Is Chinese player Zhang Yuning’s move to English Premier League side West Brom more about property development than football?

Will youngster make the grade in England or Germany, or is he just being used as a marketing tool?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 July, 2017, 4:20pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 July, 2017, 4:36pm

It was not a glowing endorsement from Frank Baumann, Werder Bremen’s sporting director.

“He will certainly not rock the league immediately,” said Baumann as he unveiled new signing Zhang Yuning, a 20-year-old Chinese forward.

Zhang was signed by English Premier League West Bromwich Albion on Monday and immediately loaned to the Bundesliga side, because he is not good enough to get a work permit in England.

The transfer, both clubs essentially admitted, is as much about marketing than actual football potential – and it says much about the strange world of Chinese investment in European soccer.

Zhejiang-native Zhang is the only Chinese player playing at a decent level in Europe, having moved from Hangzhou Greentown to Vitesse Arnhem in the Netherlands as an 18-year-old.

He has since been eyed avariciously by those who’d love to get a piece of the footballing equivalent of a Yao Ming – a player to attract an army of patriotic Chinese fans ready to open their wallets.

But Zhang has a long way to go to make such an impact, if he ever will. He mostly warmed the bench in the Dutch Eredivisie, one of Europe’s weaker leagues.

Last season he started two games in the league, making 14 appearances as sub, playing a total of 426 minutes and scoring one goal. In his first season he made one start, seven sub appearances and scored two goals, making a minor bit of history by becoming the first Chinese player ever to score in the Eredivisie.

According to statistics website Squawka.com, he was the 37th-best forward under the age of 21 in the league last season.

Werder finished eighth in the much more competitive Bundesliga last season.

Little wonder Herr Baumann was not getting too carried away, unlike West Brom’s local paper the Birmingham Mail, which excitedly hailed the signing of a “Chinese wonderkid”.

It seemingly almost doesn’t matter if Zhang, who has nine caps and two goals for China’s national team, makes the grade at Werder, never mind impressing enough to make it back to West Brom.

The English club was bought in July 2016 by investment vehicles headed by Lai Guochuan, one of the many Chinese supposed billionaires who have appeared seemingly from nowhere to buy foreign football clubs in recent times.

He apparently made his fortune with a company now called Palm Eco-Town Development, moving from selling seedlings to landscape gardening to property development.

Meizhou-born Lai is said to have left Palm in 2014, though he is still listed as a major shareholder on the Shenzhen stock exchange website and remains a director of several subsidiaries.

Palm has been announced as West Brom’s shirt sponsor for next season, and says it will be building “five or six” new “eco-towns” in China with West Brom’s name featuring prominently. The first one is planned for a “new area” in Guiyang city, according to the Beijing Business Daily.

New signing! #zhang #werder #bremen #svw #19

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West Brom’s “academy expertise will be a key feature of the projects” said the club’s website (which declared Guiyang the capital city of the non-existent “Zhou province”).

“We’re now beginning to see Palm’s strategy for the club emerge through their expertise and knowledge of the market in China,” said club chairman John Williams on the website.

“While the board of the club remains firmly focused on achieving success on the pitch, it is very encouraging to see the development of our profile in China as Guochuan Lai envisaged from the outset.”

An eco-town, as far as I can discern, is much like your typical Chinese property development, but with some trees and green space rather than being a vast expanse of concrete.

As part of China’s ambition to become a ‘soccer superpower’, the government has demanded 70,000 new pitches spring up around the country – so if you’re proposing a new property development to local government officials, including football in the plan will certainly help.

And if you can brand it with a Premier League team’s name and logo, so much the better – especially if said team owns the only Chinese player with hopes of making it abroad.

Not coincidentally, Werder has, according to German football magazine Kicker, been in negotiations with Yunyi Guokai Sports Development – the group of companies headed by Lai that bought West Brom – over a partnership.

Werder are set to visit China this summer, and don’t be surprised to see a Werder Bremen eco-town coming to a Chinese patch of land near you soon.

The benefits to Palm of being linked with West Brom and Bremen are clear, but what the clubs and their fans, not to mention Zhang, get out of it is less clear, at least to me.

“[Zhang’s] progress will be the subject of great interest here at Albion but also in Germany and in China,” Richard Garlick, Albion’s director of football administration, said on their website.

“There is no doubt that there are commercial benefits that come with the deal but the primary target is to help develop one of the best young players in a booming corner of the football industry.”

Whether Zhang agrees after a couple of seasons that might be spent struggling in Bremen’s reserves remains to be seen.

Brandon Cheng, a keen observer of Chinese football who tweets as @modernleifeng, pointed out that for Lai it’s not much of a gamble – even though the transfer fee has been rumoured to be a scarcely believable nine million euros (HK$79.8 million).

According to one Chinese report, the deal was agreed after Zhang’s father personally sold it to Lai over a lengthy meeting. The Zhangs, according to the report, felt Vitesse were not taking proper care of Yuning – and despite an offer of 12 million from a Chinese club, they were determined to stay in Europe.

At worst, Zhang boosts West Brom’s brand and can be flogged on to a Chinese club if he fails to make the grade in Europe. At best, the Midlands club have got in early on the most talented Chinese player in decades, a potential goldmine.

“I’m very proud to have the chance to play for this team,” said Zhang. “Werder is a big club in China and I’m really excited about this opportunity. My dream is to play in the Bundesliga and I hope to be able to showcase my skills at some point in the near future.”

Let’s hope he does.