With many big name players such as Graziano Pelle, Ramires and Hulk moving over to China for enormous price tags, the Chinese Super League is gaining a lot of public attention very quickly. But how has the league suddenly gained so much traction and begun to take off both within China and internationally.
The first professional football league in China was the Chinese Jia-A League, which was founded in 1987. The league was founded by eight teams, including August First, the team from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The first few seasons were dominated by Liaoning FC, who won six of the first seven seasons, only being topped in the season of 1989 by China B, the second National team. Even in the 1989 season, they won the Asian Club Championship, which, combined with their successive league titles and Chinese FA Cup wins between 1984 and 1987 gave them their tenth major title in ten consecutive years.
In 1992, the Chinese FA begun to allow companies and enterprises to purchase clubs, and in 1993, Dalian FC were purchased by the Wanda group and became a professional club, renamed Dalian Wanda. By 1994, the Chinese FA had decided that the league would become professional and Dalian Wanda, with their sponsorship from Wanda, won the inaugural season. In this first season, the Chinese FA sold the TV rights to China Central Television for 450,000 Yuan (£90,000) and awarded clubs 700,000 Yuan (£145,000) per season, leading to a jump in wages led to clubs having the opportunity to sign foreign players.
Between 1994 and 2004, Dalian Wanda (Becoming Dalian Shide in 2000), won seven of the ten league titles, but the major difference in the league was the sponsorship of the league. Marlboro was the sponsor between 1994 and 1998, with annual sponsorship of between $1.2m and $1.7m. In 1999, Pepsi became the official sponsors, and the annual value jumped to between $10m and $13m. This led to some ‘big name’ signings,
including Rangers and Hamburg midfielder Jörg Albertz, who scored 13 in 47 games in his season for Shanghai Shenua, as well as Paraguay international Jorge Luis Campos. The improvement in the league also led to some players moving abroad, such as Yang Chen, the first Chinese player to play in the German Bundesliga, for Eintrach Frankfurt and St Pauli.
In 2004, the current league was formed, the Chinese Super League. The league was far more organised and demanding on teams, with every team having strict administration guidelines, as well as second division, reserve, U19, U17 and U15 leagues. The concept of the league was drawn up in 2000, after the Chinese public lost interest following a series of match fixing and gambling scandals. The result was a drop in attendances and huge financial losses. Also introduced was a restriction on foreign players, first restricting the number of international players allowed in a squad to three. In 2001, foreign goalkeepers were restricted from playing, which led to and still leads to huge transfer fees within the league for the best Chinese goalkeepers. Currently, teams are allowed 4 international players in the squad, and 3 international players in the starting XI, with one Asian player from outside China, including Korea, Japan and Uzbekistan. This makes quality Asian, and especially Chinese players, extremely desirable and as such, demand much higher transfer fees.
And this brings us to the present day, and the explanations for the huge transfer fees clubs pay for internationally recognised players. The first reason for this is the multinational companies that own the clubs. Guangzhou Evergrande FC is currently valued at £2.5billion, compared to the £1.8billion valuation of Manchester United, which shows the enormous spending power that Chinese clubs have. China is a rapidly growing economy, so most club owning companies and franchises are growing at a rapid rate. Secondly, the limit on international players means that clubs have to buy the highest level players they possibly can, as they have to have a quality over quantity approach to recruitment.
Probably the largest factor in the immediate growth of the Chinese Super League is the
commitment to Football by the Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has encouraged Chinese football to grow to become one of the largest leagues in world football. He has announced a national campaign to create an $850bn domestic sport economy by 2025. The main way he aims to do this is by hosting a world cup. A world cup bid would be a huge undertaking for the FA, and having a competitive domestic league would be a huge benefit because of the infrastructure and public interest it shows. The easiest way to create a strong domestic league is to buy previously established players, but these come at huge cost. One difference between the Chinese Super League and other start up leagues such as the MLS is that the CSL is starting to buy big name players in the prime of their career, such as Jackson Martinez, Hulk and Pelle.
The CSL is quickly building up pace, and with the league signing a 5 year TV deal worth $250m a year, the public is really getting behind it. With so few other sports to compete with, football could quickly become a national sport, and with a following of a billion people, the interest can and will increase exponentially. Football is part of the education of the nation, and with academies becoming far better than they were less than 10 years ago. All things considered, the rich owners and huge potential of the CSL could lead to the league becoming a global powerhouse.