The 16 clubs in the top Chinese football league spent about 3 billion yuan ($476 million) buying foreign players this year including French star Nicolas Anelka. Surely no one expected that the Chinese Super League would get such a phenomenal injection of capital before the crackdown on corruption in the sport is barely finished.
The Chinese Super League has caught the attention of the world, although this is not for the quality of the matches, but because of the enormous amounts of money being splashed around. Today the two biggest buyers in the Super League are both from rich Guangdong province and sponsored by real estate developers. It is probably the money they have made in the red-hot housing market since 2008 that is now supporting the rise of their clubs.
The Super League was among the world's top 10 this year in terms of the amount of money spent on foreign players. Although the other side of the coin was few Chinese players were sold to foreign clubs.
I started watching the Super League in 1994 when it was first launched. The transfer fee for foreign players at that time was about $100,000 and few clubs could afford to buy foreign players.
Fans' loyalty to their clubs back then was based on their attachment to their hometown. It was considered lucky to be a football fan born in a city having a club. Now it is almost impossible to tell where a team's fans come from as money has changed the landscape of the league completely.
A big investment can turn a desolate spot on China's football map into a footballing powerhouse, like Guangzhou, while a lack of money can relegate a city like Qingdao with its long pedigree into also-rans.
In the late 1990s, rich State-owned enterprises began sponsoring some of the clubs, the first round of big investment in the Super League, which meant clubs could afford to buy foreign players for $1 million.
Since then, hundreds of foreign players have come to China to seek their fortune, including Damiano Tommasi of Italy, Carsten Jancker of Germany and Paul Gascoigne of England. But none of these stars lasted more than half a year, because they simply could not adapt to low standards of the matches. The players who do stay in China for years are willing to keep their job by demonstrating a slightly higher level of skill than their Chinese counterparts. The question is how much Chinese football can benefit from these two kinds of foreign players.
Surely the money would be better spent on youth training, if the rich businessmen who own the clubs are committed to helping Chinese football as they say.
We can learn from Japanese football in this regard. Japanese clubs started buying foreign players in early 1990s, but they also established a youth training system that also includes schools. Most Chinese clubs did not start training young players until two years ago, when the football authority made it a compulsory requirement for clubs. Few of them take it seriously. And, although the Chinese football authority initiated programs promoting football in schools, not enough money was invested.
Today, China has only 8,000 registered players compared with 50,000 in Vietnam, 600,000 in Japan and 1.46 million in France.
Chinese clubs are actually copying the strategy of clubs in the oil-rich countries in the Middle East, which spend huge amounts of money buying famous foreign players. Even some veteran critics of Chinese football exult over the big names coming to play in the Chinese Super League.
But this flash-the-cash mentality will not help the Chinese national team, which currently languishes down at 90 in the FIFA world rankings.
The Chinese football authority should be clear-headed that no sports can survive without new blood and there needs to be a solid foundation for youth training.
I am happy to see that Guangzhou-based Ever Grand Football Club has taken the bull by the horns and is promoting youth training with concrete actions. It declared on Mar 28 it will set up a football school for young Chinese in Qingyuan, Guangdong province together with Real Madrid FC, South China Normal University and charity foundations. This school, expected to open this September, will enroll 3,150 students from around China and hire 140 Chinese coaches and 15 foreign coaches of Real Madrid FC as well as 150 teachers from the university. Students from poor families can attend the school for free and will get financial assistance.
Only when China starts exporting its own big names will Chinese football be able to hold its head high.