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Property Equals Power in Chinese Football

Chinese Super League logoIf you want to know who has money in China, look to those who own the property.  The real estate boom of the last few years has been one of the hottest topics in the local news and is one that is constantly on the minds of average people.  Real estate companies often get the land in sweetheart deals with the local government and then turn it into high end apartments, making a killing in the end and meaning low income housing is almost non existent these days.

That’s all well and good, but this is a blog about football, not economics.  However, this is yet another example how football influences, or is influenced by, everything around it.  The rich real estate companies and their owners choose, or are pushed by the local government, to put some of their money back into the local community, and a popular choice is always the local football club.

Two weeks ago, the China League’s Shenzhen Phoenix looked like it was about to be disbanded.  Their American owners, Mozamba, were accused of failing to pay the players and  there was no money for hotels or airfare to their weekend match in Shenyang.  At a midweek practice, the players decided to quit the team and many headed home.  It looked like the end for a club that was a founding member of both Jia A and the Chinese Super League, though it was a long way away from it Shenyang roots and had become unrecognizable since then.

At the last moment, the club was saved by Fuli Real Estate and traveled to Shenyang where they ended up winning.  The team currently sits in 6th place, but is only 4 points away from the last promotion spot.  Immediately when it was announced Fuli was taking charge, their deep pockets garnered speculation that big money signings would be coming in.  Already word on the street is that Marlon Harewood and Djibril Cisse will be joining the club, which has changed its name to Guangzhou Fuli (though it appears, at least for now, that they will stay in Dongguan instead of the provincial capital).

The signings of Harewood and Cisse would be minor news in light of their fellow Guangzhou club, Guangzhou Evergrande’s crazy cash splurge on Brazilian player of the year Conca.  Of course Evergrande is run by another real estate mogul, Xu Jiayin, who has thrown his money around in the sports world, first in women’s volleyball and now in football.

Whether or not this real estate cash infusion in the domestic leagues is good or not can be argued, but one real estate mogul is staying above the fray.  A few weeks ago, my fellow blogger Smari talked about Wang Jianlin and his investment in the national team. Wang is head of Wanda Real Estate and used to sponsor the Dalian team, however after a controversial loss in 1998, he withdrew his sponsorship of the club and vowed never to be involved in football again.

It seems his love for football and hopes for development in China outweighed his anger and over 10 years later, Wang is committing RMB500 million (US$77 million) to Chinese soccer.  For the next three years, the Chinese Super League, sponsorless since Pirelli pulled out at the end of last year, will be known as the “Dalian Wanda Plaza Chinese Super League”.  The Chinese Super League has had a number of title sponsors, both big and small, the most important question is will this one last.

Wang’s money will also be directed, most importantly, at the CFA to help develop youth soccer in China as well as bringing in a new coach for the national team.  Unfortunately, it appears Wang is focused most on instant results, and further cooperation after 2013 will be based on if the CFA can improve youth participation from the dismal 7,000 it is now to a much larger number.

It should also be noted that the other clubs who’ve been influential in the transfer market, namely Shaanxi Chanba and Hangzhou Greentown, are both backed by holding companies that are involved in the Chinese real estate world.  In China it seems the equivalent of finding a Russian oligarch or Middle Eastern oil money is finding a real estate company to back your team.

Brandon Chemers aka B. Cheng aka A Modern Lei Feng – is a name which may be familiar to many in the Chinese blogosphere. He currently serves as Editor-in-Chief for Wild East Football and is one of the lonely souls writing about Chinese football in English for the last 10 years. Chemers' credentials are second to none – his former blog focused not only on the fortunes of his beloved Beijing Guoan FC, but a multitude of other aspects of Beijing life. He’s deservedly built a reputation in the Chinese blogosphere as an insightful observer of not only Chinese football, but also the wider picture of life in modern China and its many layers. For WEF, beyond writing about Guoan, he often focuses on fan culture and the business of Chinese football.



  1. Kimo

    06/07/2011 at 01:29

    So another team has gone on to be bought by another company. What I don’t understand, and perhaps someone can explain to me, is how the Chinese football league system can stay afloat with not only the change in ownership of clubs, but also with the moving of teams from time to time to other cities. Wasn’t Shaanxi Chanba a Shanghai club before moving west? Now, there is the eventual move after the season of the formerly known Shenzhen Phoenix team. It just seems to me that the one thing some teams here lack is a commitment to community.

