With the corrupt heading to jail and big name signings rolling in, Chinese soccer is basking in an unusually positive period, but experts have warned the galactico-style transfer policy is unsustainable and investment is being ploughed into the wrong areas.
China’s rich soccer club owners are not interested in hearing that, though, they are enjoying the boom time and global media interest after enticing household names, such as Ivory Coast striker Didier Drogba, from the sport’s traditional power bases of Europe.
Drogba, fresh from scoring the decisive penalty in the Champions League final for Chelsea against Bayern Munich in May, is expected to arrive in China this week to join Shanghai Shenhua and earn a reported weekly wage of US$300,000 a week.
He will line up in a Shanghai forward line already boasting former France international Nicolas Anelka and Colombian creative midfielder Giovanni Moreno, coached by former Argentina boss Sergio Batista.
Shanghai are not the only ones lavishly spending, though. League leaders Guangzhou Evergrande, who are coached by former Italian World Cup winner Marcello Lippi, are led by creative midfielder Conca, the Argentine, who was previously the best paid player in the league.
The investment is thanks in large part to the booming Chinese economy and a domestic soccer scene that is keen to clear up its act.
The dark days of rife corruption in the national league are seemingly in the past with the recent 10-year jail sentences handed to former heads of soccer, but there are fears about the long-term future of such profligate spending.
“I think such a trend might probably last for two to three more years, because this involves a lot of financial support to keep it going,” Lou Yichen, a renowned soccer commentator in Shanghai, said in a recent interview. “I feel such a situation cannot be sustainable in the long term because most football clubs in the Chinese Super League cannot keep up with such huge financial pressures. As seen from the current situation in China, no football club can be operated on a profitable basis. The amount of financial investment put into a football club and the returns you gather from it is not even comparable. We always hope that Chinese football can fly high in a short period of time, and be able to catch up with our neighbors, such as Japan and South Korea, but even though we have such good thoughts, to a large extent we do not know in what way or which road to take to achieve such a target.”
The Chinese way, though, rarely involves patience.
China are currently 68th in the FIFA rankings behind Haiti, El Salvador and Sierra Leone, with their hopes of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup already over.
The huge investments on the likes of Drogba and Conca are expected to inspire a nation of young players and improve standards, but fans in Shanghai said they wished the money could have been spent on the grassroots levels of the game to eventually benefit the national team.
“In everything, there are benefits and there are problems. I think with such big-name signings, they will benefit Chinese football more than harming it,” former Shanghai midfielder Fan Yun said. “If you look at Europe, they also have foreign imports and there is not much of a problem on them sidelining their local talent, [but] I feel more of the focus should still be on developing young talent.”