On a gray, polluted Beijing morning, parents peer through a fence anxiously at their little darlings’ wobbly dribbling skills on the soccer pitch, as they try to score goals against former Manchester City goalkeeper Alex Williams.
Across town, Arsenal midfielder Mikel Arteta poses gamely with another group of Chinese kids.
In other countries, soccer-mad kids would give their eyeteeth for such opportunities, but in China, the publicity that teams earn from soccer clinics, fan parties and lukewarm celebrity endorsements from stars like Jackie Chan is one of the main reasons they are here.
“They just come here to make money,” says Cameron Wilson, who runs Wild East Football, a blog on soccer in China. “They just care about their brand: How can they get more fans in China to like them? How can they make bigger profits for their shareholders? That’s what it’s really about.”
The pilgrimage of English premiership players to China isn’t really about sport. It’s about economics, and the ever-present lure of China’s massive market.
“There is a big potential for fans here and that is the main reason why English teams come,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said in an interview with Time Out Beijing, adding candidly, “I resisted [China] for a long time. But, as the Premier League becomes more and more a world league, it is important that we develop our fan bases.”
That’s why Wenger has been lecturing students at a top Beijing university, ahead of a match on Friday night against the British Premier League champions, Manchester City, at Beijing’s iconic Bird’s Nest stadium. In Shanghai two days earlier, their longtime rival, Manchester United, beat the home team, Shanghai Shenhua. It’s almost as if the British Premier League is decamping en masse to China.
“China has money. It’s quite prepared to pay to see the best matches in the world,” says Rowan Simons, who writes about the sport and also runs soccer training programs for kids in Beijing. “Europe cannot supply China with as many top-class matches as China would like.”
Big Salaries Attracting Big European Talent
With the deep pockets of their newly moneyed owners, China’s anemic Super League teams have managed to score some of soccer’s biggest stars over the past couple of years — most recently Didier Drogba, formerly of Chelsea. Last weekend, he made his debut for Shanghai Shenhua, which is owned by an eccentric online gaming magnate, Zhu Jun.
Drogba’s salary is unknown, but the excitable Shanghainese media have suggested he could be pocketing as much as $15 million a year, or $300,000 a week.
“What we can say with certainty is that his salary is several times the entire revenue of the club,” says Simons, pointing out that such an economic mismatch would be seen as insanity in Europe.
And Drogba is the second big-ticket player acquired by Shenhua, after French striker Nicholas Anelka. The standard of Chinese soccer is such that it took Anelka just 40 seconds to score his first ever Shenhua goal. The player nicknamed “The Sulk” has spent much of his stay in China griping about the level of his teammates’ ball skills.
Simons says the millions spent on players like him would be better invested at the grassroots, helping young Chinese players who lack pitches and coaches, instead of on highly paid imports.
“It’s about an ego trip, it’s about politics, it’s about business, it’s not about football,” Simons says.
And politics is ever-present in China, even in the world of soccer. That’s especially been the case in recent years, since the man who will become China’s next president, Xi Jinping, is known to be a huge soccer fan.
“In China, the political factor is massive,” says Simons. “There’s a very strong financial incentive to make friends with politicians, and one way to do that is to spend cash to bring prestige teams over.”
Grumbling Growing Among Chinese Fans
For Chinese soccer fans, the pleasure of seeing top-flight players on their home teams is tempered by other worries. One online commenter explained: “I don’t feel joy thinking about the foreign players with sky-high prices, I feel worried. Chinese clubs’ anxiety to achieve quick success and get instant benefits will ruin Chinese soccer, instead of rescuing it.”
Many have also begun to complain about shelling out for pricy tickets to the exhibition matches by visiting teams, then being disappointed. The ticket prices for the Manchester City and Arsenal match-up range from $28 to $315.
Yet often the huge stars are kept on the bench for fear of injury.
“They’re on a jolly,” says soccer blogger Wilson, who describes the recent Manchester United game as “pretty much a farce,” with few famous players on the pitch. “I don’t believe that the European teams coming here create any benefit for Chinese football,” he says.
There is an argument that such skilled players will raise the standard of Chinese soccer in general, but so far there’s little evidence of this. Certainly China’s own soccer teams, both male and female, have failed to qualify for the Olympics this year, or the World Cup.
Indeed, it’s perhaps emblematic of where the real power lies in Chinese soccer, that Shenhua’s mercurial middle-aged owner, Zhu Jun, sometimes takes to the pitch to play alongside his high-priced imports, despite possessing shaky soccer skills that have been described as “worse than an amateur.”
But China’s pragmatic fans realize that for aging soccer stars, the easy pickings available in China are just too attractive.
One popular online comment sums it all up: “Who could refuse the chance to earn astronomical payments for playing football with a group of amateurs?”