The Red Scare

How the Chinese Super League gave the Premier League a taste of its own medicine

Despite all its foreign megastars, billionaire oligarch owners and hordes of overseas viewers, the Premier League still retains a degree of insularity.

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Supporters and pundits alike tend to view other leagues with a degree of scrutiny that borders upon disdain. Sky’s relentless advertising and the huge sums of money injected into the game have made English football arrogant. Take, for example, Paul Merson and Phil Thompson’s slightly bewildering reaction to Hull City’s appointment of former Sporting Lisbon and Olympiakos boss Marco Silva.

The latest threat to the Premier League’s reign came from a fairly unexpected source – the Chinese Super League. Whispers of its growth had been filtering through for a few years now, but had been treated as an expensive novelty. For good reason, in all fairness – the arrivals of Jean Tigana, Nicolas Anelka and Yakubu made for excellent additions to gossip columns, but had more than a faint whiff of “one last payday” about them. It was the kind of thing we’d all seen before, in Russia and the MLS.

Soon, however, things began to get a little more serious. The fees rose, as did the quality of the imports. Respected internationals, like Colombian pairing Jackson Martínez and Fredy Guarín, made the switch. Soon enough, the occasional Premier League player felt the lure. Brazilian midfielders Paulinho and Ramires were joined this year by Graziano Pelle and, most notably, Chelsea’s Oscar.

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The 25-year-old’s £60 million move led Blues boss Antonio Conte to label the spending strategies of Chinese clubs as a “danger to everyone”, with Arsene Wenger agreeing that it “could become” a problem.

This January, Conte’s fears were almost realised. Following a reported £30 million per year offer from Tianjin Quanjian, Diego Costa was axed from the Chelsea squad with Conte allegedly shouting at the forward to “go to China”.

Are these sorts of deals good for football as a whole? Probably not. But the reaction to the Chinese spending seems a little overblown given the way that the likes of Man City and Man Utd have done their business in recent times. Poaching talent from other leagues for insane prices is now as British an institution as fish and chips.

Acclaimed journaliste Stan Collymore noted recently that the Chinese acquisitions were limited to “the odd mercenary” and “players at the back end of their careers”. Whilst there is more than an element of truth to this, it is reminiscent of signings such as Gianfranco Zola, Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini back when the Premier League was still in its relative infancy. Marquee signings are arguably a necessity in order to bring in the crowds and help a league to grow.

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It is also important to realise the lengths that the Chinese government and the Chinese Football Association are going to to improve the local game. In the not-too-distant past, Chinese football has found itself plagued by corruption – a wide-reaching anti-corruption campaign saw fines and bans handed out to many ex-officials and players. Former CFA leader Nan Yong is said to have claimed that players could buy their way into the national team.

But there are signs that Chinese football may be making a recovery. The average attendance in the Super League has more than doubled in the last ten years, and the ruling Communist Party – in particular General Secretary Xi Jingping – have been vocal in expressing their support for the sport and their desire for it to grow.

If China is to become a football heavyweight, it will indeed take more than a few big-name and big-money signings. But the likes of Merson and Collymore would do well to remember that the football world extends much further than Britain’s shores, and that the Premier League was not always the goliath that we see today.


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