Keeping a promise

Though lavish spending dominates the headlines, John Duerden thinks structural development is changing the Chinese scene

Talk of a “new dawn” in Chinese football would have fans rolling their eyes, so often have they heard it before. This time, though, the talk of money in the local game doesn’t revolve around bribes or betting, but investment in star players in the top tier and, more importantly, funds found for grassroots and youth football.

Grabbing the headlines are Guangzhou Evergrande, the new big spenders who are, inevitably, known as “China’s Manchester City”. The newly promoted team was responsible for around a quarter of the £40 million spent on new players among Chinese Super League clubs, a significant amount in
Asian terms.

Unlike City, few had a soft spot for Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton) even before they came into money. This was a team relegated in 2010 not because of last-day communication cock-ups in the style of Man City in 1996 trying to make sure the scoreline stayed the same, but because of actual match-fixing. In February 2010, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) demoted the club for crimes committed in 2006 and 2007.

Soon after they were taken over by Evergrande Real Estate Group. Initial investment persuaded ex-Celtic and Charlton star Zheng Zhi, Sun Xiang, formerly of PSV Eindhoven, and national team forward Gao Lin to join the club for the promotion campaign. Over £2m was paid out for Brazilian striker Murqui. One season, one 10-0 win and just one loss later, the club was back in the top flight.

Chairman Xu Jiayin kept spending. Over £12m bought no fewer than five Chinese internationals, former Wigan midfielder Cho Won-Hee of South Korea and Brazilian Cléo, signed for a Chinese record of £3m. “We are building a club for the fans of Guangzhou,” said Xu, “and helping the development of Chinese football.”
The fans are appreciative – over 40,000 turned out for the early games of the season and crowds are up all over the country – and other teams are having to spend to try and keep up. The old guard, however, are united in their dislike of the eastern upstarts.

Dalian Shide, a fading power, offered their players a £250,000 bonus for beating Guangzhou. Beijing’s chairman Luo Ning was dismissive: “Money? You believe Xu Jiayin is richer than the whole CITIC Group [the company that owns Beijing]? Don’t talk with me about who is the richest club. After three or five years of investment, Xu Jiayin will sell the club.”

In the past, such spending would be another example of resources being focused at the top of the pyramid while doing little lower down, perhaps agreeing with the international assumption that a population of 1.3 billion will eventually produce a world-class XI. In a country where few play football and facilities aren’t great for those that do, it needs leadership, investment and patience.

Enter Wei Di, who took over as CFA president last year, replacing Nan Yong who is currently being prosecuted for match-fixing. Wei’s brief was to clean the game and there is now a genuine belief that Chinese football is finally freeing itself of dodgy deals. “I took over during a very turbulent period,” says Wei. “I was not directly involved in football before but I was shocked to know what was happening to Chinese football. I have been given a very big responsibility to work closely with all football professionals to change the Chinese football environment, rebuild and improve its credibility and reputation.”

With corruption being weeded out, the CFA has been ensuring that the sport’s foundations are strong enough for grassroots and youth football to flourish. Top-tier clubs now have to invest around £300,000 in youth development and must set up teams at the Under-10, -15, -17 and -19 age groups. Added to this, all three divisions will expand the number of teams, a semi-professional fourth tier will be established and all clubs are obliged to participate in a reserve league.

Business is starting to respond. The Chinese FA Cup, suspended in 2007 due to a lack of interest and the impending Olympics, is back and will be sponsored by Toshiba – quite a coup in a sport that has struggled to attract sponsorship in recent years. Other big names are also optimistic. French coach Philippe Troussier is in charge of Shenzhen Ruby and has been impressed in his short time in the country. “Everything is here,” he says. “All it needs is for people in Chinese football to believe in Chinese football.” That could finally be about to happen.

From WSC 292 June 2011