BY ANDREW BENNEY
With Chelsea F.C. midfielder Oscar dos Santos completing his headline-making move to Chinese Super League (CSL) club Shanghai SIPG FC and rumours continuing to circulate around star teammate Diego Costa, some team’s concerns have never been higher regarding the possibility of losing members to the outrageously wealthy Asian league.
Thanks to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vocal plan to turn his country into a football World Cup competitor, unheard of sums of money have been spent on bringing talented foreign players into the league as a means to improve the overall quality, boost youth sport programs across the nation and transform China into the football superpower they hope to become. For Jinping however, it is more than just a love of the game, he also hopes to create a £550-billion sports industry in China over the next 10 years, which would allow the country to be less dependant on their manufacturing sectors.
Although it is true that China’s soccer teams have not done well in the past and they are only ranked 81st in the world by FIFA, there is undoubtedly a method to the multibillion-dollar madness.
Xu Guoqi, a University of Hong Kong historian, believes that the spirit of competition is so deeply rooted in Chinese culture it would not be unlikely to see soccer continue to grow in the coming years.
“For decades, Chinese interest in sports as a whole has not been about personal joy or pleasure but about politics. It is seen as a path to ruling legitimacy, geopolitical standing and projection of power,” Guoqi said in an article in the Independent in February of last year.
China has the desire and drive to become great in sports, as they do in nearly everything, but they also have a national passion for soccer and a massive population working as a talent pool. All of these will add up to a surprisingly impressive industry, given time.
So yes, many clubs and fans around the world have a disdain for what the CSL is doing as they watch players they love leave the spotlight for unheard of fortunes, but it does show an impressive dedication to self-expansion and promotion in the sports industry as well as improvement in what could turn out to be extremely lucrative programs.
“I can’t stand watching players leave just for the money, bottom line is that you should stay where the competition is best,” said avid sports fan Andre Harsham. “But I can respect what China is trying to do. It would be great to see Canada or the U.S. put that kind of effort into bringing up our youth soccer programs, rather than just being content with the joke that is the MLS.”
Although President Jinping may have long-term goals in mind for his country, former Conestoga soccer coach Geoff Johnstone, who received many accolades during his coaching career, including OCAA Coach of the Year and being inducted into the OCAA Hall of Fame, believes that it may be hard to hang on to all these new foreign signings.
“It’ll be interesting to see in a couple years time if they (the players) want to come back. The culture is so different. It’s great to go for two weeks, but you have to look at the fact that it would be 24/7 for them now. To adjust to living for an extended period of time in a place so culturally different is difficult.”
That being said, Johnstone also believes it would be hard for any of these athletes to come back to the world’s most competitive leagues.
“They (the players) won’t be able to come back I don’t believe. I think their skills will plateau because they’re not being challenged. You need that competition, you need that challenge, or else they will just plateau without the struggle. It’ll be too easy a time for them. And once that effort level stops, it’s really hard to kick it back in again,” he said.
Hopefully that fact will dissuade other youthful talents from being hooked by the promise of wealth. The Chinese League needs to show that it can be a place for strong competition before it acquires supreme talent.
Perhaps in 10 years paying a player over $1 million a week (a now common offer from the league) will make sense. Perhaps we’ll see China’s youth sports begin to shine and, in turn, their economy. Perhaps the 70,000 soccer pitches President Xi hopes to see erected by 2020 will become a reality. Or perhaps China will even be vying for a World Cup by then. Only time will really be able to tell.