How Xi’s passion is changing soccer in China and abroad

February 29, 2016 09:05
This photo of Xi Jinping kicking a ball on a visit to Ireland has been seen in his office in Beijing. Photo: Xinhua

Since his childhood, President Xi Jinping has been a passionate fan of soccer.

He wants China to host and win the World Cup.

Since he became president in March 2013, he has put this passion into practice across China.

The impact has been dramatic, not to say unbelievable.

In the winter transfer window that closed on Friday, clubs in China’s Super League spent nearly US$300 million on signing big players from Europe and South America, more than the amount spent by teams in England’s Premier League, the richest in the world, during the same period.

These are not players at the end of their careers – the kind who used to go to China – but those at their peak, like Alex Teixeira, 26, a Brazilian midfielder at Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine.

Both Chelsea and Liverpool wanted to sign him – but he chose Jiangsu Suning, who paid US$56 million. He is earning a weekly salary of US$210,000.

Guangzhou Evergrande -- the Chinese and Asian club champions -- paid US$46.7 million to Atletico Madrid for Colombian Jackson Martinez.

These enormous salaries are not restricted to the players.

Of the 16 teams in China’s Super League, 13 have foreign managers, including Luiz Felipe Scolari at Guangzhou Evergrande; he is the former coach of the Brazilian and Portuguese national teams.

Manager of Shanghai SIPG is Sven-Goran Eriksson, who used to coach the British national team.

The new season begins on March 4; all the 16 teams are owned by Chinese companies.

Last year, the league had an average attendance of 21,800 a game.

This means the clubs cannot cover the costs of the transfers and salaries from ticket income, advertising and television rights.

Most Chinese prefer to watch televised soccer from Britain, Germany, Spain and Italy.

The major clubs in Europe have millions of fans in China and carry advertising in simplified Chinese on electronic boards around their fields.

So it is the owner-companies that must pick up the bill.

Guangzhou Evergrande, the most successful club, is partly owned by Jack Ma Yun, founding chairman of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., the biggest e-commerce company in China.

The club was founded by Xu Jiayin, a billionaire construction magnate.

Jiangsu Suning is owned by Suning, one of China’s largest private retailers, with 1,600 stores in the mainland, Hong Kong and Japan; it is also one of the top three business-to-consumer online retailers in China.

Shanghai SIPG is owned by Shanghai International Port Group.

Beijing Guoan is owned – not by the Ministry of State Security, which has that name – but CITIC, a state-owned investment conglomerate.

Why are these companies willing to sink millions of yuan in businesses that will yield them no profit?

One reason is to build brands, like companies in Europe that sponsor soccer teams and put their names on the team shirts.

Another is build guanxi (connections) with the local government and Communist Party, which want their city to have a rich and successful team.

The companies can expect favours in return and also earn credit with the local population, which appreciates their support.

A third is a bet that the Super League will continue to grow and attract more Chinese away from the foreign games and become a major global league.

Guangzhou Evergrande, for example, plays in the city's Tianhe stadium with 58,500 seats.

Beijing's Workers Stadium, with 66,000 seats, is the home of Beijing Guoan.

If these stadiums were full for every game, the revenue would be substantial.

But the most important reason is to please Xi Dada and his passion for the game.

This is especially the case for private companies like Alibaba and Suning, which are always vulnerable to falling out of political favour.

As a Chinese saying goes: “A man fears fame as a pig fears fat.”

What better policy than to show their support for this national initiative, backed by the president himself?

In November, the government announced it would build 20,000 soccer-themed schools to provide more opportunities for students to exercise and to prepare the stars of the future.

An Olympic giant in many sports, China has never produced a strong national soccer team – unlike neighbours Japan and South Korea, which have, over the past 20 years, produced excellent national and club sides from a modest beginning.

This substantial and unprofitable investment by the companies is evidence again of the extraordinary power and influence of the party chief and how the personal interests of a single person can shape national policy and change the lives of people in China and abroad.

No wonder Chinese call the party chief “Emperor Xi”.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.