So, The Drog is off to join Anelka at Shenhua Shanghai? There is an obvious attraction to players in the twilight of their careers in seeking a pension-boosting pay day in a new footballing frontier. The World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi was recently enticed to the Chinese league at Guangzhou Evergrande by an eye-wateringly 12.8m Euro contract. The Chinese Super League has graduated from marquee deals importing the likes of a past-it Gazza and Boro-reject Fábio Rochemback to set its sights on a player who was instrumental in Chelsea winning the Uefa Champions League.
It’s in this that my interest lies, the contrast between the Old and New Footballing Worlds. High-profile players have been lured to the MLS and leagues in the Middle East in the recent past, but, as in so many areas, China’s prospects for growth are fuelled by a huge domestic market and booming economy unrivalled elsewhere in the world.
A comparison could tenuously be made with the Indian Premier League. Huge sums are paid to lure the world’s best cricketing talent to an annual eight week jamboree played out with all the razzmatazz Bollywood can muster. The highest paid player is India’s own Gautam Gambhir on $2.4m, but even New Zealand captain Ross Taylor can command $1m per season. However, despite the superficial similarities India shares with China in terms of population size and its growing economy, it has a deep tradition of cricket which China appears not to be able to draw upon for any western sport. This explains why snooker, so long in the financial doldrums, is desperate to capitalise on the recent influx of Chinese players in the game, and establish a foothold in its sporting landscape.
Football, as we’re told, is the world game and it seems only a matter of time before China embraces it. Two days ago, 38,612 saw Guangzhou Evergrande beat Qingdao Jonoon 1-0, but there have been instances of attendances surpassing 50,000 for domestic games. As the quality of play increases, so too will the interest levels of the local population.
It seems inevitable then that, someday, this still-fledgling league will compete on equal (or better) terms for the world’s best players with the traditional titans of Europe. Money speaks volumes, after all. That said, rather than an overseas star like Drogba acting as a catalyst for change, it may be that China needs a homegrown star (in the mould of basketball’s Yao Ming) for football to really take off there.
At the moment, the two clear advantages that European football holds is the established prominence of its teams and the pan-continental Champions League, which has sustained the global standing of the top clubs. If, in an increasingly multi-polar world, by the end of this decade, the likes of Guangzhou and Shenhua were to field teams of recognised talent, dominate local TV coverage, and sweep all before them in the Asian Champions League, who’s to say the much-heralded breakaway by (FFP-chastened) European clubs to create their own self-serving super league would not seek to accommodate the rising clubs of the East? Again, in that scenario, money would talk.