China’s Growing Prominence in Football

In less than a decade, the Chinese Super League has garnered the attention of the footballing world, and vaulted itself onto the worldwide stage by securing some of the most high-profile transfers in recent seasons. Formerly a destination for players who were deemed past their best, such as Carlos Tevez, John Obi Mikel and Demba Ba, the Chinese Super League has recently been able to attract more talents in the prime of their careers. Examples of this shifting trend include Yannick Carrasco, Axel Witsel and Anderson Talisca.

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Yannick Carrasco, a promising talent with A.S. Monaco in France and a member of the Belgian national setup, was highly touted as a top European prospect. A move to Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid in 2015 confirmed Carrasco’s status as genuine top-tier player. Then, shockingly, after three seasons spent competing for the top silverware in Europe, Carrasco completed a shocking transfer to Dalian Yifang in the Chinese Super League. With likes of Arsenal linked to the Belgian winger, this was a move that raised eyebrows across Europe, with many critics claiming that Carrasco was trading his sporting ambition for the high wages offered in China. Regardless of pundits’ opinions on the move, it signaled a shift in perception for the Chinese Super League. No longer was China a retirement destination for aging stars looking for a final pay day (see USA’s MLS), but rather a legitimate option for players in their prime.

Another transfer that helped to raise the profile of the CSL was the signing of another member of the Belgian national team; Axel Witsel. Witsel was a highly touted midfielder plying his trade for Zenit St. Petersburg with many top tier European suitors clamoring for his services. Again, the CSL blindsided the European market as Tianjin Quanjian snapped up Witsel in 2017. Many European pundits again implied that Witsel’s career at the highest level would be nearing its twilight. Conventional wisdom again was disproved as Witsel left Tianjin after one season for Borussia Dortmund, going on to feature as a midfield mainstay in their current title challenge. Similar to the Brazilian midfielder Paulinho, who left Guangzhou Evergrande to win a La Liga title with Barcelona, Witsel’s success in Europe after a stint in the CSL boosted the league’s reputation.

These signings, along with the recent transfer of a promising young Brazilian from Benfica, Anderson Talisca, to Guangzhou Evergrande, have significantly increased the profile and prestige of the Chinese Super League. The increased influence from Chinese clubs in the European transfer market has coincided with increased investment activities from Chinese entities within Europe. In 2015, Atletico Madrid, one of Europe’s elite clubs, sold a 20 percent equity stake to the investment arm of Wanda Group. Additionally, Wanda acquired naming rights to Atletico’s stadium, branding it the Wanda Metropolitano. Wanda Group is also an avid supporter of grassroots football development in China, through its China’s Future Soccer Stars program.

In 2016, Chinese electronics retail giant Suning Commerce Group invested 270 million euros to acquire a 70 percent stake in the legendary Italian club Inter Milan. This partnership between Inter Milan and Suning fostered a closer collaboration between Inter Milan and the growing fan base in China and the Asia-Pacific region. China’s president Xi Jinping has encouraged such investment as another step towards creating a global sports empire that combines football clubs with broadcasting rights, to create a sports consumption ecosystem that could eventually rival that of the European market. Suning Commerce Group, along with Evergrande, a Chinese real estate giant, are also rumored to be in talks to acquire Stellar Group, which is a leading UK-based football agency. These coordinated efforts including higher profile moves in the European transfer market, strategic investments and partnerships with European clubs, and collaborations with industry entities are all preparing China to be a major player in the future of world football.

Xi has stipulated a plan to create a domestic sports industry worth $850 billion by 2025. Such progress within the industry would create a solid foundation for China to eventually host a World Cup. Hosting a World Cup would be a formal announcement to the world of China’s ambition to play a huge role in the future of football.

With the World Cup venues decided through the 2026 competition, the earliest available tournament China could bid for would be the 2030 World Cup. With over a decade until hosting a potential World Cup, there is massive potential for China’s technological revolution to augment the competitiveness of their bid.

China is currently a leader in the development of 5G technologies, which will spur a whole new generation of innovation. One area that 5G promises to transform is the efficiency of China’s massive and dense urban centers. With sprawling urban metropoles like Beijing, Shanghai and the Pearl River Delta region, the potential for developments in smart city infrastructure to augment China’s urban management capabilities cannot be understated.

By the time China has the opportunity to host a World Cup, “smart cities” will have matured into much more than just a buzzword. Instead it will manifest at the forefront of urban planning efficiency gains. From improved information broadcast capabilities, crime detection, and traffic management, to convenient and sustainable transportation, 5G will fundamentally revolutionize the way that urban citizens live their lives. China could be looking to host a World Cup to realize their sporting ambitions and capitalize on a growing consumer class and increased demands for entertainment, while simultaneously using the event as a worldwide expo for the implementation of their advanced 5G technologies.

The IDC (International Data Corporation) predicts that the investment in smart city use cases will reach $158 billion by 2022. By 2030 or later, this sector will become one of the most desired areas of investment for both mature and developing economies worldwide. As China already has a strong bilateral relationship with many developing nations regarding infrastructure, their successful implementation of 5G technologies to create smart cities for their World Cup bid would encourage many of these developing nations to continue to rely on the Chinese to build their future infrastructure.

Also it cannot be underestimated how these advances in fundamental technologies will shape the perception of the Chinese World Cup bid. Many of the traditional footballing powers have aging infrastructures that would be trumped by China’s cities of the future. This could weigh heavily in their favor when FIFA decides where to award the next World Cup. The advantages of their technological evolution, coupled with the burgeoning fan base of the Asia-Pacific region makes China an attractive selection for FIFA to promote the global growth of football in the future.

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Ultimately, the emergence of China as a key player in the footballing landscape is already underway. As the Chinese Super League’s profile continues to rise, and Chinese companies continue their investment in the football industry, the circumstances for a successful Chinese World Cup bid are becoming more and more favorable.

Featured photo credit to Internet