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English Premier League

From Manchester United to Messi, everyone’s playing the same money game in China – but who’s winning?

Manchester United kicked off the race to rake in the Chinese cash and now all of European football’s heavyweight clubs are trying to muscle their way in

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 April, 2018, 11:11am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 April, 2018, 10:28pm

It’s coming up on 11 years since Dong Fangzhou became the first Chinese player to play for Manchester United. The striker started his only competitive appearance for the club at Stamford Bridge in May 2007, a game more memorable for the newly-crowned champions’ reserve team being clapped onto the pitch by a guard of honour led by John Terry. Months later the club were in China with Dong in tow on a four game Asian tour that took in Macau and Guangzhou after Japan and South Korea. It was on the mainland stop that manager Alex Ferguson told That’s Guangzhou that “China and the US will be challenging for World Cup finals by 2018”.

Ferguson got that wrong ­– neither nation will be in Russia this summer – just as he got the Dong signing wrong, but his and the club’s presence in China was a stronger augur of the future.

While English Premier League clubs have since stopped signing as many Chinese players, they have continued to make a beeline for China and its cash.

Just in the last week, Arsenal have signed a deal with EV giant BYD Auto, Liverpool have announced the opening of an academy in Kunming and Chinese-owned Southampton have confirmed preseason games in the mainland.

Manchester United also recently signed a deal with Ping An Bank for branded financial services, starting with a club branded credit card.

It was the latest region specific partnership to add to such titles as the “Official Soft Drink Partner of Manchester United for China”, while Chinese mattress manufacturer Mlily is the “Official Global Mattress and Pillow Partner of Manchester United.”

Rivals City have partnered with a school and are rumoured to be expanding their City Football Group empire to include a professional Chinese club next.

It’s not just the English clubs that are chasing Chinese coin, of course. Barcelona – who also toured China in the summer of 2007 – recently re-upped their own bank deal with Shanghai Pudong Development Bank, giving fans another two years of branded cards and an opportunity to replace their Neymar ATM cards with one featuring current players.

The Brazilian’s new club, Paris Saint-Germain, just opened a football park in Shanghai, where they plan to search for the “Chinese Neymar”.

The French champions also signed a deal with one of China’s leading e-sports teams for them to compete under the name of the French club.

When it comes to China, everyone wants in. Aside from the clubs, there are also the leagues themselves. The English Premier League were in early but the German Bundesliga and Spain’s La Liga have followed in their footsteps and, like the biggest European clubs, have opened offices on the mainland to conduct their commercial business.

The players are also doing it as part of their own brand. Leo Messi broke off from that Barcelona tour of 2007 to be part of a Pepsi promotion in Guangzhou, while Cristiano Ronaldo was also in the country with United.

The two biggest names in the game have since been back to the country with their clubs but they have also returned separately for solo tours to build their own brands.

Even national teams are being sponsored by Chinese companies. Portugal and Belgium signed new deals in the last month or so, while Fifa – only recently on Sina Weibo – have just launched their WeChat. Everyone is desperate to get in on China.

Chinese companies sponsoring La Liga and Premier League shirts have become commonplace and those same companies are on the advertising hoardings at the ground – Arsenal’s BYD deal was predated a day by the sight of the company’s logo at the Emirates Stadium.

Everyone’s approach to China is different but they all seem equally scattershot and share the dream of capturing the cash.

Maybe that is understandable. The world has changed a lot in the last decade, since the Beijing Olympics stood in for China’s coming out party to the world.

Social media, the rise of China economically and the idea of consumers replacing fans has put even more focus on a market that continues to be misunderstood.

It’s impossible to know how successful any of these outside agents are when it comes to China.

Even the ones who don’t just see dollar signs and shirt sales are playing a long game – several clubs, Real Madrid and Ajax included, have partnered with local teams to provide youth coaching and coach education.

We can’t even listen to the clubs. Manchester United are all too happy to tell you they have 107 million followers, but seeing as they have been doing that for a decade, the number is meaningless.

The modern world is one of e-sports, social media engagement and official mattress partners. Even a decade ago this would have been hard to believe and the old names of European football are still adapting.

One thing they are sure of in this virtual age is that when it comes to China’s cash, the opportunities are unreal.