In the 80’s there were these famous anti-drug commercials on TV in the USA. The most instantly recognizable is the “this is your brain on drugs” egg frying in a pan but there were also lesser hits which always stood out with me. One of them was a scene where a dad confronts his rocker son with his marijuana stash. The dad asks a series of questions that leads to “where did you learn how to do this?” and the son fires back “I learned it by watching YOU, OK.” Then there’s a cut to the narrator who warns that parents who do drugs teach their kids to do drugs. Perhaps the British press need a similar public service announcement when it comes to their fervent hand wringing over the growing influence of China in the football world.
In 2003 Arsenal chairman David Dein famously said “Roman Abramovich has parked his Russian tanks on our lawn and is firing pounds 50 notes at us.” This was in reference to a spending spree by Chelsea, the likes of which had never been seen in English football. Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri had purchased Claude Makelele for the then astronomical fee of £17m. It was a transfer which would herald a new age in English football, Chelsea went on to spend £125m* that summer buying Damien Duff, Hernan Crespo, Joe Cole, Wayne Bridge, Mutu, Juan Sebastien Veron, Scott Parker, and the aforementioned Makelele. Arsenal won the League that season, going unbeaten in all 38 games.
The next summer, Chelsea replaced Ranieri with Jose Mourinho and the Portuguese manager cleared out most of Ranieri’s players and brought in another £100m worth of talent. Mourinho won the Premier League in his first season, with his huge wealth of new players. Leaving Arsenal’s “Invincibles” to second place as Chelsea lost just one game all season.
As for Arsenal and David Dein, Chelsea had been trying to buy Arsenal’s Thierry Henry since Dein’s famous quip but it took Chelsea three years before they were able to get a player off Arsenal when left back Ashley Cole was caught in a hotel room with Jose Mourinho in the summer of 2006.
Chelsea’s spending in the transfer market inflated the prices for all other teams. And the salaries they had to offer inflated the demands that players could make on their clubs. It was salary which enticed Ashley Cole away from Arsenal to Chelsea: “I almost crashed my car” he said when Arsenal offered £55k a week rather than the £60k he wanted. Just three years after joining Chelsea, in the summer of 2009, Ashley Cole was earning £120k a week at Chelsea.
It wasn’t entirely Chelsea’s own fault that they paid Ashley Cole a striker’s salary to play fullback. Another big-spender had come on the market in 2008, Manchester City. Following in the Chelsea model, City spent all the money they could on getting any big name player in through the doors. Their big splash was Robinho.
Robinho made the transfer from Real Madrid to City on the deadline day of summer 2008. He was originally going to go to Chelsea, and had an agreement with the London team, but at the last minute City “swooped” in with a sweeter offer: a record £160k a week salary. Robinho wasn’t the only one to come in for inflated salaries and transfers. Jo, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Pablo Zabaleta, and Vincent Kompany were all snapped up in an initial outlay of over £100m.
City followed that initial spending spree with a follow-up spending spree of £100m, including the capture of Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure from Arsenal. And then another spending spree, bringing in Edin Dzeko, Yaya Toure, David Silva, and Jerome Boateng. It took three years of spending but City were finally able to attract top talent. And with their huge wealth of talent, City won the Premier League the next season, 2011/12.
In the parlance of the 1987 public service announcement, when asked where City got this big idea to just spend money on players they replied “I learned it from you Chelsea, OK?”
City and Chelsea have benefitted enormously from these rich Oligarchs coming in and buying their way to success. The transformation of Man City from a mid-table club that occasionally flirts with relegation to a club which boasts a £200m state-of-the-art training facility with 16 pitches and 6 swimming pools is exactly the kind of long-term transformative investment that English football needs.
And now, along comes China. The Chinese Super League recently turned heads when Shanghai SIPG payed £52m for Chelsea wash out Oscar. Oscar’s transfer to Shanghai SIPG means that Chelsea will net a £30m+ profit on the player. Money they will then use to further stockpile players and loan them out to teams all over the world, or will use to buy star players from other leagues like the Bundesliga, Serie A, or la Liga.
Following on the heels of that story are rumors that Chelsea’s star striker, Diego Costa, has been tapped up and is agitating for a move to China. There were multiple stories of a bust-up between Costa and Chelsea boss Antonio Conte with Conte reportedly ending the fight with “well go to China then!” Even Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez is rumored to be using contacts with China in order to ask for a larger salary to re-sign with Arsenal.
