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The Current State Of Chinese Football
CarlCon (DC United) 4 years ago
When Didier Drogba walked through the arrival gates at Shanghai Airport, what he was faced with was a fine example of just how much Chinese football fans love their football and their heroes. The deafening screams, chants, and team flags of the Shanghai Shenhua fans appeared to take Drogba aback. And who can blame him? If Didier believed he was meeting up with his ex-Chelsea team mate to wind down his career quietly, boy was he wrong.

In joining the Chinese Super League, Drogba also joined other past Premier League players like Ayegbeni Yakubu and Fredi Kanoute, and even the ex-Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita. World Cup winning manager Marcello Lippi can also be found in the Chinese Super League, managing current champions, Guangzhou Evergrande. Despite the league regulations of only allowing five foreign players per team, the CSL can also boast 14 Brazilians, and players from 18 other nations. This is in no small part to the financial power of wealthy club owners, in a country that boasts the second biggest economy in the world.

China has also been reported as possible new homes for the likes of Frank Lampard and David Beckham, as China fights to contend with America for the current "go-to" location for ageing big-name players.

The majority of this money comes from developers currently benefiting from the huge property bubble in mainland China.

"Guangzhou Evergrande are owned by Evergrande Real Estate Group, whose chairman Xu Jiayin is mainland China's richest man. Why these men want to spend their money on football is another question. Part of it is no doubt love for football and the wish to be associated with a successful team. But some believe owners are trying to curry favour with the government. Bringing new global prestige to the game may help the owners look good with the powerbrokers", says James Porteous, a sports reporter at the South China Morning Post.

These big deals, while generating interest from fans, do need to be made with caution. Drogba is reported to make £200,000 ($320,000) per week, and Anelka comes in at around £170,000 ($270,000). Compare that to many home-grown players in their own first-team who get paid less than £50,000 per year, and we'll find a distinct balance problem in how these clubs manage their players. This is only the beginning of their club management problems, however. During his first season as manager of Shenhua, Jean Tigana showed up to just another day at work on matchday, only to be told he no longer had a job at the club. The previous week, his entire staff was sacked, so the game was played with an almost empty bench. Anelka then took over as player-manager and had a disastrous time, and ultimately had his management position taken away from him against his will. The team only finished 9th in a disappointing season. This wasn't the end of the controversy, as reports of both Anelka and Drogba looking to leave the club surfaced, claiming they were not being paid their contractual wage. Anelka was seemingly searching for a return to the Premier League, while Juventus and Milan were reported to be interested in Drogba.

According to former Manchester City and Celtic striker Chris Killen, who has been playing in China since July 2010, their experiences are typical of an unstable and chaotic footballing infrastructure. He claims "A club can change hands, change owners or change names in the middle of the season. That is the situation at the moment with my club Chongqing. They are currently being bought out so it's a little bit up in the air as to where I will be playing next season. A new sponsor might come in and move them to Beijing."

He goes on to talk about how the controversy and uncertainty can affect the the players. "In the UK, I was used to getting up at nine for training at 10, but when I arrived here we would only be told the time of training the night before. There was a lot of money but not a lot of organisation and it kind of showed on the football field. It was free-flowing football but there was no structure. The majority of players over here have never learnt the basics from day one. You get talented youngsters who can go past four or five players and put it in the top corner, but come a set-piece they don't know how to mark".

By the time the Super League replaced the old football league in 2004, attendances had halved, dropping from averaging over 20,000 to only 10,000. Corruption in the form of gambling and match fixing forced a lot of fans away. In 2009, a campaign to "clean up" football led to the arrest of referees, players, and coaches in their dozens, including China's most well-known referee, Lu Jun, who received a five and a half year prison sentence for match fixing. Two past executives of the football league also handed sentences of over 10 years each.

This clean-up, added to the influx of bigger foreign names, has seen attendances rise again to an average of 19,000.

"It's taken a lot of time for the trust to come back from the fans," said Killen. "In Chinese life, there are a lot of backhanders and things going on behind closed doors, but it's definitely not like what they said it used to be. I haven't played any games where I have seen money changing hands or thought to myself 'something isn't right here'. The penalties are so harsh that people are not going to take a risk like they used to."

While showing progress, there are still remaining issues with home-grown players and the development with the national team.

The growth of the Super League has so far had little effect on the fortunes of the Chinese national team. The world's most populous nation are currently 88th in the Fifa rankings - their worst position since November 2010. According to Cameron Wilson, founding editor of Chinese football website Wild East Football, the reasons for this are as much cultural as financial.

"Chinese grassroots football could use more investment, but even if serious money was poured into youth facilities and leagues, it wouldn't address the real problem which is that there are simply not enough kids playing the game in China," says Shanghai-based Wilson. "Due to social and economic pressures, many Chinese parents expect their children to spend their evenings and weekends doing homework to get ahead at school and grab scarce university places and eventually better-paid jobs to support their parents in later life. The single child policy amplifies this."

The changing image of Chinese football is causing sponsors to flock back, too. Global media company IMG, which severed ties with the Super League in 2004 at the height of the corruption scandals, signed a 10-year partnership in October aimed at helping improve the management of clubs, developing training programmes and bringing in other corporate partners.

Meanwhile, electronics firm Toshiba has put its name to the Chinese FA Cup, and sportswear giant Nike manufactures the kits for all 16 Super League clubs. Although money from gate receipts and sponsors is a welcome boost to club coffers, the luring of top foreign stars is only sustainable while rich benefactors are pumping in their millions, says Porteous.

He believes changes to the Chinese economic climate may affect the likelihood of more players following in Drogba and Anelka's footsteps. "There are signs the Chinese economy, which has been on a wild boom, is starting to slow down. Property and development will probably take a big hit," he said.

"How long will these companies wish to continue bankrolling spending sprees if they are struggling in their core business?"

Only time will tell.

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