China Super League: Fantasy Football or the Next World Power?


The rise of the Chinese Super League

The new Chinese Super League season starts this weekend after a winter transfer spend of £200m, which eclipsed all of Europe’s major leagues.

Big-name signings such as Alex Teixeira, Jackson Martinez and Ramires are among the overseas stars who will be on show.

The influx of money and famous names is tied into the grand plan of the country’s president, Xi Jinping – a football enthusiast – to win the World Cup in 15 years.

Is China playing its own game of fantasy football, or can it really become the game’s dominant nation?

Chinese Super League – what you need to know

A numbers game…
16 teams Almost 500 players 18% of players from overseas
Average age of players: 26.5 years Estimated total transfer value of players: £268m 5.3 million fans attended games last season
  • Each team is allowed five foreign players, including one from an Asian Football Confederation country, such as Australia, Japan or Hong Kong.
  • Only four overseas players are allowed on the pitch at the same time.
  • No overseas goalkeepers allowed – to improve home-grown quality.
  • No cap on spending, no maximum wage and no European Financial Fair Play (FFP) equivalent.
  • Jiangsu Suning set a new Chinese transfer fee record in February, signing Brazil midfielder Alex Teixeira from Shakhtar Donetsk for £37.5m.
  • Average stadium capacity is 45,268 and the average crowd for last season was 22,193.
  • The 2015 ‘most valuable player’ was Brazilian midfielder Ricardo Goulart of Guangzhou Evergrande.
  • The league went professional in 1994 and became the Chinese Super League in 2004.
  • The season runs from March to November.

The big deals


Argentina forward Ezequiel Lavezzi was the most recent big name to move to China, joining Hebei China Fortune on a two-year deal earning the 30-year-old a reported £400,000 a week.

Jiangsu Suning paid almost £60m for Brazilian midfield pair Teixeira and Ramires, while Martinez made a £31m move to Guangzhou Evergrande from Atletico Madrid.

Even second-tier clubs are raiding Europe, with former West Ham forward Nikica Jelavic at Beijing Renhe.

Ex-Chelsea and Newcastle striker Demba Ba, former Arsenal man Gervinho, ex-Everton captain Tim Cahill and ex-Sunderland striker Asamoah Gyan have all moved to China in the past year
Zhuang Chen, digital editor, BBC East Asia
“The biggest factor is money. For some of the players, they don’t even know where the club is located. They have to check on the internet.”
Former Chelsea boss Luiz Felipe Scolari, ex-Tottenham goalkeeper Ian Walker, former Chelsea full-back Dan Petrescu and ex-England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson are all working in the Chinese Super League

The Chinese transfer fee was broken four times in a month recently. How long until the world record is surpassed?

“China has fallen in love with breaking world records,” says Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at Salford University. “It is symptomatic of the Chinese culture.

“They are conspicuous consumers who love to be seen to be the best and love to flaunt their wealth.

“A Chinese entrepreneur and their club will want to be able to say they have set a new world football transfer record and I predict that within 12 months that will happen.”

Gareth Bale is the world’s most expensive footballer, signing for Real Madrid from Tottenham for £85m in 2013

The president’s grand plan

  • President Xi’s 10-year plan – running from 2015-2025 – is to create a Chinese sports economy worth $850bn (£609m). Optimistic estimates value the entire global sports economy at about $400bn (£286bn).
  • He wants to build 20,000 football schools by 2017, producing 100,000 players, and increase schools to 50,000 by 2025.
  • President Xi wants China to host and win the World Cup in the next 15 years.
Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero with President Xi and British Prime Minister David Cameron during the Chinese leader’s state visit in October 2015

“Ten years ahead, 15 years ahead, I am quite sure the China national team will compete to win the World Cup,” says Shanghai SIPG boss Sven-Goran Eriksson.

The much-travelled Swedish manager led his side to the runners-up spot last season. Although “shocked” at the amount of money spent in the transfer window, the 68-year-old told BBC World Service the CSL has moved away from the perception of another well-paid destination for semi-retired stars.

