Asia Angle: Culture, not cash, is China's appeal

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From China with love: More stars are moving East.

The money is good, it has to be said. Chinese Super League clubs are handing out weighty pay packets these days.

Asamoah Gyan is on a reputed $350,000 a week at Shanghai SIPG. Even clubs in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar struggle to compete with that. It was an Asian transfer record.

Headlines around the world contain many a reference to ‘cashed-up’ Chinese clubs swooping for the latest big-name.

These are headlines that will be familiar to fans in the UAE. Indeed, when Gyan first joined Al Ain from Sunderland there were plenty of indignant articles in England questioning the player’s decision to head to the Middle East.

Yet China is different. There is no doubt that the money is important, and still the most important factor for most.

But there is more to Chinese football than this big spending boom that started with Guangzhou Evergrande in 2010 and led to the arrival of coaches such as Marcello Lippi, Sven Goran Eriksson and Luiz Felipe Scolari, as well as players like Nicolas Anelka, Didier Drogba, Tim Cahill, Gyan, Demba Ba, Paulinho and Robinho.

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For one, there is a strong football culture in the Middle Kingdom. There is in West Asia too. There is a love for football in both parts of the world but in the UAE, most supporters’ passion is reserved for the European leagues – attendances at Arabian Gulf League games are poor.

If you join Guangzhou Evergrande as a foreign player, however, you are not just getting paid very well – you are playing in front of over 40,000 cheering fans every week.

The Tianhe Stadium in Guangzhou can create quite an atmosphere. Look around the arena on match day and you see a wall of red and hear a wall of noise when the team is attacking, as they usually are.

It can be an excellent place to play football. Fans often start gathering two or three hours before kick-off. The restaurants around the stadium are full and there is a buzz in the air. On any given weekend, there will not be too many games around the world watched by more people. It offers a genuine big game experience.

Head to Beijing Worker’s Stadium on a Saturday night when Beijing Guoan are playing and doing well and there are few places in Asia that can match the excitement. Even non-powerhouses like Jiangsu have an average attendance that is close to 30,000.

Tim Cahill was chased by Al Wahda earlier this year before signing for Shanghai Shenhua, a club followed by some of the world’s most loyal and energetic fans. And as soon as you step out of the Hongkou Stadium, you are in the middle of one of the most vibrant cities in the world.

Contrast this with the games in the United Arab Emirates. The atmosphere can be good when the stadiums are full but that rarely happens.

With empty seats a regular feature, the leagues of UAE and also Qatar may still be able to attract big stars with big money, but they will struggle to shake off the accusation that comes from Europe (tinged as they may be by a little resentment) that they are little more than semi-retirement homes for aging international stars.

The vibrancy of China renders such barbs meaningless. In terms of quality there is still a long way to go but the Chinese Super League already surpasses all but the biggest leagues (though it has recently moved past Serie A) in terms of fan numbers. Bitterness towards players moving east is misplaced.

It is obviously not so easy for clubs in the UAE and Qatar to follow suit. Chinese cities have millions of residents to call upon. Most CSL teams are based in metropolises that, in terms of population, easily outstrip the two West Asian nations combined.

It is obviously a huge advantage but the truth is that it is about how many go through the turnstiles, not about those who don’t.

Empty stadiums are a league’s biggest problem for so many reasons and in terms of international reputation, it can be harmful.

China’s rise is driven by money, nobody disputes that, but there is a football infrastructure in the country and a passion for the game.

It provides a lush backdrop to the game in the Middle Kingdom, which is harder to find in the more arid settings of Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi.

Money matters, but there is more to the Chinese Super League than that.

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