SHANGHAI (Reuters) - With the corrupt heading to jail and big name signings rolling in, Chinese soccer is basking in an unusually positive period, but experts have warned the galactico-style transfer policy is unsustainable and investment is being ploughed into the wrong areas.
China’s rich soccer club owners are not interested in hearing that though. They are enjoying the boom time and flush with global media interest after enticing household names such as Ivory Coast striker Didier Drogba from the sport’s traditional power bases of Europe.
Drogba, fresh from scoring the decisive penalty in the Champions League final for Chelsea against Bayern Munich in May, is expected to arrive in China this week to join Shanghai Shenhua and earn a reported weekly wage of $300,000 a week.
He will line up in a Shanghai forward line already boasting former France international Nicolas Anelka, Colombian creative midfielder Giovanni Moreno and coached by former Argentine boss Sergio Batista.
Shanghai aren’t the only ones lavishly spending, however. League leaders Guangzhou Evergrande, who are coached by former Italian World Cup winner Marcello Lippi, are led by creative midfielder Conca, the Argentine previously the best paid player in the league.
The investment is thanks in large part to the booming Chinese economy and domestic soccer keen to clear up their act. The dark days of rife corruption in the national league seemingly in the past with the recent 10-year jail sentences handed to former heads of soccer.
But there are fears about the long term future of such profligate spending.
“I think such a trend might probably last for two to three more years. Because this involves a lot of financial support to keep it going,” Lou Yichen, a renowned soccer commentator in Shanghai, told Reuters in a recent interview.
”I feel such a situation cannot be sustainable in the long term because most football clubs in the Chinese Super League cannot keep up with such huge financial pressures.
”As seen from the current situation in China, no football club can be operated on a profitable basis. The amount of financial investment put into a football club and the returns you gather from it is not even comparable.
“We always hope that Chinese football can fly high in a short period of time, and be able to catch up with our neighbours such as Japan and South Korea. But even though we have such good thoughts, to a large extent we do not know in what way or to take which road to achieve such a target.”
The Chinese way though rarely involves patience. The global super power is used to seeing instant results and struggle to see why this is not the way in soccer.
China are currently 68th in the FIFA rankings behind Haiti, El Salvador and Sierra Leone, with their hopes of qualifying for a second World Cup in 2014 already over after early elimination.
The huge investment on the likes of Drogba and Conca are expected to inspire a nation of young footballers and improve standards in the world’s most populous country.
However, fans Reuters spoke to in Shanghai after the signing of Drogba said they wished the money could have been spent on the grassroots levels of the game to eventually benefit the national team.
“In everything, there are benefits and there are problems. I think with such big-name signings, they will benefit Chinese football more than harming it,” former Shanghai midfielder Fan Yun told Reuters.
”If you look at Europe, they also have foreign imports and there is not much of a problem on them sidelining their local talent.
“(But) I feel more of the focus should still be on developing young talents.”
But developing young players, building training academies and employing innovative coaches to succeed with the 2030 World Cup in mind is not in the interests of flamboyant businessmen and club owners who are keen to be photographed with their expensive soccer assets at every opportunity.
But while heads turned in Africa, Europe and South America, many in China are yet to be convinced.
Using Guangzhou as an example, Lou said that despite the club’s heavy investment - they are one of the few clubs to pay transfer fees - enticing spectators has proved problematic.
”We know that they are one of the most successful real estate companies in the country. So in terms of their investment, they can put in a lot of money and are stable. But in terms of the operation of the football club as a business, till today they have not earned a single cent.
“There is even news from behind the scenes saying that Guangzhou Evergrande gave away almost 10,000 free tickets for every match. Also if you look at the football merchandising sales, they are also not earning any profits.”
Without a self-sustaining model, fans rely on the rich club owners to maintain their interest and investment or China would be back to the lower echelons of Asian soccer again.
Writing by Patrick Johnston in Singapore; editing by Amlan Chakraborty