Oscar’s move a sign of the rising power of Chinese football

Grand plan launched to make China one of the world’s top soccer nations by 2050

In the stands at the Shanghai Stadium, the SIPG fans will hail Brazilian midfielder Oscar’s arrival with roars of “We are red!” sung in English, and chants of “niubi”, which translates as a vulgar description of a cow’s reproductive organs and is a major compliment on China’s terraces.

It’s a long way from the dire warnings from the pundits in England still shell-shocked at Oscar’s €62 million move from Chelsea.

For them, the 25-year-old is throwing away his career in the China Super League, seen as a corrupt league that is all money and no credibility, where ageing stars go for a last payday.

The payday is a particularly attractive, however, earning him €24 million a year, and he is not alone in following the Silk Road to Chinese football. His teammate at Shanghai SIPG is compatriot Hulk, who had already broken the Chinese transfer record with his €49 million fee.


On one level, the doomsayers of the Premier League are right. There is an alarming gulf in class between the foreign stars such as former Arsenal striker Gervinho at Hebei China Fortune and many of their team-mates.

Pinpoint passes and incisive distribution go wanting, as too often there is not enough talent to make for an even XI, and only four foreigners are allowed play at any one time.

Combined with the patchy quality in the top flight, the national team is in disarray. China is ranked 83rd in the world, just a point ahead of the Faroe Islands.

The men’s national team has qualified for only one World Cup so far, in 2002, when they failed to score a single goal and lost all three games.

The women’s team took fourth place in the 1995 World Cup and eighth place last year. Recent humiliations include defeats by Uzbekistan and Syria in World Cup qualifiers.

However, moves are afoot to bring Chinese football up to the level that president Xi Jinping, who is a big fan, believes it should attain.

Real excitement

When Xi visited Ireland as vice-president in 2011, he went to Croke Park and kicked a football. That photograph flashed around the world and has been used ever since as evidence of his love of soccer (no one seems to refer to the fact it’s an O’Neills GAA ball).

This passion was underlined at Manchester City last year, when Xi permitted a rare selfie with himself, Sergio Aguero and Britain's ex-prime minister David Cameron.

In October, the Chinese FA (CFA) unveiled former Italy manager Marcello Lippi as coach of the men's team, on a contract reportedly worth €20 million a year until 2019.

Among ordinary fans, Oscar’s move to Shanghai has caused real excitement. This is a player at the peak of his powers, not in the winding-down stage of his career.

“It looks like we are really buying the whole Brazilian team,” wrote one commentator on the social media Weibo, who gave their name as Winning Together - Shanghai Red Storm.

Others were equally bullish on China's prospects on the international stage. Zhang Xiaolu wrote: "I think China soccer is going to do well because at least Xi Jinping is a big fan of football".

Another fan, Mou Jie, wrote how the situation is now much better than it used to be.

“When I was young we barely had anywhere to play, and now there are summer football camps for five and six-year olds. And every town has a football team, there are more and more pitches, the infrastructure is better. More parents are willing to cultivate and invest more in their children’s interest, Chinese football in the future will be brighter and better,” said Mou.

At the same time Oscar’s move to Shanghai, where he will work again with former Chelsea and Tottenham boss Andre Villas-Boas, has raised many hackles.

Even though he works for a club where a policy of outspending rivals is not unknown, Oscar's boss at Chelsea Antonio Conte said: "The Chinese market is a danger for all teams in the world. Not only for Chelsea but all teams in the world."

Rich people

Writing in online chat forums, a key measure of what is going really going on among the fans in China, there was an echoing of Conte’s sentiments.

“The China Super League has nothing but money! Those so-called stars coming to China are idiots, they will ruin their careers!” said one, and another, Xu Jiaming, added: “Football in China is after all a rich people’s game.”

One contributor, called “The Big Yellow” wrote of how the corruption in the game made getting a start very difficult.

“I went to football school for two years but didn’t continue. I still remember how when the coach selected the first team, many parents reached out to the coach and later my parents told me that if I wanted to be in the team, they would have to pay, so I quit. This is the kind of youth league we had growing up!

“When I got older I didn’t give up playing football because I love this game, I made friends playing this game. I knew one guy, an awesome player, very talented and competent. I asked him how if he played so well, why he doesn’t play for a professional team. He told me that he had to pay 300,000 yuan (€42,000) just to get in, and that was even 10 years ago.”

