#360business: CSL's boundless ambition

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(L-R): Chinese clubs have invested in Paulinho, Gyan and Robinho this summer.

As statements of intent go, Asamoah Gyan’s arrival earlier this month as the Chinese Super League’s latest eye-catching purchase was an expensive one. The €20 million (Dh81m) fee and €280,000-per-week (Dh1.1m) wages required to move the deadly Ghana striker from Al Ain to Shanghai SIPG sent shockwaves across the globe – but the setting of new bars is no rarity in China. 

A flood of superstars including Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka, Tim Cahill and Marcello Lippi have been acquired during the last five years by a fiercely ambitious top flight. This ambition of footballing achievement has even escalated into the highest corridors of power with President Xi Jinping speaking strongly about eventually winning the World Cup.

The CSL were the second highest spenders in the last winter window, lavishing more than €80 million (Dh333m) to trail only the English Premier League. But speak to people involved in the country and it becomes apparent this is no flash-in-thepan largesse – China intends to methodically, intelligently and ruthlessly progress to the top of the footballing tree.

Agent James Hardy has worked in China since 2010, bringing Australian players such as Bernie Ibini and A-League top scorer Daniel McBreen there, as well as being appointed as the exclusive representative of Alain Perrin’s national team. Gyan’s switch brought global attention, yet for Hardy it was the latest example of the smart way the CSL teams intend to make the most of their huge resources.

“Gyan was a significant move, but so were Paulinho [to champions Guangzhou Evergrande from Tottenham Hotspur], Mohamed Sissoko and Demba Ba [both to Shanghai Shenhua] this summer,” he told Sport360°.

“These are all great players at the peak of their careers. What I like about Gyan is unlike the others, he is proven in Asia.

“The clubs are very ambitious, these days they are only after the best and will not settle for second best.

“Potential transfer targets are identified early and clubs send staff all across the world to watch these players in person before making a decision. Working in China now is like working in the English Premier League.”

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A six-month deal worth a staggering €6m (Dh24.2m) has already lured Brazil forward Robinho to Evergrande this month, while Ba turned his back on an offer from Premier League West Brom to don the blue Shenhua jersey. This continued a high-spending trend which received ignition on February 28, 2010 – the date Evergrande Real Estate Group bought Guangzhou and changed Asian football forever.

The company piled cash in, making unknown Argentine playmaker Dario Conca the third-highest-paid player in the game and luring Italy’s 2006 World Cup-winning coach Lippi out of semi-retirement two years later. The 2013 AFC Champions League was attained, as well as setting a platform for a giant club now manned by another coach who has won football’s most illustrious global trophy in Luiz Felipe Scolari.

The Southern China Tigers’ ability to acquire elite players has been matched by Shenhua under Zhu Jun then Greenland Holding Group Company Limited. Anelka and Drogba were recruited from Chelsea in 2012, with the Blue Devils currently boasting Ba, Sissoko and Cahill.

These two clubs have not been alone, even smaller sides such as Dalian Aerbin being able to bring in Barcelona regular Seydou Keita from 2012-13 and Guangzhou R&F buying Yakubu from Blackburn Rovers at the same time after he came off an 18-goal season in England’s top flight. Private investors are key as match tickets are priced under £10 (Dh57m) and sponsorship deals with Nike and Pingan do not cover the financial void.

“The main reason behind the growth in spending has been government encouragement of big businesses to invest in football,” Guangzhou-based Chinese football journalist Christopher Atkins said.

“Building a sports industry in China – principally in football – has been a major policy of Xi Jinping’s presidency and one of the best ways he can do that is to encourage private firms to invest cash.

“With most companies reliant on good government relations to continue trading, particularly real estate firms, they have to march to the tune of those above them.

“During the past 18 months, there has been a real increase in spending in China and I’d now say the best group of foreign players in Asia is based here, albeit the UAE is comfortably ahead of the rest in second place.”

Annual salaries in the CSL typically range from $400,000- $2m, albeit with some noteable exceptions such as Gyan. Money is clearly a key driver in attracting leading footballers, but Australia defensive midfielder Erik Paartalu insists it is wrong to think of it as the sole reason.

“The sport is huge in China, stadiums are regularly full and the passion from the fans is incredible,” said Paartalu, who made 30 appearances for Tianjin Teda in the 2013 campaign. “Obviously, money played a factor but I was more excited about the new challenge of playing in a foreign country. It can be difficult if you let it get to you but you have to go through the clouds to see the sunshine.”

Increased activity from European clubs this summer has seen the CSL as the sixth-highest current transfer spenders judging by Transfermarkt.com statistics, although enormous wage offers are matched by few on the old continent.

The question now is whether this is sustainable. New regulations enacted on July 8 are limiting liquidity after a stock market crash in China this month which has seen a 30 per cent fall in value, Guangzhou’s co-owner Jack Ma alone reportedly losing $3 billion. But Tom Cannon, Professor of Strategic Development at the University of Liverpool Management School, believed the CSL has little reason to worry about the crisis.

“The fundamentals of the Chinese economy are strong,” said Cannon, who is an expert on sports finance.

“It is stable with clear economic strategies, a willingness to invest and a talented workforce.

“The recent stock market crash is a warning sign of overheating in the stock market – it has grown very quickly and took on the appearance of a bubble and bubbles burst.

“I don’t think spending on professional football or sport generally will slow down, not least because that hasn’t happened elsewhere in the post-2010 period. Equally, my sense is that investors and promoters will remain committed.”

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