Serious money is for the first time being pumped into soccer in China, where the top league has long been dogged by corruption and the much-maligned national team derided as a huge embarrassment.
Spurred by soccer-loving tycoons with cash to blow, the sport, which threatens to usurp basketball as the most popular in China now that superstar Yao Ming has retired, is undergoing a renaissance after years in the doldrums.
Guangzhou Evergrande, who sit unbeaten at the top of the Super League, China’s top club competition, last month smashed the national transfer record when they unveiled Argentine midfielder Dario Conca for US$10 million.
The 28-year-old, signed from Brazilian giants Fluminense, joins the swelling ranks of foreign players, coaches and referees now plying their trade in the improving Super League, which is seeing attendances rise sharply.
Guangzhou, who have been linked with an audacious bid for Manchester United’s South Korean star Park Ji-sung, have averaged gates of 45,000 this season as they take the Super League by storm, not losing in 17 games.
The club is part of the Evergrande Real Estate Group, one of the country’s top property companies, with its owner Xu Jiayin reportedly one of China’s richest tycoons.
Wang Jianlin, chairman of the Dalian Wanda real-estate company, has been dubbed “China’s Abramovich” in reference to Chelsea’s multibillionaire Russian owner Roman Abramovich, who has spent lavishly on the English Premier League side.
Chinese media drew the comparison after Wang last month agreed to pour in 500 million yuan (US$77 million) over three years to boost soccer in China at the grassroots, league and national levels.
It was touted by state media as a turning point for Chinese soccer, but Wang was more circumspect.
“I am not a savior. I am just an entrepreneur who still has a passion for soccer and hopes to do something for the game here during its hardest time,” Wang told reporters.
One sports marketing expert, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject, said Wang’s hefty cash injection could be linked to crucial changes at the top of the Chinese Communist Party.
Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who is widely expected to take over as China’s president next year, is believed to be a soccer fan.
Wang returned to the fold after previously saying he wanted nothing more to do with the game in China after damning evidence emerged of corruption that was rife, right up to the highest echelons of the sport.
The government launched an investigation in 2006 that over several years unearthed graft at almost every level of the game.
Several high-level Chinese Football Association (CFA) figures were arrested, along with scores of players, referees and coaches over gambling, match-fixing and a host of other misdemeanors.
CFA officials allegedly routinely fixed matches at national, league and even international level by buying off teams or referees. State media last year said pay-offs and bribes determined who won Chinese championships and who was relegated.
When police raided the Beijing villa of Nan Yong, former head of the CFA, they discovered gold, diamonds and watches that the Shanghai Oriental Sports Daily said Nan confessed he accepted as bribes, but a year on, the mood has lifted markedly, leading to hopes that even the national team might finally come good.