Beijing // Chinese Super League clubs wrapped up a record spending spree on Friday after football transfers worth a world-beating 331 million euros ($365 million) sent the sport into a spin.
With the winter transfer window set to close at midnight, China has smashed the national record no fewer than four times, culminating in Jiangsu Suning's 50-million-euro purchase of Alex Teixeira.
The high-profile hiring of top players for outlandish sums has suddenly put the Chinese Super League on the map at a time when President Xi Jinping is pushing hard to turn China into a footballing power.
China’s spending in the January-February window outstripped the English Premier League’s 253-million-euro outlay in January, according to figures compiled by industry website Transfermarkt.
It was also more than the next four major European championships combined -- Italy’s Serie A, the German Bundesliga, the Primera Division in Spain and France’s Ligue 1, Transfermarkt said.
China’s national team is ranked a lowly 93rd in the world, but Xi has declared his hopes of the country one day hosting and winning a World Cup, prompting a flood of money into its top professional teams.
More than half of the CSL’s total spending came on just six players, the data showed, all of them foreign -- three of them Brazilian -- and mostly coming from European teams.
After Brazil’s Teixeira, the second highest purchase was the 42 million euros Asian champions Guangzhou Evergrande paid Atletico Madrid for Colombian forward Jackson Martinez.
Overall, the CSL’s 163 transfers average fee came out at 2.03 million euros, Transfermarkt data showed -- significantly more than the 1.46 million euro mean in England’s Premier League.
China’s big spend comes as the country tries to raise its football game to a level commensurate with its growing economic and military might.
China lost all three of its World Cup matches in 2002, its only appearance, letting in nine goals and scoring none.
Xi’s stated ambitions have been seized on by Chinese business magnates, who openly acknowledge that their footballing investments also have political calculations.
Wanda Group, owned by Chinese billionaire Wang Jianlin, has taken a 20 percent stake in Spanish side Atletico Madrid.
In a recent book, Wang reportedly wrote: “The government leaders care about it very much, and the Chinese administration of sports made several appeals, so I came back and am offering support for Chinese football.”
Late last year, state-backed investment firm China Media Capital was part of a consortium that bought a $400 million stake in Premier League giants Manchester City.
The enthusiasm has driven the premium prices for talent, according to Rowan Simons, an author and prominent commentator on Chinese football.
“The buying spree is spurred on by the wish to please the president, so money is no object”, said Simons, adding that the country “is a naive new buyer in this very small market and is ill-equipped to negotiate effectively against the super-agents who wrote the book”.
Even so, the numbers pale compared to the amounts spent during the summer transfer window, when the Premier League racks up its largest figures.
But David Hornby, sports business director of the Mailman brand management group in Shanghai, said it was not hard to imagine the CSL taking the number one spot in overall spending.
“There’s no reason to suggest that spending will slow down... everything in China when they set their minds to it becomes super-charged,” he said.
But opinions vary on whether cold, hard cash, political will and foreign talent are enough to achieve national soccer glory.
Earlier this week, former England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson said China could “compete well to win the World Cup” in 10 or 15 years’ time, arguing that investments in youth league soccer will help groom domestic talent.
But Mark Dreyer, a sports blogger in Beijing, was less optimistic. “I don’t expect to see China winning the World Cup in my lifetime,” he said.
“Signing foreign stars won’t likely improve the standard of Chinese players,” he added.
“If... this spending sparks renewed interest in the game and that further helps to build a larger fan base, and if the revenues generated are then spent wisely on areas like youth academies, then this could benefit the Chinese game over the long-term -- but there are a lot of ‘ifs’ there.”
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