and pay soar in China's soccer
league By Nick Compton
BEIJING - When Didier Drogba's plane
touched down on the Shanghai tarmac in early July,
hundreds of blue-and-white clad football fans
clamored to the reception gate, hoping to catch a
glimpse of the legendary Ivorian footballer.
Stepping off of the plane, Drogba, named
one of the world's 100 most influential men in
2010 by Time Magazine for his charitable works in
the Ivory Coast, looked right at home. He hammed
it up for the Chinese crowd - waving and smiling,
pumping his fist to their chants of
"Drogba...la...la...la" and stopping to sign a few
autographs. Beneath the carefree air, however,
were daunting expectations.
months earlier, Drogba had booted in the winning
penalty kick for England side Chelsea in Europe's Champion's
League finals. Now, the
34-year-old was expected to single-handedly turn
around the fate of the listless Shanghai Shenhua
squad and at the same time ignite a spark of
excitement in the scandal-tinged Chinese Super
Lured by the intrigue of a culture
he knew little about, and a contract that
reportedly netted him more than US$300,000 per
week, Drogba was the most high-profile among a
surging tide of international footballers who have
chosen to set-up shop in China's 16-team China
Super League (CSL). Earlier in the season,
French-born, English Premier League veteran
Nicolas Anelka had joined Shanghai Shenhua for a
contract reputedly worth $280,000 per week.
By the time Drogba signed his deal in
Shanghai in July, there were at least 79
foreign-born players running on the pitches of the
CSL, 10 from Africa. Their presence in a league
that was founded just eight years ago, and where
games often attract just a few thousand fans, was
China's football gold
rush When it began in 2004, the CSL was
closer to a hobby than the top-tier professional
league it made itself out to be. Back then, 12
teams, composed of mostly domestic footballers,
played half-hearted games in front of near-empty
stadiums. Match fixing and bribery were so common
that many scores were set before the ball was
rolled onto the pitch.
"Corruption was a
real problem," Cameron Wilson, editor of popular
English-language football blog Wild East Football
said. "Football is a microcosm of Chinese society.
All the problems in society are in football too.
Corruption, transparency, pressure for individuals
to fit in with the norm, whatever that may be."
In just eight years, the situation has
investigation into the league in 2010 discovered
what many fans in China already knew - that match
fixing and bribery were pervasive - the government
spearheaded efforts to clean up its ranks,
launching a trial that resulted in prison terms
for 11 high-standing defendants, among them two
former heads of China's football association and a
former captain of the national team.
powerful government officials now devoted to
rebranding the CSL's image, cash-flushed club
owners, an elite group that includes some of the
richest men in China, threw millions of their own
dollars into their teams, hungry to attract the
football world's top talent. This spurred a gold
rush among international players.
course, they came because the money is very good,"
said Shoto Zhu, founder and president of OCEANS
sports marketing in Beijing, which focuses on
football promotions, "Professional players care
the most about the money. There's little doubt."
Between 2010 and 2011, the total amount
the league spent on salaries more than doubled,
from 400 million yuan (US$64.2 million) to 880
million yuan, according to public financial
reports. The average salary of a domestic player
in the 2011-2012 season was 1.57 million yuan,
compared with 5.49 million yuan for an
Evergrande, far and away the most successful CSL
team, owned by billionaire real estate tycoon Xu
Jiaying, spent upwards of 228 million yuan on
salaries in 2011-2012, accounting for almost 25%
of the league total. The club's coach, Marcello
Lippi, who guided Italy to a World Cup victory in
2006, was the league's highest paid manager,
taking home at least $12 million this year.
Yet nearly every CSL team is running
deeply in the red. The league's top earner,
Beijing Guo'an, netted just 20 million yuan in
ticket sales during the 2012 season. Guangzhou
Evergrande, which ostensibly sold the most
tickets, reported 17 million yuan in ticket sales,
but due to the large number of tickets that were
given as gifts and never used, attendance was
lacking. The difference must be sucked up by team
owners and investors, primarily state-owned
enterprises and mega-rich business and real estate
Cameron Wilson believes the
financial situation is more nuanced than many
"There are a lot of
reasons why international players are coming to
China. Money is part of it, but not the only
reason," Wilson said. "China has become a
fashionable destination. Players see it as a
destination. More and more people in China see
China as a rising giant. Footballers are no
After landing in Shanghai,
Drogba, dressed in casual khakis and a beige
designer shirt, was introduced amidst screaming
fans and laser beams at the Ritz-Carlton.
"Believe me, it's not about money. I'm
really happy to be here," Drogba said. "I [also]
hope to help promote Chinese football around the
world and further improve the links between China
Deborah Brautigam, author of
The Dragon's Gift: the Real Story of China in
Africa and the director of the International
Development Program at Johns Hopkins University,
believes the influx of African players into the
CSL is a business decision that is unlikely to
foster deeper understanding or create much impact
on foreign relations between the two countries.
