As from 2013, the year that Xi Jinping came to power as the new leader of China, a new economic development plan was launched called the Chinese Dream. Within this programme football has had a key role right from the start.
Football is in fact now recognised as a sport around which enormous business is being created. As such, it had to be part of China’s new economic development plan. And this is even more valid if we consider that Xi Jinping himself has always been a big football fan.
Indeed, since the 1980s, as a fan, the current Chinese premier has had to endure years and years of footballing disappointment due to a lack of victories and to the failure of his own national team to qualify for global tournaments, except for the 2002 World Cup held in South Korea and Japan, which saw China’s first and so far only qualification to the final stages of a world championship (however, it lost all its group games, failed to score a goal, and let in nine).
For Xi Jinping, it is not only a question of business – even if his project is largely linked to the country’s economic development – but above all of a triumph for the Chinese people in a sector where China has still not managed to impose itself.
Therefore, in recent years a lot of investments and collaboration agreements have been signed between the Chinese and foreign – mainly European – football sectors with the aim of boosting domestic football, thanks to careful observation of the internal workings of western football.
To do this, China focused on three main factors:
1. Import of players and coaches. There are now many footballers who in recent years have been unable to resist the huge deals on offer from China. And the same is true also for the coaches. In Italy we have various examples, such as Graziano Pellè – contracted to Shandong Luneng – or the World Cup winning coach from Germany 2006 Marcello Lippi, who, after a previous positive experience in China (with Guangzhou Evergrande), has now agreed to be coach of the Chinese national team. Other examples are the Brazilian Hulk, who moved from Zenith St Petersburg to Shanghai Dongya for 58 million euro and a salary of 22 million euro a year, or Carlos Tevez, bought for 11 million euro by Shanghai Shenhua just six months before the expiry of his contract with Boca Juniors and a salary of 38 million euro per season.
2. Investments in foreign football. Another important factor on which Xi Jinping’s football development programme is based are investments abroad. By investing in European clubs – according to the Chinese initiative – three important results can be achieved: the first is linked to marketing and assumes the dissemination of sponsors’ brands in Europe can also facilitate the diffusion of the products offered by the investing companies; the second is that of being able to directly enter into the mechanisms of top-level football in order to observe first hand the growth model for the footballing sector in Europe; the third is that of seeing, in the near future, the participation of Chinese players in the most important championships in the world to ensure that – by playing alongside the best – they can improve their own skills on the pitch.
3. Investments in youth and in academies. The third and last result – but not in terms of importance – is that of investing in the youth sector to ensure that young players grow up with football to help them improve their footballing talent from an early age. Xi Jinping’s plan has, among its essential points, making football a mandatory subject in school. Regarding this, there is an interesting agreement that an Italian Serie A club – Atalanta Bergamasca Calcio – has signed with the Chinese club Yanbian, to create the Atalanta Football Camp, an event for which 50 Chinese youth players were invited in the summer, to train on the pitches where normally the Atalanta first team trains (the event has already been held in the summers of 2015 and 2016).
Despite the promising foundations and the good intentions, it seems, however, that Chinese football fever has held the upper hand in recent seasons. This has also been noted in Beijing, where the Chinese Football Federation has decided to put a brake on the huge salaries offered to foreign players in the Chinese Super League.
In fact, it has been established that the number of foreign players that will be allowed in each team cannot exceed five per club – including at least one from Asia – and of these five, only three can actually be on the pitch together during a match. The new rules also require the players bought for over a certain figure (roughly speaking, it should be for sums over 30 million euro), be taxed further and that the revenues from this surtax be used for a “football development fund” (and thus for the youth sectors) – in addition to the 15% of their costs each club is required to contribute.
The new development plan proposed during the Wuhan meeting – 16 January 2017 – between the Chinese Football Association and the clubs of the Chinese Super League is therefore based on three fundamental points: development of the youth sector, development of local football and the professional growth of players, coaches and all those who work in football.
Only by following the development of these three main areas, will China start to really move towards western standards and to a kind of financial fair play which can safeguard their football growth.