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Editor’s column – Business doesn’t understand Chinese football

football with different bills on it

WEF founding editor Cameron Wilson returns to give his take on the latest Chinese football goings-on

What a start to the Chinese Super League last week. Eight games, four hat-tricks, 33 goals. Quite an opening indeed and a great illustration of why the actual football in Chinese football needs to be talked about more. Along with Chinese clubs’ Asian Champions results, there’s quite a lot we can say already… Evergrande are clearly no longer invincible, Tianjin Quanjian and SIPG are continuing off from last season, R&F the same, and Shenhua are exactly as bad as they were last year. Elsewhere the transfer window also finally closed, but not before a last flurry which told us a lot. But this week I’m starting with an event I was speaking at as it turned out to be even more interesting than I imagined.

Business doesn’t understand Chinese Football

I spoke at a Young China Watchers event in Shanghai on Tuesday night and I must say I was grateful to Dev Lewis for the invitation. The crowd was quite a mixture of YCW members, sports industry people. I don’t speak as often at events as I probably should. There’s a few reasons for that. In some cases, organizers are looking to gain credibility by associating with Wild East Football but usually aren’t even willing to pay my expenses if the conference is outside Shanghai. Also despite being someone previously invited to speak at a Financial Times event, I’m actually pretty bad at self-promotion and definitely don’t put myself out there much. Moreover, most football conferences in China are just plain dull, stuffed with presentations which are just glorified sales pitches and don’t address the real issues whatsoever. But I think one issue is that people like myself, who are dedicated advocates of Chinese fan culture and the social power of football, and not afraid to question and scrutinise the role of business and politics in football, are not really valued nor wanted as part of the conversation. But we absolutely should be, as much as anyone else.

There needs to be more fan input in general. Or, scratch that, we need to get away from thinking of people as “fans”, this label is a real misnomer. We need more input form people who genuinely care about the sport and understand it profoundly. It’s almost as if you aren’t slick and corporate then your voice is not worth as much. Or worse, because you are a “fan” and you actually care about the sport, your input or expertise isn’t taken that seriously and can be bought on the cheap. Yet the opposite should be true. The voices of those with the game’s best interests at heart are more valuable because they are not saying whatever it is they think people want to hear so they can keep picking up the paychecks. It is completely possible to be a fan and an objective observer at the same time, and have a valuable perspective to contribute. The problem is that many of those who have football in their DNA and life and breathe it often have a natural disdain for the commercial aspects of the sport. I must admit in the past I often perceived some as exploitative of football culture. I was at times aggressive and confrontational to towards them. Forgive me, this habit is in my DNA, I’m Scottish after all. But actually I realised that we all need to engage our brains more to solve the huge conundrum of how to improve the Chinese game since there is obviously no easy solution. The reality is that football is definitely big enough for everyone to contribute and business plays a massive role in the sport, creating many fundamental positives such as powering entire economies which support the livelihoods of many, and spreading the good word of football far and wide on a mass scale.

But it’s balance. Balance, balance, balance. The balance between football and business has been heavily skewed towards the former for a long time now and has caused serious damage to the game. When you water down or alter the intrinsic nature of what it is your business is based on, you ultimately hurt your own interests in the long term, and you severely compromise football’s magical ability to be a unifying force and a brilliantly colourful expressor of diverse cultures. But it is really obvious to anyone that the focus in general in football is way too much on money and profit at the expense of all else. Yet, trying saying that at a business conference – your points will go down like a lead balloon. Yet the sad basic fact that most don’t seem to get is that more football culture means more people playing the sport and that expands the market for everyone. Yet the focus is too narrow because its difficult for business to commit to things which won’t deliver a profit any time soon. That’s understandable. But this limitation needs to be more widely recognized and compensated for. Yes, we all need money and it is right that football should be run in a sound business manner. But that does not mean that we must sell every last aspect of the game just in the name of making a few extra bob. It is simply not necessary. In Europe, there is ample cash rolling around in the game in general, but of course thanks to the sheer greed and unenlightened mindset of those at the top of the game there, it is concentrated in a few power-hungry hands who absolutely care only about the bottom line and preserving their status and influence.

But in China, we have the chance to do something different with a government which has accurately identified the major issues affecting the sport – namely the lack of kids playing the game, the various dysfunctionalities affecting the professional leagues, and the general lack of football culture. Recent rule changes may not all be for the best, but at least they have shown that they realise money is not the answer. I was interested to see an attendee at the event I spoke at on Tuesday describe me as a football purist. He’s right. And by jove, China of all places needs as many football purists as possible right now.

Wanda in the CFA’s good books, Guoan, not so much…

The transfer window closed last week, it was quieter as expected. I wondered last week, would there be one last piece of interesting business before it “slammed shut” ? Sure enough there was. Dalian Yifang’s purchase of Nicolás Gaitán from Atlético Madrid, according to the CFA, was for less than 5 million Euro, conveniently avoiding the new 100% transfer tax rule. Yet Gaitan joined Atletico for 26 million Euro barely 18 months ago. Dalian also signed Carrasco , a 24-year-old Belgian international from Atletico and didn’t escape the tax on that move but there was a distinct lack of transparency from the CFA about the workings of the deals, as China Sports Insider details. Somehow, despite all the hype in Europe about Chinese clubs having loads of cash, its seems the pair were sold off at knock-down prices. Of course, these two transfers were used as part of the payment to Wanda group who have divested from Atletico and put their money into Dalian Yifang instead. Yet is there anyone out there who really believes these two players were worth so little? Knowing how China works, it appears the CFA are overlooking the shockingly cheap valuations of these players as a way to reward Wanda chairman Wang Jianlin for following government policy by taking his cash out of foreign football and putting it into Chinese clubs instead. Compare these transfers with Bakumbu’s to Beijing Guoan, which saw the capital club suffer the 100% transfer tax after their cute attempt to claim the former Villareal man paid 40 million Euro out of his own pocket to release himself from his own contract. Well, either way it does not look like the rules are being applied evenly. This kind of selective enforcement and implementation of rules is very common in China. But it doesn’t help football which needs clarity and fairness at all times to ensure sporting integrity and maintain the image of a fair and clean league – something the CSL cannot be complacent about.

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.

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