Shifting Football Powerbase: Lessons from China

Kenya football has failed to make much progress over the years, at least in comparison to other continental neighbor’s, and putting into perspective the national team and club’s performances at international level.

Harambee Stars only show at the African Cup of Nations was in 2004, and since then, the performance of Stars has been below par. The local clubs have not sweetened the sour taste either. Successive regimes at the Football Federation have failed to hack it, as have the local club’s administration.

Just who can Kenya ape in order to help improve matters?

One nation that has continued to draw global attention is China. Besides the massive infrastructure, Chinese football continues to draw lots of discussions. The influx of global football stars to the Chinese Super League amongst them Ramires, Jackson Martinez, Demba Ba, Gervinho et al poses the question; what different things is China football doing?

The Chinese have fallen in love with records, and in January, Chinese clubs stamped their authority in the football market, outspending Premier League clubs. The transformation in the Chinese Super League (CSL) now poses the question; is football headed east?

Where did it start?

The Chinese Super League was created in 2004, with 12 teams, but currently has 16. 30 rounds of matches are played in a season, with the two bottom teams being relegated. The top 3 clubs at the end of the season play in the Asia Champions League. The CSL season kicks off in March and runs till October.

Besides the glamour that has attracted global stars to the league, there is a policy to help regulate transfer activity. This, is in a bid to ensure that no local talent is overlooked. Initially in 2004, each club was allowed a maximum of 3 foreigners, and only 2 could play at any given time. In 2006, the rule was altered and the number was increased by one. In a bid to boost the performance of Chinese clubs in the champion’s league, the Chinese FA later implemented the 4+1 rule, which increased limitation of foreigners to 5, with at least 1 foreigner from either the rest of Asia or Australia.

On the field of play, there is the 3+1 rule in effect, where each team is permitted to play 3 foreigners and one foreigner from either Asia or Australia. In a bid to nurture home talent, no team is allowed to sign a foreign goalkeeper.

The top teams in the CSL include Beijing Guoan, Shandong Luneng and Shanghai Shenhua. Guangzhou is the most successful club in Asia in the past half-decade, having won 5 straight league titles and 2 Champion’s league titles. The club was bought by Alibaba and Evergrande.

There is more. Besides the signing of global stars, Chinese clubs have put in lots of effort to ensure that the clubs  match other global giants. Champions Evergrande, for instance, run an international football school, with more than 50 pitches and 2400 students. The world’s biggest. This is an aping of the Manchester City football model, where you can play as you study. Football here is part of the school curriculum. The ultimate goal is to ensure that the club and nation at large can produce stars of its own.

Growing In Numbers

The fans in China are passionate about football. Last season, statistics show that 5.3 million fans attended the league matches, with an average of 22,193 fans per match. The surge in attendance has been partly attributed to the global football stars, who fans want to catch a glimpse of.

The race for TV broadcast rights in the CSL is fierce. In October 2015, TV rights were sold for a staggering 1.08 billion Euros. French broadcaster Ma Chaine Sports acquired the rights. Fans from outside China can follow the CSL. Matches are free on IPTV, online and every weekend two matches are televised on the state TV. Clubs got $9 million from broadcasters last year.

The CSL management has previously worked with the Premier League to establish proper practices in their local league.

At national level, measures have been put in place to ensure that China becomes a global football giant. Maybe a far-fetched dream?

All the 16 premier league clubs in China are owned by businessmen, with interests in Real Estate and property. This in itself, makes the club financially stable. These investors include moneybags Jack Ma and Wang Jianlin. These Chinese investors have also bought shares in some top clubs like Sochaux, Espanyol, Atletico Madrid and Manchester City. Through buying stakes in these clubs, long-term strategic partnerships between the European and Chinese clubs are created. This helps domestic players and clubs learn from the best. Another motive for this move is to help China bid for the World Cup.

Government a Central Figure In Football Growth

Chinese president Xi Jinping is a great football fanatic, who is set to revolutionize Chinese football. In 2014, Xi declared that he would build China into the world’s biggest sporting economy by 2025.

Xi has a 10-year strategic plan that rubs to 2025. He estimates that the Chinese sports market will be valued at 5 trillion Yuan. By 2017, Xi looks to establish 20,000 football schools and have 100,000 football players. That number, is to go up by 50,000 by 2025.

Guanxi is a famous Chinese cultural phenomena, which loosely refers to ‘Scratch my back, I scratch yours.’

Chinese state officials, at provincial level, have been tasked with creating a sporting model, to deliver flow of talent in the country. This move helps ensure talent is tapped, nurtured and developed gradually.

The Government has worked closely with investors to realize these dream. This is what makes the investors put their money in sports, football particularly.

The Government has also cracked down on match fixing, in order to sanitize the game. A number of arrests have been made. Ex-football chiefs, players and referees have been put behind bars, after being found guilty of such issues as match-fixing.

The next 10 years or so, could see a major shift in world football powerbase, and maybe, just maybe, China could be the new powerbase.

Kenya, a nation with immense football talent, should probably take lessons from the Chinese game. It is evident from China’s case, that it takes a concerted effort from the management, fans, government and investors to grow the game.


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