The January transfer window demonstrated conclusively that Chinese football is on a march after a staggering show of financial muscle by teams in the Chinese Super League (CSL).
China is clearly trying to attract international players to rival European leagues. Backed by its football-fanatic president Xi Jinping, the Chinese have set their sights on achieving football dominance. At this rate, what are the odds against them?
Sure, the Chinese have shown they can quickly master economic change – going from an economy that was largely agricultural, to one characterised by high tech, e-commerce and a relentless manufacturing sector. But can this rapid transformation be replicated in football? Can the Chinese league imitate the West by attracting high-calibre players, and subsequently innovate by developing inwardly?
Furthermore, what does the Chinese league have to offer to the burgeoning African player? Should these footballers look to play in what is evidently a less competitive league for financial gain, or strive for honours and recognition in the more competitive leagues across western Europe?
By spending huge amounts on player recruitment on their own turf, the CSL has made the entire world stand up and take notice.
And finally, what does the future hold for football leagues across Africa? What can successful African businesses and business owners learn from these foreign leagues and what role can they play in developing the beautiful game on the continent?
Let’s take some time to examine some of these questions:
By spending huge amounts on player recruitment on their own turf, the CSL has made the entire world stand up and take notice. This model has its short-term benefits of raising awareness and of increasing the playing standard across the CSL. It is hardly a recipe for long-term success though.
La Liga teams such as Barcelona strive year on year to push the boundaries of football innovation. Not only do they want to be better than other teams in their league, but the sweetness of their success lies in the accolades they receive relative to other teams across Europe. When Manchester City FC was bought by Sheikh Mansour, the goal was to dominate the EPL but more importantly to rule Europe by winning the coveted UEFA Champions League.
In spite of hundreds of millions of pounds spent yearly on player transfers and wages in the CSL, its teams can only attain the standards of the European leagues when several factors are in place. Attracting high quality players may be a start, but having those coaches with decent records in Europe is another important step.
The missing ingredients remain the ability of the league to attract audiences to the games.
However, the CSL still lacks the ability to attract audiences to the games and they can’t do anything about the relative standards of the other teams within the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). How many other AFC leagues can afford to spend in excess of GBP£30 million on the likes of Alex Teixeira or Ramires and persuade coaches such as Luiz Felipe Scolari to join?
And what should an aspiring African player make of all this? The allure of huge wages in a less competitive league are often compelling enough to seduce someone looking to escape the often harsh realities of playing on the African continent. However, there are a few things to consider first.
One factor that should be considered is the short tenure of several of the high profile African players in the CSL. Seydou Keita, formerly of Barcelona lasted only a couple of seasons playing for Dalian Aerbin. Similarly, Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba had relatively short stints, despite saying all the right things when they initially committed to long-terms deals with their respective clubs.
Kwame Ayew shed some light on why this is the case: ‘When you go there and you don’t perform, they terminate your contract.’ So it would appear that high wages also come with the expectation that the players will immediately deliver on the objectives for which they were recruited.
My view is African players need to play in the leagues where they can improve their skills the most. Making a quick buck might be beneficial in the short run but if players seek to be the best in their field and contribute to the success of their teams first, financial reward will follow.
There is an abundance of talented players in Africa.
African business leaders, like those in China, can help African teams accelerate the standard of the game on the continent. At the moment, teams across Africa are unable to keep their best talent from being poached by European clubs. At the same time, the leagues themselves are not commercially attractive enough to justify the investment needed to finance the wages of such players. Make no mistake about it; while there is an abundance of talented players in Africa, they will continue to look outwards until the leagues are financially viable enough to hold on to them.
Therefore, would it be out of place to see the likes of Aliko Dangote and Mo Ibrahim make significant investment into teams in the Nigerian Premier League and East African respectively?
Pelé once said an African team would soon win the World Cup.
What I think Africa should do is this: create an African super league with two divisions comprising the strongest teams across the continent. This will not only attract commercial investment into such a league, but it would serve to keep more African players on the continent, and it would be a catalyst to redefine the identity of African football. Pelé once said an African team would soon win the World Cup. It should happen this century.