classes but spend 4 hours of training everyday with some of the best coaches in China”.

While the system in place has so far resulted in stagnation of Chinese football, Xiang believes the current system already has the means to fix itself.

“The problems alone can’t be solved in 100 years.”

However, citing Xi Jinping’s reported love of football and the politics behind the game, Xiang said “but to some extent, the great thing about the Chinese system is that you can make changes all of a sudden – if it comes from a political point.”