Football and China: what the hell is going on?

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Foto di Nicholas con presentazione libro There are those who see it as an invasion; especially in Italy, where supporters don’t understand the many opportunities. Milan, an outpost of the Italian football made by “patrons”, has left the throne to Chinese groups. But the purchases of football clubs like the outrageous cost of transfer market are just the tip of the iceberg of a system that works both inside and outside national borders to elevate and spread the culture of football. But why? Here are some reflections made with Nicholas Gineprini, author of the book “The China Dream” (Il sogno cinese), blogger of “Football Blog China” (Blog Calcio Cina) and involved in cooperation between Italy and China.

Let’s start from the last transfer market’s session: the Chinese Super League has spent almost 220 million euro, behind only Premier League. In China, the session will be closed in February so could also overcome it. From Tevez and Pato, to Witsel, Oscar and Ighalo, which deal has impressed you the most? Talking about age and market value, it’s the Brazilian Oscar because he’s still 25 years old and, in my opinion, his value is around 25-30 million of Euro. Shanghai SIPG has spent 60 million of Euro for him and, certainly, it’s a busted evaluation. But he marks a new step: always more young “western” players go in China and not only footballers at the end of their career. I don’t know if Oscar could be an extra value for Shanghai SIPG, but if coach Villas Boas will be able to connect and combine the player, Shanghai SIPG maybe can dethrone the hegemony of Guangzhou Evergrande which lasts from 2011.

tevez However, in recent days, the General Administration of Sport of China said “stop” to the spending binge. Why and what will be the measures? The main reason is the big hole in the budget. The Chinese Super League, also because of new television agreements by $ 1.2 billion over 5 years, is the league with the highest turnover, but last year the 16 teams spent and lost $ 1 billion. And this is an unsustainable football, so they are thinking to introduce a salary cup which is more like a financial fair play: starting from next year, the teams simply can’t be at a loss. Moreover, there is a further taxation on purchases over 30 million Euros, and this money will be invest for the development of the youth sector. So, even if it may seem a slowdown in investment, actually they have increased the budget for internal development.

You talked about internal development: is there a plan to increase the value of football in China? The main plan is to entrench football in popular culture and is not so obvious: in Beijing and Shanghai, for example, there isn’t a football pitch. So China wants to bring football as a school subject in 20.000 schools in 2020, 50.000 in 2025. But there is no qualified staff and, moreover, it’s necessary a physical education reform because usually is focused on individual and not on the idea of community. Another important aspect is the promotion of health because young obesity is reaching worrying dimensions.

So China has to work on basic education, but they need to work on society as well. How? In the 80’s the Chinese football was from elite and played in college; in the same period on Japanese tv was released “Holly & Benji”, which has been an important instrument to shape children. Parents are the problem: in Singapore, a city-state with Chinese culture, the fields of some academy will have to remain closed for several hours because those around cannot tolerate the noise; “My son can’t study,” they say. Now football is not seen as a career opportunity, but it is also true that little by little are coming out parents who want his son to become like Cristiano Ronaldo. The changes in China are much faster, we hate do see if the direction is right.

You have introduced the theme of the academy, interesting and solid plans for the future growth of the player. Can you explain it?  The most famous and important is Guangzhou academy with 3000 students from elementary, middle and high schools, and trained by coaches of Real Madrid’s youth. But almost all the clubs have valid youth facilities, from Shanghai SIPG – arose from the academy Xu Genbao, a pioneer – to Shandong Luneng, the Graziano Pellè’s club that has the most developed and strong youth sector. However, I’m convinced that the Chinese future talent will emerge abroad: in Spain, perhaps, through the program of Dalian Wanda (who are, among other things, the owners of Atletico Madrid) which is to bring 180 young Chinese players in “Colchoneros”; or in Brazil, where Guangzhou will open a branch after Netherlands and Spain, or like the Under-18 of Shanghai SIPG with an annual program in order to form in Brazil.



We’re back in Europe: Inter Milan and, as it seems, Milan will be managed by Chinese groups like several clubs in England, Spain and France. Why Chinese entrepreneurs are investing in football? Everything in China moves due to influence of policy, so the investments they make in Europe are targeted. For example let’s think about the gigantic project of the ” One Belt, One Road – Silk Road”: by land, it will create free trade areas of raw materials, cooperation and large-scale infrastructure projects that go from China to the Middle East and then to Europe, France and Spain. By sea, it comes down to the South-East Asia, passing for Africa and it arrives at the port of Piraeus, in Greece, and then in the Mediterranean Sea. Among the major infrastructure projects, are included stadiums built in Gabon for the recent African Nations Cup in exchange for oil. In 2019, the stadiums in Cameroon for the next edition of the African Cup will be again managed by Chinese, but also those of the World Cup in 2022 in Qatar, because their purpose is to pull inside this country for the exchange of raw materials and oil.

Currently there are 21 teams in Europe managed by Chinese companies: ADO Den Haag (in Netherlands) was the first club bought in 2014; Southampton and Milan, among the most famous names, may be next. And don’t forget that they have a political or business reasons: the Chinese group that took over the OGC Nice, it manages hotel chain pro-French; the Suning group, Inter’s owner, will open its own stores in Italy and later into Europe through football. Southampton will be the sixth English team acquired by Chinese after Brexit: It’s the so-called “post Brexit deplomacy”, through which China wants to keep tight relations with England. The Chinese groups are pointing to the clubs of the West Midlands (Birmingham and Wolverhampton area), because it will be crossed by the High Speed 2 (HS2), a high-speed train line.

oscar But in Italy, the supporters seem to be opposites. To sheikhs from the Russian then to the Chinese, they see their football more and more looted. What are the developments? Italy is missing in football as all other respects. In Chinese social media, Serie A does not have an official profile and it’s behind Scotland and the Netherlands. Now Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus are moving quietly, but they have few followers, less than Wolfsburg. We fail like branding aspect and in televisions because Italy has 319 hours of broadcasting per year in China, Bundes and La Liga from 1,400 to 1,600, Premier League over 3,000 hours. This is because the match between Manchester City – Manchester United is played at 12.30 in England and 19.30 in China, so everyone can watch it; the derby between Milan and Inter Milan is played in the evening, when in Beijing is night. Football is the mirror of a country but let’s take the wine’s export: we are behind Chile and Australia. We could have a good wine, but there isn’t on Chinese supermarkets. We are not in the future and football must be a means to do this: we are losing the opportunity to join in the largest and richest marketplace in the world.


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