Had Vladimir Lenin been a present-day football pundit instead of leader of the Bolshevik Party in revolutionary 1917 Russia, he may still have deployed his famous observation that “there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen” to recent events in the world of soccer.
Without wishing to torture the Lenin theme, it would not have been lost on the man himself that in large part the catalyst for world football’s pivot to Asia was President Xi Jinping (習近平), general secretary of the Communist Party of China, who has made it crystal clear he wants his country to develop into a football powerhouse in double-quick time.
You know things are changing when Antonio Conte, the Italian manager of one of England’s most famous football clubs, Chelsea – which became synonymous with conspicuous wealth in the years after they were bought by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich in 2003 – speaks in the following terms. “The Chinese market is a danger for all,” Conte told The Guardian last month. “Not only for Chelsea, but all the teams in the world. But I think we must concentrate on our work, not think that in China there is a lot of money and they can arrive to take the players there.”
Conte’s doom-laden comments came in the wake of news that one of his players – 25-year-old Brazilian, Oscar – was on his way to the Chinese Super League team Shanghai SIPG for £60 million (HK$571 million).
The man who is taking Oscar to Shanghai is André Villas-Boas, a former coach of Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, another club steeped in the passion and tradition which imbues the English game – at least for now.
Then came Carlos Tevez, reputed to be the highest-earning player ever, thanks to a multimillion-dollar deal that takes the peripatetic Argentinian to Oscar’s new city rivals, Shanghai Shenhua, from Boca Juniors.
It’s not only players and managers for whom China holds a financial fascination. Even the men in the middle, the referees, are looking East. Reports in the English media suggest that the man regarded as the top referee in that country, Mark Clattenburg, is being courted for a big money move to China.
And then, as big money moves from West to East on the field of play gather pace, off the pitch the direction of travel is in the opposite direction.
In the middle of last year, a consortium led by state-owned financial conglomerate Everbright looked at investing in English giants Liverpool. There were also rumoured interest from Fosun, property-to-film group Dalian Wanda and others.
Though none have put together a formal bid, observers say, the fact that a club as big and as storied as Liverpool is on the radar of potential Chinese buyers reflects a significant step in China’s drive to boost it involvement in the game, as Xi has called for.
Since the start of 2015, Chinese buyers have spent US$4 billion on soccer assets large and small across Europe, from Italy’s Inter to French second-tier side Auxerre.
The buy-up has accelerated over the last year with around US$3 billion worth of deals announced since December 2015, when a state-backed group spent US$400 million on a 13 per cent stake in the firm that owns Manchester City.
In recent months small, lesser-known Chinese buyers have dominated, as in the case of AC Milan, sold by former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Fininvest to a group of virtually unknown Chinese investors.
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Liverpool’s list of admirers suggests large, high-profile Chinese groups could still be in the wings, with the potential for deals to dramatically alter the dynamics of European football.
The public backing of Xi, who portrays himself as an avid football fan and says he wants China to one day host – and win – the World Cup, will only see the two-way tactical tectonic shift in the so-called beautiful game continue.
But China has a long, long way to go, standing at 82nd in the rankings of football’s troubled governing body Fifa, below Uzbekistan and Benin. ■