I say “China” here because it is well known that Chinese president Xi Jinping is a huge fan of football. On his tour of England, it wasn’t an accident that he went to the Manchester City training ground and got a selfie done with City’s star striker Sergio Aguero.
Ji recognizes the potential of football for his country. In 2003, when Everton played Man City, each team featuring a Chinese player in their starting lineup, 300 million people tuned in to watch. And recently Ji declared football a national priority, setting the goal of creating a domestic football economy worth $850 billion by 2025. Chinese businessmen are following in Ji’s vision, both buying players and building the domestic league but also buying stakes in foreign clubs. One of the world’s richest men, Wang Jianlin — owner of Wanda, recently aquired 20% stake in Atletico Madrid, though he also famously just said that he won’t be putting any more money into them because they just burn it. Another Chinese company Suning owns both the Chinese Super League club Jiangsu and Italian club Inter Milan. And, of course, CMC (Chinese Media Capital) just purchased a 13% stake in Man City.
“China” (more appropriately, Chinese businessmen and international capitalist businesses) are only doing to the Premier League what Chelsea and City’s owners, themselves billionaire businessmen from Oligarchic nations, did to the Premier League and other leagues around the world: using the power of their money to draw in as many big-name players as they can so that they can build out a business which attracts as many viewers (consumers/products) as possible.
Isn’t it ironic that the intelligentsia behind the Premier League, the writers who claimed that the Man City and Chelsea era heralded a new dawn, a vision of “a billionaire for every club” are now the ones either deriding China’s investment, fobbing it off as part of a bubble, or worse claiming that it’s a frightening change that signals a potential end of football as we know it, with headlines like “Soccer is in danger”.
Sorry to break it to everyone but “football as we know it” has been like this for at least the last 14 years; wealthy men and corporations, even nations, have been buying up all the talent (even whole clubs) they can get their hands on, radically changing the landscape for all the other clubs around the world, distorting transfers and salaries, and changing fan expectations.
This is football as we know it and I’ll be surprised if we don’t see a big name player like Alexis Sanchez or Diego Costa move to China next summer with a record transfer fee.
Reddit list of managers and players in China:
Chinese Super League:
Luiz Felipe Scolari (Guangzhou Evergrande)
Andre Villas Boas (Shanghai SIPG)
Gus Poyet (Shanghai Shenhua)
Dragan Stojkovic (Guangzhou R&F)
Manuel Pellegrini (Hebei China Fortune)
Felix Magath (Shandong Luneng)
Fabio Cannavaro (Tianjin Quanjian)
Chinese League One:
Sven Goran Eriksson (Shenzhen FC)
Chinese Super League:
Renato Augusto (Beijing Guoan) – Formerly of Bayer Leverkusen.
Alan Carvalho (Guangzhou Evergrande) – Formerly of RB Salzburg.
Paulinho (Guangzhou Evergrande) – Formerly of Tottenham.
Jackson Martinez (Guangzhou Evergrande) – Formerly of Porto and Atletico.
Gael Kakuta (Hebei China Fortune) – Formerly of Chelsea.
Gervinho (Hebei China Fortune) – Formerly of Lille, Arsenal and Roma.
Stephane Mbia (Hebei China Fortune) – Formerly of Rennes, Marseille, QPR and Sevilla.
Alex Texeira (Jiangsu Suning) – Formerly of Shakhtar.
Ramires (Jiangsu Suning) – Formerly of Chelsea.
Diego Tardelli (Shandong Luneng) – Formerly of Sao Paulo and Atletico 11Mineiro.
Papiss Cisse (Shandong Luneng) – Formerly of Newcastle.
Graziano Pelle (Shandong Luneng) – Formerly of Southampton.
Obafemi Martines (Shanghai Shenhua) – Formerly of Inter, Newcastle and Wolfsburg.
Carlos Tevez (Shanghai Shenhua) – Formerly of West Ham, Man Utd, Man City and Juventus.
Oscar (Shanghai SIPG) – Formerly of Chelsea.
Hulk (Shanghai SIPG) – Formerly of Porto and Zenit.
Jadson (Tianjn Quanjian) – Formerly of Shakhtar.
Axel Witsel (Tianjon Quanjian) – Formerly of Benfica and Zenit.
John Obi Mikel (Tianjin TEDA) – Formerly of Chelsea.
*Exact figures for privately held companies are difficult to obtain. The amount spent was well beyond anything ever seen in England and according to Transfermarkt.co.uk topped £150m. All figures used here are from Transfermarkt.