THEHOME OF FOOTBALL? ENGLAND REACTS TO CHINA’S TRANSFER SPENDING SPREE
Many English people love a song entitled‘Rule Britannia’; for readers unfamiliar with this song, it dates back to the 18th century and refers to an age when Britain was an economic andcolonial superpower. The fact that people still like this song is symptomatic of a country that continues to struggle with its post-colonial identity. Wher ethe British used to dominate now other countries are more powerful, something that Britain is struggling to get used to.
Still, at least there is football, inparticular English Premier League (EPL) football. English people, are very proud of the country’s football heritage and routinely refer to the EPL as the‘world’s best league’. What this means for them is that England is the home ofthe most talented players, the biggest teams, the commercially strongest clubs,and the most financially lucrative television deals in the world.
Imagine the surprise for English fans therefore when Chelsea’s Ramires decided in January to leave last season’s EPL winners for Jiangsu Suning, a team that finished 9th in last season’s Chinese Super League (CSL). Many peoples’ immediate response was to ask ‘who is this club?’ and ‘do the Chinese really play football?’ When Ramires’ transfer was followed by the moves of Jackson Martinez, Alex Texeira,Ezequiel Lavezzi and others, most English people tried to discount their significance by referring to these players simply as mercenaries.
This term is somewhat ironic given that,while other countries have in the past often labelled the EPL as a home for mercenaries, the English have generally viewed such players as coming because of the prestige of playing in the world’s best league (rather than for themoney). But as many English football fans, ex-players and media columnists have mocked and dismissed China’s latest attempts to improve its football, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has adopted a more realistic tone.
When questioned about China at a recent press conference, Wenger said that the EPL must see the CSL as a threat. The Frenchman’s observation reflects a broader concern that the world’s leading players may now view China as a more attractive country to play in than England. Wenger’s statement also needs to be set in the context of English clubs’ ability to attract the world’s best players, given UEFA’s financial fairplay regulations. With transfer fees being bid-up and player salaries rapidly inflating, Wenger’s view seems to be that the EPL’s clubs might lose their position of competitive advantage to China as the destination of choice for football’s elite players.
As the English slowly began to realise that Chinese football clubs meant business during the transfer window, the next line of defence for critics and cynics was to question how long the signing boom would last. Many people pointed to Russia and Anzhi Makhachkala being examplesof booms which very quickly then went bust. In the case of Anzhi, the likes of Samuel Eto’o and Roberto Carlos arrived and then very quickly departed once the club’s owner encountered financial difficulties.
The problem for many people in Great Britain though is that they do not understand either China or Russia, as they continue to see both countries as synonymous with communism and very similar toone another. Moreover, these people do not understand the role that China’s president plays, how Chinese state policy is enacted, nor do they have any sense of Chinese culture (sporting or otherwise). Hence, it has thus far been very easy for English football not to take China seriously, something helped by popular stereotypes that many people in Britain hold. For example, a common view is that Chinese football is completely corrupt and shouldn’t be trusted;or that because China is a communist country, its businesses are somehow inefficient and their investments in football don’t pose a threat to theself-appointed ‘best league in the world’.
Bizarrely though, while English fans have reassured themselves that a communist country and its football is no threat to them, at the same time many of them often look expectantly towards China for help. Indeed, fans of several EPL clubs including Everton, Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion, have frequently taken to social media imploring Chinese investors to come and invest in their clubs. In an attempt to catch-up with the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal, many fans often seem desperate for a Chinese entrepreneur or private equity group to indulge in a spending spree on top players on their clubs’ behalf.
The apparently duplicitous nature of some English fans is a behavioural characteristic of Britain’s government too. Fordecades, the British state has failed to invest in grassroots football, leaving either the sport itself or its corporate partners to fund pitches, training facilities, health programmes and so forth. This angers many of the people involved in football, especially as prime-minister David Cameron routinely identifies himself as a committed football fan. It therefore angered English fans even more when Cameron last year gave China £3 million to help fund its football development. At a time when British grassroots football facilities are in a poor state, many people in England questioned his logic.
There is however a rationale behind the payment,as Cameron realises the soft power influence that can be exerted through football. A small £3 million award was an expedient move by Cameron, although the more significant criticism of his government would seem to be that such asmall amount won’t make too much difference to a nation with the financial resources that China has at its disposal. Still, as President Xi himself would surely acknowledge, such footballing gestures are a good way of building political capital. Unlike China and Xi though, Britain generally and normally neither sees nor discusses football in these terms.
For the time-being at least and in the eyes ofthe English, it is still a case of ‘Rule Britannia’ when it comes to football.However, China, the CSL and their football ambitions have very rapidly appeared on the radar of threats over here in Britain. Whether the threat is long-term and genuine may well depend on Xi’s longevity and on China’s appetite for the world’s favourite game. Whatever the outcome of recent developments though, itseems that the English face yet more pressure to change their views on the country’s place in the world. After all, 25 years ago who could have envisaged what China has now become? So, who knows where Chinese football might be in 25 years time?
Simon Chadwick is 'Class of 92' Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University Manchester and Director of Research for the 2022 Qatar World Cup. He has worked with many of the world's leading sports organisations including FC Barcelona, UEFA, the Bundesliga, Adidas, Michelin Motorsport, the International Tennis Federation, Deloitte and Repucom.