Chinese football’s tinted transfer window: We can see out but you can’t see in
The original meaning of the word window describes something which allows light to shine onto poorly illuminated areas, but in China the transfer window strangely works in the opposite manner, almost like a pane of two-way glass.
There lies within this huge and mysterious land an amazing footballing world as diverse and reflective of its host country’s personality as any. But anyone standing outside reading coverage of the game here could be forgiven for thinking the story of Chinese football was just some kind of massive twice-yearly shopping spree.
International media for the most part concentrates heavily on the big foreign player moves, since that is what sells papers, and for many that is all they can really talk about when it comes to Chinese football. Hardly any native players are known outside of China and the generation of players who did make their mark overseas, such as Fan Zhiyi, Hao Haidong and Sun Jihai, have all since retired.
The window is made darker by a lack of clear information coming out of China and misunderstandings on the part of those receiving meager crumbs of info. Adding to the confusion tabloids have an absolute field day, knowing they can link anyone to China with impunity – there’s no risk of being contradicted by anyone in China. This is a rather opaque place in general and it’s football environs even more so. Chinese media often cite unnamed sources, especially for anything remotely controversial, so accountability for facts is low. The Chinese phrase for “A source familiar with the matter” is one of the most common you will encounter reading the football columns; no-one wants to be the one blamed for upsetting the delicate internal politics of many of the clubs. The end result is an environment which is quite hostile to accurate information, and one where speculation and innuendo are the norm. Even when information is officially confirmed, all may not be as it seems – it is not unheard of for new domestic signings to be unveiled in the obligatory scarf-holding pose, only for the move to be canceled just before the window closes if it means the club can get someone else better in.
This is the state of Chinese football media, things are simply unclear at the best of times before language differences are factored in. Much of what is reported in China about movements involving foreign players is quoted from western news sources, who in turn are often quoting a “source inside China”. So both sets of media end up quoting each other in a feedback loop. Agents also are prone to using an offer from an “unnamed Chinese club” as a convenient bargaining chip in their negotiations, and China itself is now the default place for any big out of contract player to be linked to. Even in some cases those still under contract find themselves in the CSL picture – Diego Costa being told to “go to China” by Antonio Conte showed just how ridiculous things have gotten.
All of the above adds up creates a huge mess which makes making sense of anything a bigger challenge and the transfer window a seemingly easier subject to focus on. But it just uses up lots of journalistic effort which could be better spent on telling everyone about the actual game here rather than the merry-go-round of who is coming and going which really isn’t all that important at the end of the day. It’s not to say there isn’t some coverage beyond transfers, but there is a huge imbalance and in some cases outright hostility to glancing away from the EPL for a moment. When you have BBC pundits like Mark Lawrenson and Alan Green, describe Chinese football as “a joke” and “rubbish” respectively, it highlights the attitude in many parts that there is nothing to talk about other than transfers, that Oscar is selling out and prematurely ending his career. Lawrenson and Green are paid to use their knowledge and understanding of football to deliver insights as football experts to an audience, but their contemptuous remarks are borne of an interest level that does not go further than transfer market stories. Yet, as football men, instead of reading endless transfer rumour and speculation, if they were to watch Guangzhou Evergrande winning the Asian Champions League for the first time, a pulsating Shanghai Derby, or even the fans of Korean ethnic’s side Yanbian celebrate their surprise promotion to the CSL in 2015, would they perhaps have something useful and not so emotional to say? You may say many things about these intriguing footballing tales, but you can’t say they are rubbish or a joke.
The Chinese transfer window is now regularly producing fantastic moves which look absurd from Europe’s point of view, which are heavily criticized. But a more magnanimous attitude would be better for all concerned, the top European leagues are so far ahead of the CSL and no amount of money is going to change that in a hurry. Besides, China makes no secret of the fact that it looks up to European football and respects it, and whilst the game here is far from perfect and has some way to go before it can get near to achieving it’s ambitions, it deserves a lot better than to be so berated for having the audacity to try to bring in the best players it can. In short, the transfer window provides far too limited a view on the game here for any judgement on the game as a whole to be based upon it.
Author: Cameron Wilson
UK trained journalist and long-time Chinese football observer Cameron Wilson has been writing about Chinese football for over a decade…