The Chinese Super League created quite the media buzz when they broke their transfer record 4 times over to acquire the likes of Ramires, Fredy Guarin, Paulinho, and Jackson Martinez.
Liverpool target Alex Teixeira will reportedly move to Chinese Super League side Jiangsu Suning for roughly £38.4m. pic.twitter.com/qKFXNJa80M— Bleacher Report UK (@br_uk) February 4, 2016
Ramires, Jackson Martinez, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Alex Teixeira all seemingly off to China. Incredible stuff.— Sam Tighe (@stighefootball) February 4, 2016
People get very romantic about football. €10 million/year, post-tax plus considerable bonuses. Easy decision. Europe did this to S. America— Christopher Atkins (@ChrisAtkins_) February 4, 2016
The prevailing sentiment was that players had moved in search of fatter paychecks and bonuses, rather than a higher quality of football. Regardless of the motivations behind these moves, the more pertinent question to ask, is whether China has a sustainable approach to their footballing development. Surely the Super League cannot build a base for their football and national team by only bringing in 7-8 big stars every year? With a population close to 1.39 billion people, surely it makes sense for China to also invest in their domestic talent? But these questions have already been asked and answered, for in 2011, Real Madrid signed a deal to help Guangzhou Evergrande build a $185 million footballing academy.
(This video is 9 months old, click "$185 million footballing academy" for more accurate info)
So don't let these high-profile transfers fool you, China understands the necessity to build a strong grassroots platform for it's youth to succeed, and it seems like Real Madrid have bought into China's methods completely. Currently, two-dozen Real Madrid coaches operate at Guangzhou's 167-acre campus, working with world class facilities: 50 pitches, 6 cafeterias that house special chefs flown in from the Western Xinjiang province, and an endless supply of equipment and training materials. There is a very real goal in China to win the World Cup, and the Evergrande Football School reminds it's students of that everyday, with a 40-foot replica of the famous trophy that towers over the entrance of the campus. While such an ambition for the international team doesn't benefit Los Blancos, the personal ambition of almost every one of Evergrande's 2,800 students to play for the famous Whites does.
Fourteen year-old He Xinjie not only wishes to help China win a World Cup, but also hopes to play for Real Madrid or Barcelona. While the coaches at the school will be careful not to compare their students to Ronaldo or Messi, it is clear that special kids like He, who received a full 60,000 yuan scholarship to attend the university, are diamonds waiting to be perfected (and these kids will only become more and more common). With an explosion of such youth talent seemingly imminent, it only makes sense for Real Madrid to form partnerships like the ones with Evergrande, in order to be best placed to snatch up the first real star to rise out of China.
But Madrid might have to wait awhile before they get their first Asian Galactico, as China still seems to have a lot of ground to cover. The East-Asian giant has still only qualified for one World Cup (which they bowed out of in 2002 without scoring a single goal) and their national team is only ranked 96th in the world (below the Faroe Islands and Guatemala). On a more intricate level, Real Madrid coach Sergio Zarco Diaz admits that while the technical level of his players are good, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of decision making, teamwork, and tactical understanding. But according to Principal Liu Jiangnan, such improvements will be made dramatically over the next 4 years, as he foresees a possible rise to the top of Asia's rankings within that timespan. While such ambitions may be rather lofty, it seems to be conventional wisdom that if China continues on their current path, an assault on the top world rankings 20-30 years from now is fully possible.
But a factor not taken into account by many, is the personal investment of Chinese president Xi Jinping in the growth of his nation's football. The president has been a football fan since birth, and has made it mandatory for every school in China to have football in their curriculum. It is undoubted that he is the main reason behind China's recent surge of interest in the beautiful game, as many Chinese billionaires lay out lavish investment plans to curry favor with the most powerful man in China. The worry for me, is that when Xi Jinping's maximum of two consecutive terms ends (which is 10 years), China might experience a drop of interest in football that will seriously hamper the growth made over the past decade. However, the hope is that the legacy of China's current president will be so strong, that it will be a political necessity for any future Chinese leader to continue to grow football. The next generation of potential Galacticos depends on it.