Are China the England of Asia? Two cash rich soccer leagues that appear to be competing on the same playing field in several respects
From disappointing their national team’s fans to the financial might of their domestic leagues, China and England have more in common than you might realise
The Chinese national team don’t make it easy on themselves. Three goals down to South Korea, the Chinese team began to fight back with goals from Yu Hai and Hao Junmin, the second a fine free kick, before hopes of a dramatic comeback were palmed over the bar by Korean keeper Jung Sung-ryong.
It was an entertaining game and a spirited attempt at dragging a draw from the jaws of defeat. But it was too little, too late. And it confirmed one thing, that China is essentially England when it comes to football. The national teams of both countries are constant sources of frustration, embarrassment, and cruellest of all, hope for their fans.
Both countries lay claim to having invented the game, with Fifa now acknowledging China as the ancestral home of football, and both have had particularly humiliating recent histories. For China it was being held to two draws by Hong Kong, for England it was losing to the only 23 men available to play for Iceland at Euro 2016.
Watch: highlights of South Korea v China in 2018 Fifa World Cup qualifying
Despite regular evidence to the contrary, the sad thing is that both sets of fans think that their team should be good. England went into the Euros thinking it would be their year – as they do before every tournament – while one Chinese sports editor told me that the whole country is at a loss to understand why their national team performs so badly because they expect them to be better than their rivals.
The Chinese excuse for their World Cup qualification struggles could have come straight out of the mouth of an England fan. Apparently the national team underperform because they are not allowed to wear their choice of boots.
Thanks to a 2015 kit deal with Nike, who replaced Adidas after three decades, players have to wear the American sportswear giant’s boots when they are on national duty.
Both England and China’s national teams are more often than not made up entirely from players from their own domestic league.
Successful international teams draw from a number of leagues but both China’s and England’s footballers tend to be based at home, with the Chinese Super League and the Premier League both cash rich regional hubs that attract the best talent from neighbouring countries.
As entertaining as the leagues are, this is the reason that the best players in both leagues tend to be foreign rather than local.
When it comes to cash, Chinese clubs spent £208 million (HK$2.1 billion) in the most recent winter transfer window, outspending the Premier League’s £127m in the same period. Both leagues were busy in the summer window, too.
While China could not match the Premier League clubs topping the billion-pound mark, Shanghai SIPG’s capture of Hulk for £46.4 million was second only to Manchester United’s world record deal for Paul Pogba for an individual fee.
Of the top ten best paid players in the world, eight are now based in either China or England. The two exceptions are Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, winners of the last six Ballon d’Or awards, but the rest of the list is not as illustrious. Hulk, who has played just 20 minutes for Shanghai SIPG since moving from Zenit St Petersburg, is joined by Shandong Luneng’s Graziano Pelle and his SIPG teammate, Asamoah Gyan.
The Ghana captain has since left China on loan for Al Ahli in the UAE but it is unclear how much the Shanghai side still foot of his wages.
Manchester City, a club that is part-owned by Chinese investors, were unable to offload Yaya Toure during the window and it is expected that the Ivorian midfielder will move to China when the market opens up again in the winter. Another unwanted midfielder in Manchester, Bastian Schweinstieger, is also being linked with a move east, while his captain at Old Trafford, Wayne Rooney has long been the subject of Chinese interest.
The leagues are now competing for the same players as they are the only ones that can afford to. Zlatan Ibrahimovic reportedly turned down a fortune in China to sign for Manchester United this summer.
But it is no longer just the players who are swapping the Premier League for the CSL. Former Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini has taken over at Hebei China Fortune FC and his predecessor Roberto Mancini is said to be waiting in the wings for the top job at a Chinese side.
China and England duking it out for players and managers is a pattern that is set to continue and with it, so will another – the pattern of neither country lifting the World Cup anytime soon.