Will China succeed in creating a football miracle?

What would be considered as the defining moment of Oscar’s young career? Maybe it were the two goals he scored against Juventus Turin in his first Champions League match or his goal during the record-breaking trashing of his Brazil team in the 2014 Football World Cup at home in Belo Horizonte.  No matter what – he will also be remembered as one of the most expansive and spectacular transfers undertaken by a Chinese football club.

It seemed that Oscar’s star was about to rise, but in 2014 his career started to slow down a bit. Although the overall number of appearances in the Premier League never hit similar levels like the ones of his fellow star team-mates Hazard or Fabregas, it would be an exaggeration to say that the coach had written him off. In December 2016, it was announced that he would switch teams and change to Port Shanghai FC.

One has to see the full picture of the recent developments in Chinese football. Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, he has on many occasions emphasized the importance of football in China. As a rising economic power, China seeks to expand influence in other fields which attract global attention. China has successfully hosted the Olympic Games in 2008, the Shanghai World Expo and the Asian Games in 2010 and it will host the Winter Olympic Games in 2022 and again the Asian Games the same year in Hangzhou. Until now, China still has not organized any Football World Cup.  In 2030, it wants to host a World Cup and until 2050 it plans to raise the desired trophy to the sky. Last year Marcello Lippi, former coach of Guangzhou Evergrand and 2006 World Champion with Italy, replaced Gao Hongbo and became the new manager of the Team Dragon.  
So, how does the Oscar coup fit into that picture? It can be seen as the peak of a trend, which can be called a Chinese transfer-offensive.

In 2016, Chinese football clubs have invested about $496 million in transfers and salaries. This was five-times more than during the previous year. Subsequently, Chinese football authorities announced to limit the number of foreign players in the Chinese Super league and to curb the high transfer money.

The Oscar transfer was quite exceptional, because unlike others, Oscar is still a young player with a huge development potential. Before that transfer, China’s league was known for mainly attracting elderly footballers, who were out to earn some big money before retirement. This has apparently changed to some extent. Chinese investors have invested heavily or directly bought up European football clubs Serie A, Ligue 1 and the Premier League. Players, managers and even referees are on the shopping list of rich Chinese investors. The second-strongest league, the German Bundesliga, has so far resisted big investments, due to a clause which prevents external investors from obtaining the majority of a club’s voting rights. However, even there this rule is under stress because of lucrative investment offers.

Especially football players from South America have decided to try their professional luck in China instead of football leagues in Europe. In the last few years a couple of high-profile transfers like Tevez, Hulk, Jackson Martinez and Lavezzi have added prominence to the Chinese Super League and raised concerns among European managers. Among them, Antonio Conte, manager of London-based Chelsea, warned of the financial power of Chinese investors and Arsene Wenger, long-term manager of Arsenal, expressed doubts about the fast development speed of the Super League – he particularly pointed at high wages.

We have seen similar trends elsewhere. Qatar has pursued a similar model of football development. Football clubs have bought veteran players like Romario, Raul or Barcelona’s former playmaker Xavi. However, so far the Qatari model has not been very successful in developing a competitive local team, but nevertheless it will host the World Cup in 2022.

There are a couple of indicators which suggest that China might face a similar fate. One has to look at the quality and the state of the Chinese league. China’s football has experienced a number of serious problems, which have hampered its potential development. In 2010, a major corruption scandal shook the Super League, involving managers, players, referees and functionaries. Until now, this places a dark shadow over the practice of football upon the greens in China.

On the one hand, the foreign players serve as a very visible sign for the internationalization of Chinese football and help to attract attention – which could eventually contribute to the future development of Chinese football euphoria. On the other hand, the new players can raise the overall quality of play. But so far the football boom in China has not benefited the situation of the national team. It still ranks very low internationally and has not participated in a World Cup since 2002, which was the first and only appearance at this tournament.

Whether or not China will experience its own football miracle depends not only on money, which is being quickly pumped into its league, or on a corruption-free development, there has to be overall conviction and enough space for a flexible progress – without too much interference from above. Because there is one thing that China definitely doesn’t lack - high numbers of football fans.

The author is a Beijing-based freelance writer.

(Opinions expressed in the article don't represent those of the Sino-US.com.)

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