A good reason to believe Chinese football may be about to come around is because the country’s most successful companies see it as a canny investment, and they have tended to be right so far.

Jack Ma, chairman of the Alibaba internet group and China's second richest man, has a big stake in Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao, who have won the Chinese Super League for the past five seasons. Former Spurs player Paulinho and Colombia's Jackson Martínez play with the club.

“The money being spent has increased the global appeal of the Chinese Super League,” said Blaine McKenna, from Larne, who has coached in China, as well as America, Canada, the Middle East and is soon to work in Africa.

While the Super League will benefit short-term, more needs to be done at grassroots level to improve youth football.

“The youth system in China needs major restructuring. President Xi’s aims are a step in the right direction in terms of increasing the number of kids playing in schools and investing in more pitches and facilities to give children opportunities to play football but a lot more needs to be done,” said McKenna.

Youth leagues

“Money needs to be invested in coach education to increase the number of qualified coaches and PE teachers in China. This is a big issue as they are currently only interested in immediate success to save face, and the coaching styles I witnessed were not conducive to developing young players who are creative and excellent at making decisions,” he said.

Currently there are no youth leagues for CSL teams, although there are plans for one in March.

The focus in China is heavily centred on either going professional or playing in the Olympics but basketball has ousted football as the sport of choice for many youngsters, especially with the popularity of the National Basketball Association (NBA) from the US.

Getting access to the Premier League is not easy for most fans, although it is slightly easier to watch La Liga or Bundesliga games.

However, NBA coverage is on public TV, and in former Houston Rockets centre Yao Ming, there was a Chinese figure that local fans here could get behind.

“I never felt a football culture or love for football while I was in Beijing or travelling around China. When I was coaching kids would bounce the ball during their rest periods, which shows their love for basketball,” said McKenna.

Football also has to compete with Olympic sports, table tennis and badminton, while parents also don’t see football as a career option, which means they are unlikely to be able to play beyond the age of 12 and are expected to hit the books.

For Chinese football to thrive, it needs a Chinese star, a footballing version of Yao Ming.

In April this year, the government’s planning body, the National Development and Reform Commission, the Chinese Football Association, the sports bureau and the education ministry issued a grand plan to make China one of the world’s most powerful soccer nations by 2050, with the first step to develop 50 million footballers by 2020, 30 million of them primary and secondary school students, and 10 years later to become one of Asia’s best football nations.

Marlon Harewood, who played for Guangzhou R&F in 2011, described his experience in China as "amazing".

Great quality

"The team I was with looked after me very well," he told BBC Radio 5 live. "There is a lot of money in China. They've seen the Premier League and want to bring that to their country. The way to do that is bring in the best. The standard of football is high. They have great quality players. The wage Oscar will be getting is phenomenal," he said.

It’s more than just transfers and Chinese companies have been on a shopping spree in Europe.

Dalian Wanda Group kicked off with €45 million for a 20 per cent stake in Spanish champions Atletico Madrid in 2015, and Espanyol and Granada are owned by Chinese investors.

The slide of sterling has made English clubs cheap for Chinese clubs.

Tony Xia took over Aston Villa in May, Lai Guochuan's investment group Yunyi Guokai (Shanghai) Sports Development bought West Bromwich Albion for between€180 million and €240 million, while Fosun Group bought Wolverhampton Wanderers for €54 million in July and China Media Capital spent €320 million to pick up a 13 per cent stake in Manchester City.

In the Global Times, an editorial in the sports section, by a foreign journalist called Jonathan White, said despite all the condemnation and outrage, the move could actually help Oscar's career, and people shouldn't forget that Shanghai is one of the world's great cities.

"Playing in the CSL won't necessarily hurt Oscar's international ambitions. The pinnacle of world soccer is playing for the Brazil national team and if Oscar stars in China then that does not mean he can't play for them: Paulinho, Gil and Renato Augusto have all featured while playing in the CSL. It also isn't for life. If Oscar plays well he could earn a move back to a Uefa Champions League club," White said.

“The impending signing might have created a red mist in England but in China it’s further evidence of a red dawn – another fillip for China’s top flight and a move that could challenge the dominance of Guangzhou Evergrande,” said White.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing