Hey Big Spender

Chinese football has been capturing many of the headlines around the world as their clubs embark on a spending spree not seen since Brewster’s Millions. Every day there seems to be a new name linked to a Chinese Super League club, even China League One the second tier is getting in on the action.

Debate is raging around football as to what this means for the sport and the balance of power. For the Chinese all these crazy figures being paid for players is about one thing, promotion. They know that they have more work to do to have a national team capable of beating or even scoring against Hong Kong, and they are taking these steps. We will have to wait for the grassroots part of their plan to come to fruition but it has worked for the Olympics. They have also invested heavily in becoming a basketball powerhouse so it will be interesting to see how this is all balanced out.

Right now though, many in the football world is looking at China with a curious if not skeptical eye while some others are just marveling at the big numbers thrown around. In a league, country and region that has been lacking on field relevance in the sport, this is worth the price of Jackson Martinez alone. Asia, as a whole, has been performing quite dismally at international senior men’s level recently despite continuing to produce quality individual players. This is the shot in the arm perhaps the sport needed in Asia to say “hey, we mean business.”

As for the transfers themselves, there are some very good footballers going over to China but it’s their price tags more than the players themselves who are grabbing the headlines. China are paying overs for players that are either on the outer at their clubs or coming from second tier leagues that first tier clubs are unwilling to meet their valuation.

Looking at the 42 million Euros spent by Guangzhou Evergrande on Martinez from Atletico Madrid is a perfect example. Martinez was hot property before joining Atletico with his eye-catching efforts for FC Porto and his nation. Atletico secured his services last August for 35 million Euros but unfortunately for club and player the move proved a flop. In the words of Atletico president Enrique Cerezo on Spanish radio, Martinez was “not at the level” of the club.

They initially proposed a swap deal with Chelsea for Diego Costa but that was unsuccessful. Thanks to the Chinese though they are now making a 7 million Euros profit on a player who will be turning thirty this year and only managed three goals in all competitions, playing just two full games.

For the player, he can earn much more money and recapture the goal scoring form that has deserted him. Without knowing too much about the player stocks of Colombia, I can’t imagine this move will affect his national team chances too much. Is this a money move for the player? Sure, but there is also a football element to it as well.

For Guangzhou Evergrande they get a very good striker who at CSL level should flourish. As we can see with a lot of the expenditure in China that it is mostly towards attacking and creative talent so the defence versus attack battles are rather lopsided. Overall the move is a win-win for every one.

The Brazilian midfielder Ramires is another signing that has been completed by Jiangsu Suning from Chelsea for a reported 28 million Euros. Still only 28 years old and with over 50 international caps to his name the outlay does not seem so unreasonable for a player that theoretically should be in his prime. Looking at everything in context it is another win-win for all involved.

Chelsea bought Ramires from Benfica for 22 million Euros six years ago so they have made a profit of six million on a player no longer an integral member of the squad. Ramires last played for Brazil in 2014 and has been limited to only seven Premier League season so 28 million is an offer too good to refuse.

Ramires seemingly on the outer with his country has won every major club trophy with Chelsea so there’s not much left to achieve for him at the highest level. China is a great chance to now secure the future for his family while experiencing a new environment and new challenge. There is no doubt that Jiangsu will benefit from a player of his ability and experience.

The most interesting signing has been Alex Teixeira who has also joined Jiangsu Suning. The 50 million Euros is the most eye catching part of this story as the player himself was until recently relatively unknown. At 26, the attacking midfielder has had an impressive last couple of season for Ukraine side Shakthar Donetsk, scoring a goal a game in the last Ukraine Premier Liga season.

The Ukraine league might be Europe’s answer to China. There are a lot of expensive players there whose value belies their actual ability. There was reported interest from England for Teixeira, namely from Liverpool, but as the player himself admitted they never offered anything concrete and for the asking price there is no wonder.  Teixeira is in his mid-20s scoring goals for fun in the Ukraine but has yet to play a senior game for Brazil. His goal a game ratio in Ukraine competitions dropped to four in ten in Europe raising questions about him in big games against stronger opposition. Fifty million Euros is a first tier price tag but that doesn’t suddenly make a second tier player a first tier player.

Playing for your country is an honour and a dream for many footballers but people have done worse things than sign for a Chinese football club for a lot less money. Shakthar and Teixeira can not be blamed for taking what was on offer and if Jiangsu want to spend it and can afford to spend it then so be it. This is how economics and business work.

These and other signings being done and proposed are great for pieces like this and social media discussion but as mentioned earlier they really mean little in the grand scheme of things. At least for the time being there will be no shift of power from Europe to Asia and Chinese football isn’t going to suddenly take over the world. People get mesmerized by the numbers without really looking at the reality which is a league with a lot of money but little relevance having to pay over the odds for good but not great talent.

We’re also seeing stories of players like Pato, Sneijder, and Ighalo who have been approached but rejected the move to China. Ighalo said it has been his dream as a child to play in the Premier League so he was not going to give up his dream now that Watford are in the BPL. This is the reality that will be the same for many talented players that have a dream of playing at the top level which is and will for a long time to come be Europe.

The Chinese league will grow and is well on the way of becoming one of the strongest, if not the strongest, in Asia. However, there is a ceiling to that growth mainly in the form of AFC rules such as the three plus one. In China, like many Asian leagues, they can have only three non-Asian players in the match day squad so this severely limits their ability to dominate through buying up all the best talent. Only last December, the Chinese and Asian Champions Guangzhou Evergrande played in the Club World Cup where they lost both games which included Japanese champions Sanfrecce whose whole squad costs about a quarter of what Guangzhou has paid for Martinez.

China are enjoying some relevance in the football world right now as you’d expect. But we need to revisit the China question in ten or fifteen years after their new investment into youth football has a chance to bear fruit which it certainly can given the population and success that similar sporting programmes have enjoyed.

Money is great to have but it is not the be all and end all. It is even more precious to have the intelligence to use what you have. Success of clubs like Leicester City and Sanfrecce Hiroshima are not flukes, small countries with relatively little funding like Croatia are no flukes when it comes to producing world class players year after year. They are the results of getting the most from what they have.

Why are the stories like Leicester not the norm? Because “smarts” and the ability to create the perfect environment of success is rare. Money can breed laziness, money can breed complacency, money can impede the ingenuity required to be successful, money can be as much a hindrance as a help. Who is controlling the money and resources is much more important. The challenge for China and their clubs is to use the money  wisely. If they do then things will get very interesting in Asia and beyond.

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