    I don’t want it to seem like that I am only accusing the Chinese league of this because it has been seen many times in the US and even in England when Wimbledon FC moved and became the MK Dons. However, when you have supporters who are coming out to the matches and paying their money to buy tickets, scarves and the team shirt they are showing commitment to the team. When new owners come in and decide to up and move to another city they show a lack of respect to those same supporters who stick by the clubs even through the changes in ownership.

    So, while it is good that Shenzhen (or whatever they call themselves now) has got new ownership is good and Chinese companies are making the effort to invest in their own domestic clubs, it would also be good if these same owners would show some commitment and remain in the cities in which they have purchased the clubs. This is something that the CFA needs to make a firm stand on because if more companies come in to invest in other clubs, there is threat of them moving the clubs to other cities, which only weakens the league.

    • bcheng

      06/07/2011 at 02:18

      The editor of this site would agree with you (and I do too to an extent), but I come from an American sports background where it seems almost every year at least one team in one league changes cities, so I’m used to it. It has yet to be confirmed whether Shenzhen will move or not, but it’s not that big a deal considering this is the first year they’ve played in Shenzhen (they moved from Changsha at the start of the year).

      Much like in American sports, owners go where the money is, it made no sense to have two CSL teams in Shanghai, as Inter wasn’t drawing, Shaanxi had always been a footballing hotbed without a team, so that’s where they went. It would be hubris for Guangzhou Fuli to actually move to Guangzhou, there could very well be two CSL clubs in Guangzhou next year, it’s unlikely a third team in that city is likely to bring in a crowd.

      • CP

        10/07/2011 at 11:35

        bcheng, what would the second Guangzhou team be? Excuse my ignorance because I don’t know much about league news and am not in China. Anyways if there are 2 teams, that could be good for fostering more passion with the derbies. But, given that Shenzhen’s had a good team and as a city is a major provincial rival to Guangzhou, was there ever a true Guangzhou-Shenzhen rivalry?

        • bcheng

          11/07/2011 at 02:20

          Guangdong Sunray Cave (they play their home matches in Guangzhou) currently sits in 2nd place in the China League, if they can hold on to that position, they’ll go up to the CSL. Currently Guangzhou Fuli is 4 points behind them. I agree that a local derby is a good thing, but 3 teams in one city is a bit much, especially “overnight” teams. There is a definite derby atmosphere when Hengda takes on Shenzhen in the CSL, it’s one of the few games Shenzhen fans really come out in force for, not sure about in the lower division.

          Unless something really weird happens, Dalian will have two sides in the CSL next year, the newly promoted side isn’t likely to have any kind of spectator base (and I wouldn’t be surprised if they move before the season begins).

    • Yiddo Huayi

      07/07/2011 at 01:11

      If the clubs are seen as a nice thing to have by the wealthy businessmen/entrepeneurs then there will be a lack of committment to the community (it’s not the community that pays the team & management’s wages).

      I’m a bit confused here however – the Shenzhen Phoenix (great name by the way!) are based in Dongguan (i.e. not Shenzhen) but are now called Guangzhou Fuli but still based in Dongguan?

      If Fuli can:
      a) keep the Phoenix name
      b) shift to Zhaoqing (my ba’s hometown)
      I will become an ardent fan of the club – even get a shirt (hopefully black and yellow stripey).

      • bcheng

        07/07/2011 at 02:36

        Your WEF reporters are somewhat lazy and on top of that Shenzhen Phoenix is a China League side, so news, even in Chinese is spotty at best. Shenzhen is hosting something known as the Universaide (the world university games), which nobody outside of China has probably ever heard of. Anyways, Shenzhen is taking the event VERY seriously, so it could be the case that the plans were for them to move back there after this season (even the Shenzhen CSL side has played a number of games this season in Dongguan).

        They also could legitimately play in Shenzhen and still be called “Guangzhou Fuli”. While this would make no sense to outsiders, Chinese companies’ registered official name includes the city they are in. That’s why the CSL’s full name is now “Dalian Wanda Plaz CSL”. Fuli is a Guangzhou company, so they could be “Shenzhen Guangzhou Fuli“, which does seem kind of strange and so is why the media is using “Guangzhou Fuli”. Haha, when more news is available on exactly where they’ll play, you’ll definitely find it here first!

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