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The Great Shirt Selling Fallacy

Brazilian champions Corinthians have recently agreed to a two year loan deal with Chinese youngster Chen Zhihzhao, who will be the first Chinese player in Brazil’s top flight.  Much like Dong Fangzhuo going to Manchester United, the move is an absolute shock that appears to come straight out of the blue.

Chen, who is from Guangdong, spent a few seasons in the Hong Kong league before moving to Nanchang Hengyuan, helping lead them to promotion in 2009 and then scoring an impressive 9 goals for them during the 2010 season, when he quickly became a fan favorite.  After putting up those big numbers, a Portuguese side tried to buy him, however the transfer was held up by Nanchang.  A dispute between player and club led to Chen sitting out the 2011 season.

Already there are mentions that this move is part of Corinthians “marketing plan” and the club’s marketing director, Luis Paulo Rosenberg, doesn’t seem shy about putting his own two cents in regarding player transfers.  He’s quoted as saying the club would bring in “any old rubbish from China” to help promote the club here.  If this is the case, it appears Chen may become yet another sad sack story of Chinese football.  Just shy of his 24th birthday and having sat out an entire season, the youngster who showed promise needs to be given a chance to prove himself once again on the pitch, though it doesn’t seem like he can expect much in the way of playing time in Brazil.

This idea of signing a player for marketing purposes, especially at an already advanced age for a footballer, is downright criminal.  Further, it rarely does anything to advance the club’s interests in China.  Every time it has been attempted, it failed miserably.  The cliche of signing a Chinese player to sell shirts is as played out as talking about why amongst China’s 1.3 billion people, 11 footballers can’t be found.

While I hate to bring it up, when Yao Ming went to the NBA he captivated all of China, but Yao wasn’t the first to do so, there was Wang Zhizhi and Mengke Bateer before him, and now Yi Jianlian after.  Yao stood out because he was a unique presence, a superstar, but none of the players who came before or after could match that level of talent.  For a Chinese footballer to go abroad and really capture the fan’s attention, he needs to be a regular fixture in the lineup and hopefully he can score a few goals.

For leagues already on Chinese television like the EPL, the Bundesliga, La Liga, and Serie A, picking up a Chinese player would be a great way for a club to get themselves on tv more often.  Yet outside of the world’s top clubs (the Milans, Barcelona, and Man United) any club is going to have a hard time selling merchandise in China.  Even clubs who sign kit deals with Chinese companies like X-Tep and Li Ning must be shocked to find their kits aren’t readily available across China.

To all those greedy executives with dollar signs in their eyes when looking at the Chinese market, stop!  Sign a Chinese player because of what they can do for you on the pitch, don’t sign them for shady “marketing” reasons, because you’ll very quickly realize it was a waste of money.


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.

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