"From the time of 'ping pong diplomacy'
with the USA, sports have been an important part
of Chinese diplomacy," Brautigam wrote in an
e-mail. "Witness the large number of stadiums
built as part of Chinese foreign aid in Africa.
But here I think the emphasis is on attracting
attention to these teams. Soccer is not very big
in China; signing Africans may be a good business
move to ratchet up the quality of the game... I
think African sports stars will have a tough time
Drogba, for one, did not have a
tough time in China. He went on to score eight
goals in 11 games for Shanghai Shenhua, although
despite his efforts the team ended up a
disappointing second-to-last in the league. He was
a good sportsman, Cameron Wilson said, and he won
crucial fan support for his willingness to give
autographs and ham it up with his team's
Drogba's performance came
despite persistent rumors that he and teammate
Anelka wouldn't be paid on time due to financing
troubles resulting from a squabble between Zhu
Jun, Shenhua's flamboyant coach and majority
shareholder, and the club's co-owners. The
speculation has since cooled and the situation
"They [Shenhua] are
notoriously late on payments," Shoto Zhu said.
"But they seem to be in the clear now. Of course,
they need to continue to pay. That will be the
In real terms, the impact of the
international players now taking the field in the
CSL has been to raise the level of play in a
country where it has traditionally been
unabashedly pitiful. The only time the Chinese
national team has qualified for a World Cup was in
2002, when it was beaten in three consecutive
matches. FIFA, football's governing body, ranks
China as the 88th best team in the world,
sandwiched between Uganda and Burkina Faso.
"The quality of the game has improved,"
Wilson said. "It's improving very slowly on its
own, after the scandals and shenanigans, the
game's been cleaned up quite a lot. I don't think
the league gets the credit it deserves."
Nan Yang, director of research and
strategy at OCEANS sports marketing, agrees that
the influx of foreign talent into the CSL is
paying dividends. In addition to the addition of
foreign players, 13 of the 16 teams in the league
now have foreign-born coaches.
that foreign players and coaches helped a lot with
their professional attitude in games... and with
their more stylish training plans and game
strategies," Nan said. "These have had a great
impact on Chinese players and coaches."
New life The CSL status-quo
comes just two years after nearly being dealt a
death-blow. In 2010, scandal struck the CSL with
such force, it nearly destroyed it.
investigation into graft in the CSL, which began
in 2009, uncovered a trove of misbehavior so
extensive it infiltrated the Chinese national
team, where a player who hoped to make the cut was
expected to pay up close to $15,000, according to
Rowan Simmons, author of Bamboo Goalposts,
a definitive novel about football in China. All
told, more than 100 players, owners and officials
were in on the take.
definitely shaken," Cameron Wilson said about the
scandal. "From the highest level, the government
told them to crack down."
President Hu Jintao took notice of the problem,
reputedly questioning China's top sports officials
about how the situation got so out of hand.
A trial was started and at least two dozen
defendants, among them Chinese Football
Association heads Nan Yong and his successor Xie
Yalong, as well as vice head Yang Yimin, who was
convicted of accepting more than 1.25 million yuan
in bribes, were convicted of wrong doing. Most
were sent to prison for terms ranging from one or
two years to 10 and more.
with which the government attacked the problem has
resonated with the league's owners and officials,
Wilson said, adding that the start of the
2011-2012 season was the cleanest the league has
"China doesn't want to lose face
globally," Wilson said. "The focus is on them now,
to see if they can do it right."
the big money The situation now, though by
most estimates improved, is far from ideal. Many
club owners pump millions into their teams as a
sort of back-handed investment vehicle, or to gain
political favor with politicians who appreciate
the game, among them the new general secretary of
the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping.
With nearly every club dependent on the
investments of a few very rich individuals, the
financial sustainability is thrown into doubt.
Free-spending clubs that throw millions at
international stars like Drogba and Anelka might
soon find their coffers dry.
"No one knows
how long they will still invest in Chinese soccer
and whether they will quit immediately when
government policy is no longer in their favor. If
that happens, a lot of issues will arise, and
solutions are not that easy to be found in the
short term." Nan Yang said.
uncertainty, the 2012 season was the best yet for
the CSL, with attendance, TV ratings, and ticket
revenue all higher than ever before. And with
internationally respected players already splashed
across the league, Internet and tabloid
speculation is heating up as to who will be the
next English Premier League star to look east.
The fan-frenzy and sudden publicity blitz
is good for the league's image, Shoto Zhu said,
but ultimately, serious doubts remain about the
sustainability of its financing and staying-power.
"The situation is a bubble. We don't like
the situation now. It's not sustainable. " Shoto
Zhu said, explaining that although millions are
being pumped into the league now, any number of
things, from increased stadium taxes to shifting
political whims, could scare investors off. "It's
creating more publicity, but it still gives the
image of a bubble. Not many companies want to
associate themselves with it."
Compton is an American journalist completing
post-graduate studies at Tsinghua University in
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