BY JONATHAN HALL-EASTMAN
Every winter, soccer fans looking for the leagues with the largest transfer spending to acquire new players have turned in the direction of England’s Premier League or Spain’s La Liga. This year, however, the leading spender was a league that ranked 10th as recently as 2014: the Chinese Super League. While historically the Super League’s reserve of foreign talent was akin to that of America’s Major League Soccer — faded stars looking for one pay day — many of the players acquired, including Atletico Madrid’s Jackson Martinez and Chelsea’s Ramires, are still in the prime of their careers. These acquisitions, just the start of a dramatic upheaval in the global soccer marketplace, are the spearhead of a concerted effort to make China a leading competitor in the world’s most popular game.
For many years, soccer in China has been a source of collective shame. The national team only made the World Cup once — in 2002 — and it promptly lost all three of its matches. In recent years it has lost numerous times to minnows, leading disgusted fans to brand it the “National Pigs” (the pronunciation of “national team” and “national pigs” being quite similar in Chinese). Since 2009, numerous match-fixing scandals have come to light, revealing corruption throughout all levels of the Super League. These scandals, along with frequent outbreaks of on- and off-field violence, had an unsurprisingly negative effect on attendance. To make matters yet worse, several of the most famous foreign players and coaches who were lured to the Super League by the promise of high wages ended up leaving after not being paid at all. Starting in 2011, the national government began to both clear out corrupt leaders and promote reforms to the league.
In 2012, the drive to improve shifted to a higher gear with the ascension of Xi Jinping to power. Whether out of an actual passion for the game or a desire to cultivate a populist image, Xi has set about reshaping soccer in China, with the ultimate goals being to both host and win a World Cup. His landmark anti-corruption campaign ousted yet more numerous corrupt officials involved in the domestic soccer league and, on the carrot side, funding for local development of the sport has been sharply increased. Though the Super League still has a long ways to go before it can truly be considered world class, the professionalism has sharply increased from the ownership level all the way down to ordinary staff. Leading Chinese businessmen, including Alibaba’s Jack Ma, rushed to become owners or shareholders of Super League teams.
One key question that remains unanswered is how much ordinary Chinese citizens care about soccer. While impressive numbers have been bandied about measuring the fans of various European teams in China and Chinese viewers of foreign leagues, such numbers should be taken with an immense grain of salt. Survey data in China is often exaggerated and many numbers are derived by extrapolating from small urban sample sizes to China’s diverse population of almost 1.4 billion. Similarly suspect are spiking match attendance numbers, which, just like the soaring movie attendance figures making international headlines recently, can in part be attributed to fabricated data. The assumption behind the campaign to bolster the sport is that good performance will lead to more domestic interest in the sport, creating a virtuous cycle of growth, but if this cycle ends up stalling, the money poured into development may end up being largely wasted.
Another question regards the status of global soccer. Recent corruption scandals have rocked the sport, with FIFA President Sepp Blatter and UEFA President Michel Platini being expelled from the organization for bribery. Scores of officials have been implicated, particularly as a result of investigations by the United States Department of Justice into rampant bribery in CONCACAF, the North American and Caribbean soccer federation. In spite of the vigorous anti-corruption campaign within China, Chinese businesses and government officials have seen these events as an opportunity to get closer to soccer’s global leaders. After several leading sponsors fled FIFA due to corruption allegations, China’s Dalian Wanda signed a 15-year sponsorship deal with the beleaguered organization. While the assumption is that Chinese fans will appreciate the prestige of being associated with the highest echelons of the sport, it is also possible that trying to currying favor with an organization widely reviled around the world for endemic corruption will not be a popular move.