While soccer players leaving Europe to play for more lucrative contracts in China is certainly not a new phenomenon, rarely are these players of the ilk and fame of Oscar and at such an early stage of their careers. At 25 years old, the Brazilian star’s prime years are ahead of him and he was a key player for Chelsea, currently atop the English Premier League. His transfer to the Chinese Super League team Shanghai SIPG marks a significant step forward for both the popularity of soccer in China and the strength of the league.
Shanghai SIPG’s attraction can largely be explained by the significant sums of money the team offered: Oscar’s salary almost quintupled to more than US$25.5 Million (C$33 Million) per year, more than superstars Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi earn playing in La Liga. This sounds extravagant but it pales in comparison to the US$40.4 Million (C$53 Million) that 31-year-old Carlos Tevez will now receive annually after signing with Shanghai Greenland Shenhua F.C. on Dec. 29. More recently, Super League team Tianjin Quanjian has expressed interest in Oscar’s former Chelsea teammate Diego Costa leading to speculation regarding his future in the Premier League.
The growth of soccer in China can mostly be attributed to significant financial and political commitments from the Chinese government aimed at spreading participation in the sport and raising the performance and profile of the national team. Soccer became a compulsory part of the national school curriculum in November 2014 and in March 2015 China released a 50-point reform plan on sports that emphasized increasing the popularity of soccer. In the plan, the government officially separated the country’s soccer association from the government-run sports ministry in order for leagues to be more independent and efficient. Additionally, around 60,000 new soccer fields are to be built across the country, a significant increase from the 11,000 that exist today. With more fields and mandatory soccer for children, the Chinese government aims to have 50 million people playing by 2020.
At the head of these plans is Chinese President Xi Jinping. His personal interest in the sport and his desire to see China succeed on an international level have led to these reforms; his goal is for the national team to win the 2026 FIFA World Cup. As of Jan. 12, China a country of over 1.3 billion people ranks 81st on the FIFA world rankings, behind St. Kitts and Nevis, a country with little more than 50,000 people.
Despite the rapid pace of recent reforms, some analysts doubt that China will come to dominate world soccer. According to the LA Times, many Chinese parents view the sport as an injury risk and a distraction from academics, strong cultural barriers continue to separate China from its objective. China’s plan is also likely to be damaged by the very nature of its top-down strategy: Tracking progress in soccer is fairly difficult, so the government might choose to measure it through quantitative factors, such as the number of soccer fields, stadiums, or players. Local actors will then be incentivised to upgrade their soccer infrastructure more than their playing level. This mismatch could potentially destroy China’s ambitions as money is not spent on the most efficient investments.
In the long-term, China concentrating its attention on soccer will redefine the landscape of soccer at the club level. As Chinese soccer clubs start to outbid European teams over salaries and transfer fees, players might start to snub European leagues for the Chinese Super League. This growing trend was already evident in 2015, with players Sebastian Giovinco leaving Turin for Toronto and Xavi moving from Barcelona to Al-Sadd, Qatar, in addition to 2016’s even higher profile moves out of Europe to China. Many wonder how the European leagues will react and adapt. In the short-term, however, soccer fans should make the most of the current concentration of talent: Seeing players on par with Messi and Ronaldo in the same league is a sight we may encounter less often in the near future.