If there was one eyebrow-raising feature of the relatively unexciting January 2016 soccer transfer window, it was the increased involvement of Chinese Super League clubs. The world's most populated country is emerging as a footballing world power, muscling its way into the European football landscape with some high-profile acquisitions.
The likes of Alex Teixeira and Jackson Martinez both turned down high-profile European clubs for moves to the CSL while Ramires, Gervinho, Fredy Guarin, and Ezequiel Lavezzi also made the move to the Far East. More lavish transfer spending is predicted, with huge contracts compensating for the fairly poor footballing infrastructure and the relative obscurity such a move makes unavoidable.
The monumental growth in stature of Chinese football is largely down to the obsession and efforts of President Xi Jinping. After rising to power in 2013, Jinping began his focus on developing football in the Far East, and China is ultimately winning its claim for relevance. Xi himself is a football fan, but the development of the game is also an opportunity to exert soft power in otherwise difficult-to-reach areas of the world; the universal appeal of football affords China with an opportunity to present a friendly face to an otherwise suspicious international community.
Whatever the motives, Chinese football is only set to grow further. The financial muscle in the transfer market is backed by long-term investment as faith in the industry grows among Chinese businesses. Money, politics and sport have conflated to created a powerful machine.
A TV rights deal in late 2015 saw China Media Capital (CMC) pay $1.3 billion for the next five years of the rights to the Chinese Super League, and money is being poured into what is actually one of China's slower-growth industries. LeEco, an upstart online video company, legitimized CMC's valuation by paying $400 million for the first two years. 'The government has a plan to create a sports industry worth $800 billion by 2025 and accounting for 1% of the GDP. The football industry is one of the major pillars,' said Hou Po, managing partner of China technology, media and telecommunications industry at Deloitte's Shanghai office.
And European clubs are beginning to exploit the opportunities this growth is creating. A report by the Mailman group, a Shanghai-based firm, found that of the 12 most dominant digital presences in China, six were English clubs - an unsurprising result given the lengths Premier League clubs have gone to when building an online presence in Asia. The report took into account not just followers and likes but comments and shares, building a more accurate picture of engagement. And the interest is reciprocal; China Media Capital purchased a 13% in Manchester City's parent company, City Football Group in December 2015, and Chinese investors have bought stakes in the likes of Atletico Madrid, Espanyol and Slavia Prague.
Perhaps unexpectedly, the club that topped the leaderboard was Bayern Munich - the only German Bundesliga club in the top 12 - pipping Manchester United to the top spot. The rise can be explained, in part, by the fact that the Bundesliga sold a portion of its TV rights to free-to-air broadcasters, making games more widely available to audiences. The policy could pay dividends in the long-term, but at present pay-TV deals are more lucrative, hence the Premier League's decision to sell exclusively to pay-only broadcasters. Bayern also played three games in China as part of their summer preparations, where English clubs largely focussed on the North American market.
Premier League clubs remain dominant, though, as part of the biggest league for live games broadcast over internet connections. Sunderland, with the 22nd-biggest online presence in China, are ahead of the likes of Borussia Dortmund and Celtic, for example. But, with China preparing a World Cup bid for 2026, as well as planning the creation of a Chinese sports industry worth $800 billion by 2025, the rising eastern power may be set to challenge Europe's footballing monopoly in the years to come.