Can the Chinese Super League Really Become a Destination for Football's Best?

Graham Ruthven@@grahamruthvenFeatured ColumnistFebruary 10, 2016

CHINA OUT  BEIJING, CHINA - JUNE 28: Ultra supporters and fans of the Beijing Guoan FC celebrate together after a goal against Chongcing Lifan FC during their Chinese Super League match on June 28, 2015 in Beijing, China. There are growing legions of ardent supporters and fans of China's football clubs. The government is also trying to foster a football culture in the country by mandating football programs in 20,000 Chinese schools in a recent plan devised by President Xi Jinping to make China a football power. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Not so long ago, football was essentially outlawed in China. Team sports in general were pretty much banned as gatherings of more than 10 people were prohibited by the country's Communist government. Football in the country has come a long way since then, particularly in the last month or so.

The Chinese Super League has sent ripples across the sporting world of late, with clubs like Jiangsu Suning, Guangzhou Evergrande and Hebei China Fortune all spending bigreally big.

Ramires was signed for £17 million, with £32 million splurged on Atletico Madrid striker Jackson Martinez and a further £38 million on Liverpool target Alex Teixeira. Nearly £200 million has been spent in the past two months, and the Premier League is worried.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 30:  Jackson Martinez of Atletico de Madrid looks on prior to the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Atletico de Madrid at Camp Nou on January 30, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

Per Stefan Coerts of Goal, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger expressed the insecurities of an entire division:

I think the Premier League should be worried about China.

They seem to have the financial power to lure every player from Europe to China. They have the economic power.

We don't know if they will continue to do it, because there was a similar rise in Japan a while ago and that has not really continued.

But there is a very strong political desire in China to become a big player and we have to be worried. Their financial strength could prise some Premier League clubs out of the market.

There is already a big inflation of transfer fees. The £100m mark will soon be passed.

There's a certain irony to Wenger's concern, given the way in which the Premier League has blown its own competition out of the water with sheer financial muscle over the past decade or so.

What right does the English game have right to cry foul at another league prepared to pay over-inflated fees in the transfer market? The Arsenal boss must have had at least a degree of self-awareness at what he was saying.

Guangzhou Evergrande's players celebrate after clinching the Chinese football championship in Beijing on October 31, 2015. Phil Scolari's Evergrande won 2-0 away to Beijing Guoan to finish two points clear of Sven-Goran Eriksson's Shanghai SIPG on a drama
STR/Getty Images

But nonetheless, his remarks are reflective of a wider discussion. Can China's recent spending be sustained? Can the country's top flight possibly continue to challenge the Premier Leagueand the rest of Europe's elitein the transfer market? At what point will the spending stop?

There is a certain ambiguity to the Chinese Super League's long-term maintainability, but their recent activity perhaps shouldn't be so readily dismissed.

The country's concerted effort on Olympic sports in the run-up toand afterthe 2008 Games shows just how even the biggest sporting gap can be bridged in a short space of time, with China finishing second behind only the United States in the 2012 medal table. Now they have turned their focus to football.

So with the new Chinese Super League season set to kick off on March 4, the country's footballing scene has never has never before commanded such intrigue and attention. The division has its sights set on becoming one of football's most prestigious destinations, with the national team even plotting their way to World Cup glory.

Joe Giddens/Associated Press

It's not just on the domestic front that China is making an impression. Investment funds from the country have recently gone after stakes in some of Europe's biggest clubs, including Atletico Madrid and, of course, Manchester City. The economic superpower is making progress in growing into a footballing superpower by hanging on to the coat tails of established footballing superpowers.

Just like Qatar, China views football and sport in general as part of a wider societal plan. They want to use the world's most popular game as a way to showcase the country, and more importantly the country's economyespecially in recent times of market turmoil.

And just like Qatar, they see the World Cup as the ultimate stage on which to demonstrate that prowess, with president Xi Jinping announcing a 50-point plan which results in the country hosting the competition in the future.

There is a correlation between China's recent footballing development and its strategy for the industrial sector. In similarity with the Chinese Super League, the country has bought foreign companies and attracted foreign labour at government level in an attempt to upskill their own local labour.

What has worked to a certain extent in industry could now work in football too.

Ebrahim Noroozi/Associated Press

The Chinese government's fingerprints are, in fact, all over the CSL's recent ascent.

Xia passionate football fan and Manchester United supporterhas unconnected the sport from its total reliance on central government, but most clubs are still owned by state-backed corporations. According to a 2011 Economist report, companies have reportedly been offered cheaper land in exchange for their support of the country's football scene.

A new broadcast deal worth eight-billion Chinese yuan (around £840 million) was also signed last October, as channel Ti'ao Dongli outbid the state broadcaster CCTV, paying more than double the previous rate. That has, of course, played a part in the CSL's recent spending spree, and questions have been asked over the extent to which the division's growth has been artificially boosted. Therein is the doubt over the country's footballing sustainability.

Of course, while China's top flight remains a fledgling league, it could hardly be described as a backwatercertainly in an Asian context.

The likes of Beijing Guoan and Guangzhou Evergrande regularly attract crowds in excess of 40,000, with the Guardian reporting the CSL's average attendance stood at a credible 22,000-plus last season. Despite western perception, China is certainly not building a league from the ground up. A fairly lofty platform already exists.

TO GO WITH FBL-CHN-CSL-GUOAN-SOCIAL BY NEIL CONNOR This photo taken on June 1, 2015 shows fans of the Beijing Guoan football team chanting in support during a Chinese Super League match against Shanghai Shenxin in Beijing. The top tier of Chinese football
GREG BAKER/Getty Images

The Chinese Super League transfer window won't close until February 26, meaning the chequebook might not yet be shut. Moves are most likely still being lined up, with players of even higher calibre now being targeted.

John Terry has been offered £20 million to play just one CSL season, per Matt Law and Sam Wallace of the Telegraph—while Wayne Rooney could also be tempted east with a reported pay-packet worth £75 million (via Sami Mokbel of the Daily Mail).

But China's move on the sport's top tier is about much more than just big-money transfers. The CSL's rise has its roots in politics as much as anything else, and that's what gives the country's recent activity all the more weight.

Those who expect China's new-found footballing strength to ultimately wither might be waiting as long as those who made such economic predictions a generation ago.