The football revolution in China is becoming increasingly hard to ignore. Whilst it first appeared to many to be another boom or bust market, there does seem to be a steely determination to grow the game in the country, in whatever way they can. Changes are taking place to make it less of a playground for players ending their career and more of a sustainable business model.
How can the CSL continue to thrive and eventually assert authority on world club football?
The average attendance in the league is 24,000, which is more than the Championship and here lies the first positive aspect of the CSL that could help grow its reputation in more traditional football circles. The desire for the beautiful game is evident, something that must not be allowed to wane. Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao had the highest average club attendance at 45,587, proving that these clubs are not playthings of ambitious rich men. Those fans are not fools, though; when a match-fixing scandal recently engulfed one team, attendances dropped. The Chinese fan wants a good, clean game.
World Cup qualification
Failure to qualify for the World Cup in Russia has set the Chinese back somewhat, especially as they’ve only ever qualified for one. The long-term aim is to win the tournament by 2050, ambitious perhaps but it demonstrates a long-term plan from a country with the means to fund it. That directive has come from the Chinese President himself, Xi Jinping.
To facilitate that ambition, he wants to have at least 20,000 training academies and 70,000 pitches by 2020. That will result in as many as 50 million children and adults playing the game in two years’ time. Whilst it may not bring them the World Cup, it will strengthen the home-grown talent available to CSL member clubs. To become a football power of any sort, they must be bringing through decent quality home-grown footballers to complement the imports.
Transfers for footballing reasons
It may seem counterproductive to stop paying the big fees, but to assert authority on world football, the CSL must become a draw for reasons other than money. Carlos Tevez returned from China this year highly critical of the set-up, whilst Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang also lashed out at rumours linking him with a move as ‘never serious’.
The recent introduction of a so-called ‘100% tax’ on foreign players has provided a barrier for clubs. Javier Mascherano, whose Argentinian side rank amongst the World Cup favourites at every tournament, made a €10m move, which demonstrates that there is more of an attraction for players than just money. (what is the interest? He still got a pay rise)
If one of the leading scorers from the World Cup were to make a move to China, that could also help build the nation’s reputation as a footballing hotbed. It would have to be about more than money, but if competition is sufficient and facilities continue to improve, there’s no reason why this couldn’t happen.
Avoidance of controversy
The main way CSL clubs can assert authority, though, is by running a clean house. Cedric Bakambu’s transfer may have been exciting for fans of Beijing, but it has brought with it lots of controversy. Reports in Spain and France have emerged saying €40 million had been paid to free Bakambu from his Villarreal contract, allowing him to move to the Chinese capital on a free transfer and thus avoid the tax.
If the Chinese can clear up the murkier side of the game, then the opportunity to develop their clubs as household names throughout the world does exist. The thriving fan base, coupled with the heavy investment in grassroots football, seem sound ways of bringing the CSL to the world’s attention, without having to see abhorrent sums of money travelling out of the country.