German Players

China's Soccer Shopping Spree

FC Bayern München – Inter Mailand
Chinese fans of FC Bayern Munich cheer during the German soccer club's pre-season visit last year to Shanghai, China. Source: Xi Ya/DPA

Here’s a number to digest – €1.27. That’s what Argentine striker Carlos Tevez will earn per second in 2017. Yes, per second.

The Chinese soccer club Shanghai Shenhua has agreed to pay the 32-year-old high-profile striker about €110,000 ($116,000) per day under a two-year contract, making him the best paid footballer in the world.

He’s just one of a growing list of stars who play in Europe, or made their name in the continent’s high-profile leagues, following the money trail to China. In mid-December, just two weeks after the Tevez deal, Shenua’s city rival Shanghai IPG signed the Brazilian midfielder Oscar, from Chelsea in England’s Premier League, for around €64,000 a day.

More deals are expected with the January transfer window now wide open. A number of Chinese clubs are expected to open their checkbooks even wider to persuade not just washed-up greats, as in the past, but current big-name players and coaches.

Who knows – maybe the Tevez deal will be topped before the transfer window closes in late February. There’s plenty of whispering about big-name players like FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, who’s supposedly been offered a €500 million five-year deal by Hebei China Fortune.

“The Bundesliga is a top league, more attractive in my opinion than France or Spain”

Franco Moretti, Players' Agent with International Football Management

Germany should expect some cherry-picking by Chinese investors, after last year’s English talent grab. The top-tier Bundesliga is beeping brightly on the radar screen of nearly all Chinese clubs.

Bayern Munich forward Frank Ribery and midfielder Arjen Robben are rumored to be in talks with a couple of them. German national team player Lukas Podolski, who played with Bayern and FC Cologne before joining Turkish club Galatasaray, has already been offered a multi-million euro contract to play for Beijing Guoan. He could follow former Cologne and Werder Bremen striker Anthony Ujah, who transferred to Liaoning Whowin last summer.  The list goes on.

“The Bundesliga is a top league, more attractive in my opinion than France or Spain,” Franco Moretti, a licensed players’ agent with International Football Management, told Handelsblatt Global. “You have well-trained players in well-managed clubs.”

During the 2015/2016 transfer window, Chinese clubs spent in excess of €265 million, more than any other football league including England’s Premier League, which is swimming in cash from lucrative television deals.  Five of the top six global transfers came from China’s Super League.

Carlos Tevez moves to China
Carlos Tevez - now the world's best-paid soccer player. Source: David Fernandez/DPA

The league’s money to invest in players is coming in part from a five-year lucrative broadcasting deal, worth around €1.2 billion in 2016, with China Media Capital, a state-backed investment firm chaired by media mogul Li Ruigang, and also from deep-pocketed investors looking for opportunities beyond the stock market and real estate ventures.

Just do a Google search of well-known European players and you’ll find plenty of rumors of Chinese clubs offering obscene amounts of money to win over talent to the East.

So why are the Chinese willing to plow so much money into a business as uncontrollable as soccer? There are several reasons, not all them economically driven.

It’s no secret that Chinese President Xi Jinping is a huge soccer fan. He wants China to become a soccer powerhouse and cash in on the sport’s global popularity. One of his dreams is to put the Chinese Super League on par with Europe’s best. Another is to qualify, host and win a World Cup. His sights are already set on bringing the World Cup in 2030 to China, where the earliest form of competitive soccer, called “cuju,” was played, according to FIFA, the world governing soccer body.

FC Bayern Munich Arrive In Beijing For Pre-Season Tour
Chinese fans like FC Bayern's Frank Ribbery and may see more of him. Source: Getty Images

Mr. Xi has turned to Germans for help to raise the level of professionalism in Chinese soccer. In November, his vice president Liu Yangdong and German Chancellor Angela Merkel signed a five-year agreement that will see China pay Bundesliga experts to help improve youth training (about 20,000 soccer-themed schools are opening this year), fire up its national team, currently 82nd in Fifa’s world ranking of 211 squads, and raise the overall quality of competition in the Super League.

The Chinese president has also wagged a carrot at investors. Companies investing in soccer clubs and other related activities can see their taxes drop up to 10 percent. And they’re spending both at home and abroad. Over the past two years, they’ve spent an estimated €760 million in clubs across Europe.

In Britain alone, Chinese entrepreneur Guochaun Li has acquired Premier-League club West Bromwich Albion, while Chinese appliance retailer Suning Commerce Group has taken a majority stake in Italy’s Inter Milan, and CMC/Citic Capital a 13 percent stake in Manchester City.

Chinese investors are also in hot and heavy talks with a number of Bundesliga clubs as well, including Hertha Berlin, Hamburger SV and FC Cologne as well as Werder Bremen and VfL Wolfsburg. Full ownership is not possible under current league rules but that apparently is no damper.

Arguably at the top of the list of firms pouring Chinese money into soccer is Dalian Wanda, the company owned by the country’s richest man, the multi-billionaire Wang Jianlin. He not only acquired a 20 percent stake in Spain’s Atlético Madrid football club in 2015 and signed a deal with FIFA to sponsor their next four football world cups, he’s also trying to launch a rival tournament to the European Champions League.

Soccer is definitely returning to China.

 

John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: blau@handelsblatt.com

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