Enter the dragon: China's expensive football transfers part of plan to be No. 1

The big-time football nations boasting powerful domestic leagues have consistently attempted to be the best in the world.

These countries have always been the traditional powers of the game, like England, Italy, Spain, Germany, and not too long ago, Brazil.

New countries that launched ambitious league projects faltered, like the US in the 1970s and Qatar more recently.

Today, China believes it can pull off a successful world-class football league, armed with political and financial power and a target to rule the stage in the not-too-distant future

Don't be fooled that the throng of stellar names which have been enticed to the Chinese Super League (CSL) on record-breaking deals in the past fortnight is part of another botched vanity project.

One of the world's leading superpowers is planning to take the fight to the English Premier League and its esteemed European peers as part of Chinese President Xi Jinping's declaration to transform the country into a "football powerhouse".

China winning the World Cup is a genuine target.

Finally shorn of the stigma which tainted the sojourns of Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka, Xi, who has made no secret of his fondness for the Beautiful Game, has accelerated the CSL transition from a government-aligned administration to a more autonomous operation.

That drive began in 2013, when David Beckham was named an ambassador to Chinese football, in an attempt to promote an initial clean-up of the game.

A similar role was bestowed on John Terry last year as Chelsea's outgoing captain was named as a delegate for football culture in Guangzhou.

Xi's 50-point plan to revolutionise Chinese football places a firm emphasis on a growing infrastructure rather than fixating on largely cosmetic changes.


Where Major League Football (MLS) continues to represent a comfortable existence that has allowed the likes of Andrea Pirlo and Steven Gerrard to see out the twilight of their playing days in the American sunshine, the CSL is attempting to shift the game's landscape in an easterly direction.

Esteemed coaches like Sven-Goran Eriksson and Luiz Felipe Scolari currently stand at the forefront of what promises to be an elevation of the country's footballing stock.

Further moves are afoot, with Chelsea caretaker manager Guus Hiddink admitting that he was sounded out in recent times.

Four of the five highest-grossing deals of the January transfer window were broken in a market which still does not close in the country until later this month.

The arrivals of Jackson Martinez and Alex Teixeira, previously destined for England, threaten to be the beginning of that upward trajectory in a country where basketball once reigned supreme.

This new player attempting to sit at the main table means business.

Ramires became the latest to join an already healthy former EPL contingent, with Demba Ba, Tim Cahill and Gervinho among the host of former EPL stars now plying their trade in the Far East.

Others were also targeted; notably Ramires' ex-teammate Oscar and Watford striker Odion Ighalo.


With super agents Jorge Mendes and Mino Raiola both turning their attention to the CSL in recent months, a further influx of high-calibre players from across Europe lurks on the horizon.

Discount the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic joining that illustrious brood in the not-too-distant future at your peril. Mendes' partnership with business conglomerate Fosun Group has already seen Jose Mourinho earmarked for a no-strings consultancy role in an attempt to hasten Chinese football's elevation to the top level.

Chinese businessman Wang Jianlin's part-ownership of Atletico Madrid was doubtless an influential factor in Martinez's decision to move to Guangzhou, although China continues to take more than just personnel from its European counterparts.


Its blueprint includes investing in a host of European clubs.

Earlier this season, Slavia Prague were saved from the brink of financial collapse, thanks to a majority takeover by the Chinese Energy Company.

Others have followed; Atletico, Espanyol, ABO Den Haag and Sochaux have all relinquished ownership stakes to Chinese investors.

The US$265 million ($371m) investment by the CMC consortium in Manchester City last November could be the most critical.

The impressive surroundings of City's Etihad Campus remains the benchmark for China.

Guangzhou Evergrande, Martinez's new club, enlisted Real Madrid's services in the creation of a new academy which houses 22 Spanish coaches.


Nationally, Xi's master plan has seen the game become a compulsory part of the country's curriculum, in line with plans to open around 20,000 football-themed schools by the end of next year, with the ability to produce 100,000 professional players.

Such grandiose and ambition belies their lowly 93rd-place ranking in Fifa's latest standings.

The endgame is to cultivate a domestic sports economy that many believe will be worth £522 billion ($1 trillion) by 2025.

And on the field, China do not wish to merely emulate Qatar by hosting the World Cup, they want to also produce a side capable of winning it.

Chinese football has thrown down the gauntlet. The rest of world football may now wish to take note.


This article was first published on February 10, 2016.
Get The New Paper for more stories.