The Chinese Super League: our superiority complex is ill-earned
On the one hand, the British media's response to the Chinese Super League's lavish spending spree has been staggering. On the other, it's been tiresomely predictable.
Western media attitudes towards China are spectacularly condescending. Generally, the world's most populous country is portrayed as a place where people know nothing of the world outside, where the government controls information with an iron fist and keeps the populous spellbound and docile through misinformation and propaganda. This, we're told, is a country where Mao – a dictator responsible for the deaths of 30 million people during the Cultural Revolution – is revered as a hero. The message is clear. What these poor people need is Western democracy, and fast.
We're painted a picture in black and white, but as always, reality paints in shades of grey. The atrocities of the Cultural Revolution must not be overlooked. But under the auspices of the Communist Party, China has modernised rapidly. The government has brought more than 800 million people out of poverty since 1978. It's abolished foot binding, and made great strides towards gender equality. China has evolved from a poor, predominantly rural country to an industrial powerhouse and the second-largest economy on Earth. In this context, our superiority complex seems ill-earned indeed.
But these patronising views are mirrored by football media, too. In a recent article, The Guardian's Daniel Taylor was scathing in his assessment of Brazilian midfielder Oscar's move to Shanghai SIPG. "Oscar is too good for China", he said. The journalist noted how Wayne Rooney's advisors visited China on a fact-finding mission, and found the Super Leagues' pitches to be "appalling, the standard as bad as everyone thought, and the referees even worse, in a league blackened by tales of match-fixing and bribery". According to Taylor, China "is no place for any footballer with genuine ambition".
Elsewhere, we're encouraged to laugh at the £60 million fee that took a bit-part Premier League player to the Chinese capital, and scoff at the £615,000 a week salary reportedly doled out to a 32-year-old Carlos Tevez who's long past his best.
Here in England, we've never been especially good at putting eyes on ourselves. How can we mock the Chinese Super League, when the Premier League is universally derided for its lavish overspending and unrealistic wages? When Swansea City can afford to sign a World Cup winning striker, and Chelsea to hoard so much young talent that the club must loan 38 players to sides across the globe? The money being spent in China is ludicrous. But it's a ludicrous sport.
It's time we started taking China seriously, because they're taking football seriously. With such spectacular wages on offer, clubs in Europe's top leagues must worry that their star players will be tempted by a move out East. And while the standard of China's domestic league is low, it's only going to get better now that clubs are importing top-tier players, managers and even referees from Europe. This isn't like Major League Soccer. Many of the stars abandoning Europe for China are still in their prime.
And then there's the football infrastructure. Two years ago, president Xi Jinping made football a part of the national curriculum. In a country of more than 1.3 billion people, every schoolchild will now receive basic football training as part of their education. It isn't so much a case of if China will discover a generation of talented domestic players, but when.
Nor is China simply jumping aboard the football bandwagon. The sport has been played there for centuries. Millennia, in fact. It's a little-known fact that China – not England – is credited by FIFA as having invented the sport. Cuju, as the game was known, was first recorded in the 3rd or 2nd century BC. Football, by contrast, didn't appear in Europe until the 9th century – more than 1,200 years later.
For the British football establishment, mocking Chinese football is no more than whistling past the graveyard. China is gearing up to compete – for the signatures of the game's best players, and for the biggest honours in international football. It won't happen overnight, but with money, enthusiasm and time on their side, it will happen.
– Louis Rossi