The emergence of China as perhaps the next big footballing powerhouse, whether the Premier League likes to admit it or not, is inevitably a sore blow to the top flight of English football. After years of being the envy of every other European league left trailing the Premier League in the amounts of money that its clubs can viably afford to spend on recruitment every passing transfer window, you need only look at the daily tabloid transfer rumours to appreciate the growing influence of Chinese football in the modern game. For all of the limits recently enforced on Chinese clubs restricting teams to only four foreign players in their squads, the lure of China is just too good for some of the most talented players in the game and as witnessed in the past six months, it doesn’t take long for a Chinese club to sound out those who are interested in helping the Chinese football project grow, or more than likely just keen on a big payday and they then consequently make their move to bring some of the biggest names in world football to the Chinese Super League.
At first it did seem that in spite of the vast sums of money that China were able to offer foreign star players, the Chinese Super League seemed more of a haven for older players – one final hurrah and crack at professional football whilst picking up an incredibly generous weekly wage at the same time. Therefore operating in a similar way to MLS and the Australian A-League, initially it seemed there was little to worry about for the Premier League and for the players that that may end up losing to China in terms of golden oldies and veterans seeing out their career away from the English top flight, at least the lure of playing the top tier of English football would remain untarnished and enough to help retain the much younger and much more promising stars in the Premier League despite the ridiculous amount of money floating around the Chinese game. Yet after Hulk’s bank account became even more incredible after joining Shanghai SIPG and the promising 27 year old Alex Teixeira rejected a move to Liverpool in favour of a move to China, maybe it was then when the Premier League should have sat up and at last took notice of a growing trend with the potential to turn the heads of some of the most famous names in world football to leave their current clubs. Likewise with China’s recruitment policy targeting stellar signings from across all of the major European leagues, more and more players that the Premier League intend to keep in the English top flight are increasingly being linked with proposed moves to China – swapping the prestige of challenging in one of the greatest and most competitive leagues in the world for the most luxurious holiday one could ever imagine.
After Chelsea parted ways with Brazilian playmaker Oscar in late 2016, some would say that it was only then when fellow Premier League clubs and players as well as the media itself perhaps first note of the rise of Chinese football and starting seeing it as a genuine threat. I mean, only for Chelsea’s charge towards the Premier League title without really using and needing Oscar so far this season, I think even more would have been made about the poignancy of a move to Shanghai SIPG and what ramifications it could have for English football in the future.Nonetheless whilst both Roman Abramovich and Chelsea fans may not be too disheartened at this moment in time after losing two of what effectively became squad players in Oscar and the Nigeria international John Obi Mikel, in moves that have reportedly earned the club over £50-60M at least after many years of service, the attraction of the Chinese Super League doesn’t look like it will go away anytime soon and China have the potential to become a real force to be reckoned with in world football, albeit a work in progress at present.
As for Chelsea meanwhile, perhaps the signs are beginning to show as it was only this week that the club and the Premier League’s top goalscorer Diego Costa, for all what has been suggested about a back injury, would appear to have had his head turned by an offer from the Chinese Super League. Regardless of whether Costa truly has any intention of ever moving to China or is merely using such an offer to earn himself a bigger contract at Chelsea, for a nation that nobody was really talking about when Chelsea started a footballing revolution after being took over in 2003, as well as a taste of the club’s own medicine to some degree it is however perhaps the biggest illustration of China’s growing influence in world football and possibly a sign of wider things to come for the Premier League.
In the last six months of 2016, with the January transfer window much quieter than its sister window in the summer, more than ever before it did begin to feel like all that was going to happen this winter transfer front would dictated by the growth of football in China with rumours mentioning a host of Chinese Super League clubs on a daily basis. Although it may be cliche to say most transfer rumours are generated by a process of inserting an in-form or wantaway player, followed by a considerable transfer fee and preceded by a club ‘rumoured’ to have shown an interest in the individual, it often felt like everyday another one of the Premier League’s hottest prospects and biggest stars was once again being linked once again with a move to China for a transfer valuation much greater than many clubs would pay in mainland Europe. But as often is the case in football, most notably with the transfer rumour mill which never ever goes away, there is and later proved to be no smoke without fire with the likes of Graziano Pelle and Ramires; one minute words on a newspaper’s backpage, the next a reality – a footballing phenomenon not just in England but across Europe too with Carlos Tevez and Axel Witsel perhaps the most recent and high profile cases of fiction soon becoming fact in world football.
For the the English game, although the likes of Yaya Toure and Jordan Amavi have come out publicly and suggested that despite offers from China they have decided to stay put in English football as well as Harry Kane’s recent post-match assertion that not one of Tottenham’s squad would be tempted by a move to the Chinese Super League, there clearly is a lot to think about and the rising power of Chinese football must not be ignored again. In terms of television rights there’s no denying that the Premier League continues to rule the roost over their European counterparts but given the rapid succession of players moving to China in the past year or so from across Europe, financially speaking you could say that when it comes to recruitment both leagues are on a level playing field. For what the English game may have in prestige and tradition, China certainly makes up for financially as well as the prospect for new signings to get on board with the Chinese project and to become a part of helping the game grow in world football and setting an example for the next generation of young Chinese footballers able to watch some of the best talents in world football, applying their trade on their home turf.
Money talks however and football often provides the most prominent public illustration of greed that you will ever be able to see Yet in nothing is impossible, especially when there’s money at stake and whilst things might seem stable for now, the Premier League will surely be keeping a close eye on the Chinese game and its next move on the footballing chessboard. The day that an England international swaps the English top flight for the Chinese Super League is when we can say it’s checkmate. It is up to the Premier League to then somehow find a way out of what could yet be the league’s greatest challenge to date – to maintain its reputation as the greatest show on earth or at least hope restrictions are implemented to help thwart the threat they are beginning to face. For now however, there is no point fixing something that clearly broken but who knows what the future may hold for world football, what the next decade may bring and what the next move on the chessboard may be. For good or for bad, the next few years will certainly be an interesting watch and a period which could further make or even potentially break the English top flight and its unparalleled success of recent years.