Next month, the 52nd season of top-tier football in China will kick off.
As 16 teams across the eastern provinces of China prepare for the 10th edition of the Chinese Super League—formed after the demise of the Chinese Jia-A League—football in the world's most populous country appears to be in good health.
Last season, the league average attendance was 18,740, with a record 65,769 turning out to see Marcello Lippi's Guangzhou Evergrande visit Jiangsu Guoxin Sainty (whose home attendances increased over 80 percent the previous season).
The average attendance was almost identical to another young and emerging league, the MLS. More significantly, it beat the average of 17,566 attending J-League matches in 2012.
The Japanese league has long been considered the highest level of football in Asia, yet it has seen a mass exodus of young players to European leagues. John Duerden of AP (via timescolonist.com) notes that striker Genki Omae became the 11th Japanese player to join the Bundesliga with his recent move to Fortuna Dusseldorf.
Whereas the J-League boasted a wealth of foreign imports and domestic stars in the '90s—notably Gary Lineker's two-season spell with Nagoya Grampus Eight—the Asian football spotlight appears to be shifting to China, which has enjoyed tremendous growth since the state-controlled league opened up to private investors.
According to The Financialist, 13 of the Super League's 16 teams are bankrolled by wealthy real estate developers in the world's fastest-growing major economy. Such prosperity has allowed clubs to spend big money to attract big stars from other continents.
World Cup-winning Italian manager Marcelo Lippi became the third best-paid manager in the world when Guangzhou put him on a €10m salary last year. He helped the Guangdong side win their second consecutive Chinese Super League title, and reached the quarterfinals of the AFC Champions League—becoming the first Chinese side in six years to do so.
Last year's Chinese Super League top scorer list is dominated by foreign talent, with Jiangsu Sainty's Romanian striker Cristian Dănălache getting the golden boot with 23 goals, and Dalian Aerbin'a Nigerian international Peter Utaka following closely behind with 20. Shandong's Wang Yongpo is the only homegrown player to get near the top scorer rankings with 10 goals in 2012.
Of course, two of the biggest foreign imports have been Shanghai Shenhua's Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka, both were paid in excess of $300,000 a week in the 2012 season.
This week, it has been announced that the Chinese Super League is planning to use the world's biggest one-man soccer brand—David Beckham—as an ambassador.
Furthermore, showing the nation's intentions for the sport, China's leader Xi Jinping wishes for his country to qualify for, host and win a World Cup.
Yet all this growth, wealth, success and alignment with football superstars belies many of the continuing problems in Chinese football.
The league has recently suffered two high-profile failures of retention in Drogba and Anelka.
With eight goals in just 11 appearances, the Ivorian made a (highly disputed) move to Galatasaray in January, citing the lure of European Champions League football.
And after being named player-manager for a short spell, Anelka also bowed out with in January by singing a five-month deal with Juventus.
Both departures seemed acrimonious, and were shrouded in rumors of boardroom disharmony and unpaid wages. Club owner Zhu Jun, who used Anelka to promote his online gambling business, blamed shareholders who had reneged on deals.
After spending around $24 million on salaries for the two former Chelsea strikers, Shenhua finished ninth in the league. They finished third two seasons previously.
One of the biggest problems hanging over the game is match-fixing, which dominated headlines once again this week when Shanghai Shenhua were stripped of their 2003 league title. They were also fined and handed a six-point deduction for next season, and had staff among the 33 people banned for life from the game.
Last June, two senior officials of the Super League were given 10.5-year jail sentences for corruption, following numerous counts of taking bribes. In a campaign to clean up the game launched in 2009, dozens have been arrested, while a referee and four former national team players were fined and handed prison sentences.
Many commentators, however, believe the crackdown measures will not curb corruption in the Chinese game, as gambling is too prevalent and too much money is flowing into the league. Yan Qiang, vice president of one of China's leading sports publishers told AFP (via gulfnews.com): "I do not think [these punishments are] enough to set an extreme example to warn off future offenders."
The Financialist says Guangzhou Evergrande lost $12.8 million last year, while Dalian Shide will be bought by a rival as it is unable to pay its debts.
Of course, debt is common in the European game, but so is significant income from TV rights deals and merchandising. The aforementioned Financialist say there are no such revenue streams available in China, as the league does not generate enough interest. Clubs are purchased as vanity projects for rich owners who wish to make better political and business relationships.
The Chinese Super League's average attendance represents 0.00001 percent of China's population. The English Premier League's average is 0.0007 percent of England's population, making it 65 times more popular per capita.
Furthermore, China has just 8,000 registered players with the Chinese Soccer Association. There are 1.46 million registered players in France, while England has around 7,000 teams in the men's league system.
As MLS has shown, growing a league in a highly populated country without a strong legacy of football can take time. China's Super League, however, has a few issues it needs to iron out before it can truly compete on a continental and global stage.