Ready for the big draw

Updated: 2012-05-25 11:10

By Qiu Quanlin and Zhang Haizhou (China Daily European Weekly)

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European soccer clubs and players seek greener pastures in China

Ready for the big draw

Italian coach Marcello Lippi (center) talks to his assistants during his first match managing Guangzhou Evergrande. Provided to China Daily

Expectations are running high that big-ticket names would soon make a beeline for soccer clubs in China, after former Italian World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi decided to be a part of the Chinese Super League (CSL).

Who's next is the question most posed by soccer aficionados. Many expect that it will be Didier Drogba, the Cote d'Ivoire international who has just helped English side Chelsea win this year's European Champions League Final.

Besides of the big crowds that these names automatically draw, fans are also hopeful that they will be a much-needed shot-in-the-arm for the sport in China. Many believe that soccer is still a long way from reaching the heights achieved by China on the economic front or in the international arena.

There is also the flip side to this whole phenomenon in the sense that China could prove to be a safe haven, considering that Europe, the bastion of soccer, is not exactly in the pink of health. Interest in the game is increasing in China, along with the number of rich people who have bulging investment pockets.

Earlier this month, defending CSL champions Guangzhou Evergrande started the soccer frenzy by roping in Lippi, who led Italy to a World Cup win in 2006. Club owner Xu Jiayin, a real estate baron, feels that the high-profile international coach will not only boost Guangzhou Evergrande's fortune, but also help it achieve an international reputation.

"We made the decision to sign Lippi a year ago, as we felt that it was in tune with our long-term strategic needs. We are looking to transform the club into an international-level one," Xu says.

Though neither Xu nor Lippi would disclose the exact remuneration, the 64-year-old Italian coach admitted that money was one of the big attractions for him to sign on the dotted line.

"I have turned down invitations from other European clubs and some from Qatar. The Guangzhou side's offer was more on the lines of what I would have made with any European club. So I thought why not take up the China offer," Lippi says.

The Milan-based La Gazzetta dello Sport reported that the Chinese club has offered Lippi in the region of 10 million euros for a single season.

The Italian coach is the biggest name to join Chinese soccer from Europe after Shanghai Shenhua signed French striker Nicolas Anelka from Chelsea at the beginning of this season.

Anelka's former Chelsea mate Drogba has also been linked to Shanghai, although his heroics in helping the London-based club win the FA Cup and UEFA Champions League could put a brake on his China plans.

Another reason why more soccer stars are heading toward China is the increased outlays being made by the clubs to acquire the services of foreign players, with a view to spruce up their international standings.

Paraguay international Lucas Barrios has agreed to a four-year transfer deal worth 8.5 million euros to play for Guangzhou Evergrande. The former Borussia Dortmund striker is expected to join the side next month.

The Guangzhou side has also signed a contract with Argentine midfielder Dario Conca, who set the Chinese league transfer record with a reported $10 million (7.9 million euros) deal last year.

Italian media also reported that 36-year-old AC Milan midfielder Clarence Seedorf has traveled to China for talks with several CSL clubs, such as Beijing Guo'an, Guangzhou Evergrande and Shanghai Shenhua.

Xu's company, Evergrande Real Estate Group, started its soccer involvement two years ago when it took over the Guangzhou club in March 2010 with an initial investment of 100 million yuan ($15.8 million, 12.7 million euros).

"Before being involved in China's sport sector, Xu's company was just a local real estate brand. But now it has gained an international reputation," says Xie Liang, a veteran soccer commentator with Radio Guangdong.

The company has continued with its investment in the soccer sector, and plans to start an international soccer school cooperative in September. Sources close to the company said its net profit increased from 8 billion yuan in 2010 to 11.8 billion yuan last year.

"As a businessman, Xu's goal in sports investment is very simple - to realize more profits in the long run," Xie says.

Apart from the Chinese sides hunting for famous coaches and top players, there has also been more interaction between China and the world's leading soccer powers in recent years.

English soccer education will also head toward China as FA Learning. The educational body of England's Football Association, based in London, reached an agreement last week to team up with London's Dr Sun Yi Xian's Youth Foundation.

According to the first partnership between China and the FA, the foundation will work with FA Learning to deliver a range of soccer training and education courses for coaches, players and referees in China.

Youth soccer education and training, the strength of English soccer according to Jamie Houchen, head of FA Learning, will be the focus of the partnership. A team of FA registered coaches is expected to visit China later this autumn to work with coaches from 62 Chinese cities.

Nelson Cheng, CEO of the foundation, praises the new partnership as "an exciting and immensely important step in developing cultural, educational, economic and sporting relations between China and the UK".

Economic interest, or revenue, however, has been the key driving force for Western clubs to enter and expand in the Chinese market in recent decades.

Playing commercial friendly matches in China was the most popular way till a few years back. Italian Serie A side Sampdoria, now in Serie B, played China's national team in Beijing in May 1994.

The match offered Chinese soccer fans the first ever chance to watch a leading European side play up close, and started a Sampdoria craze in China.

Following its early success, the Italian side came to China to play more commercial matches again in 1995, opening the door for other leading western clubs to follow suit.

Touring Asia and China is now a permanent fixture on the agenda of most European soccer clubs, especially in the period before the soccer season commences in Europe.

Past Serie A title and Coppa Italia winners, AC Milan and Inter Milan played their Suppercoppa Italiana match at the Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing in 2011.

Super Copa de Espana matches, between the winners of La Liga and the Copa del Rey, will also be played in Beijing in the next four years, according to a deal announced last week.

Real Madrid, this year's La Liga winner, will take on the winner of this weekend's cup final between Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao at a match in Beijing later this year.

Though the stakes are indeed high for European soccer players and clubs in China, there has also been criticism from several quarters that the foreign sides, officials and players have not done much to revitalize the game in China.

Revenue-oriented efforts in the Chinese market "don't necessarily" make European clubs "bad people", but "from a Chinese point of view, it's not necessarily in their (Chinese soccer fans) interests", says Sean Hamil, an expert on soccer management at Birkbeck College, University of London.

"I would raise serious questions about whether or not English clubs, for example, are going to China with a real idea of partnership," Hamil responds when asked to analyze English third-division League One side Sheffield United's unsuccessful experience in Chengdu, Sichuan province.

Kevin McCabe, Sheffield United chairman, returned to the southwestern Chinese city on Monday to "re-invest" in Chengdu Blades Soccer Club (CBFC), a Chinese second-division side Sheffield United sold in February 2011, according to reports in Chengdu Evening News.

Sheffield United took over the Chengdu side in 2006 from a local cigarette maker and renamed it Chengdu Blades, to share the same nickname.

Being promoted to the Chinese Super League more than one year later, the first ever English-owned Chinese side did not enjoy any lasting success and it was relegated to China League One in 2010 due to a match fixing scandal.

"We were very disappointed with our home team, as we initially expected the English club to spend huge sums on top players and also bring about advanced team management," says Zhang Jianning, a 57-year-old local fan.

"There is a question to be asked: is the relationship between European soccer clubs and the Chinese market opportunistic? Or is it genuinely strategic?" Hamil says, adding that limited financial resources might have hampered Sheffield United, as it is not a global brand by itself.

Noting he respect Sheffield United as a team, Hamil says that he considers the inability to shore up revenues as the prime reason the English club decided to move out of China.

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