Having managed in Serie A in the 1990s and the English top flight in the 2000s, Eriksson says “everyone should be worried” about the emergence of the Chinese Super League.

“The money is here and the football is getting better. I think attitudes have changed,” said Eriksson. “This is reality for a long time.

“They realised they weren’t on the level in world club football and they want to reach it. China will soon be a world power in football.”

China usually achieves its aims, says Chadwick. The country has excelled at the Olympics and Paralympics, yet has only ever qualified for one football World Cup – in 2002.

The Premier League in China
Premier League matches available free on IPTV, online, plus two matches per weekend on state TV. This is via a six-year rights deal from 2013-2019. Premier League coaches go into schools to work with Chinese PE teachers.
Premier League has worked with Chinese FA to advise on CSL. Premier League has Chinese language Weibo and WeChat social media accounts.

How much improvement is needed?

China qualified for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, but lost all three group games, conceding nine goals and scoring none

“There are national branding issues,” added Chadwick. “It is about profile, image, reputation and prestige, yet China is not particularly good at football and that rankles.”

China – 96th in the world rankings – may not qualify for Russia 2018. They are third in their group behind Hong Kong and Qatar, with only the top two going through to the next round of qualifying.

Short-term goals include being able to boast ‘the best club side in the world’.

That could soon be Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Guangzhou Evergrande. They have won the CSL five times in a row and are the only Chinese club to win the AFC Champions League twice, in 2013 and 2015. That gave them entry to the prestigious Fifa Club World Cup – which they were knocked out of by eventual champions Barcelona.

What do the players think?

‘It’s about more than the millions’

“I want to know about life. I want to know things and travel the world. I have the possibility of doing this while I’m playing football,” Demba Ba told BBC Sportsworld when asked why he had joined Shanghai Shenhua.

But the Senegalese former Newcastle and Chelsea striker, 30, admits it will take “years and years” to bring the CSL up to the standard of Europe’s best.

“It’s not about how many millions you spend, it’s much more than this,” he said. “The Chinese have got to take their time.”

Discussing the appeal of the Chinese game, Liverpool defender Kolo Toure, 35, was also pragmatic, saying: “This is the power of the money. For this market to open to football is great.

“We’re playing for the love of the game but at the same time it’s our job.”

New Changchun Yatai signing Jack Sealy (left) is excited by having a “proper league and atmosphere” to play in

Southampton-born Hong Kong international Jack Sealy has signed for Super League side Changchun Yatai from the Hong Kong national league, where he was playing in front of fewer than 5,000 people.

The 28-year-old defender told BBC World Service: “The top teams in the league like Guangzhou Evergrande and Shanghai SIPG would fare quite well at the top of the Championship, maybe even the Premier League. The rest would be Championship and below.

“The signings have definitely raised the profile. I’ve only been with my team for a month and every day my friends are messaging me saying: ‘Have you seen this new signing?'”

Maurice Ross (left) in Asian Champions League action for Beijing Guoan – “The sheer size of China meant we flew to every game”

‘It’s not a great place to play football’

Former Rangers defender Maurice Ross, now manager of Norwegian side Egersunds IK, is one of the few British players to have played in China.

Ross said he signed for Beijing Guoan for financial reasons and described the league as a “false set-up” with a “lack of professionalism”.

He described “clueless” double training sessions in 40C heat with no shape or structure, and insisted China will “never” catch up with the Premier League’s global appeal.

“So many deals are short-term because of the environment,” said the Scot. “You must really adapt to their lifestyle and not many can. It’s not a great place to play football.”

Tim Cahill is welcomed to new club Hangzhou Greentown after his contract was terminated by Shanghai Shenhua – a decision he called “heartbreaking”

Last month, former Everton midfielder Tim Cahill described the CSL as “crazy” and “like a revolving door”.

The Australia international was critical of players moving purely for “personal gains”. Shortly after his comments to Fox Sports Australia,