The general consensus from a host of former England internationals in Hong Kong this week was that China’s money-backed expansion of the game would eventually be good for football in the mainland, but crucially not at the expense of grassroots development.
Former Liverpool goalkeeper David James has experienced first hand another of the world’s heavily financially backed leagues, the Indian Super League (ISL), having helped Kerala Blasters to a runner-up finish as player-manager in the inaugural 2014 season.
Unlike the Chinese Super League, the ISL is not the country’s main professional league, but instead is run on a franchise basis with teams owned by prominent businessmen, movie stars and sportsmen.
But comparisons can be drawn between the leagues with owners often playing a real life game of fantasy football to sign players from across the globe with little care for the often mind-boggling and spiralling multi-million dollar salaries and fees.
Comparisons continue when you look at the population of each country who could potentially watch or attend games, with the ISL’s first season smashing TV and stadium records with 65,0000 fans watching the first ever game and 74.7 million tuning in at home.
Attendances in China are also steadily growing and averaged around 26,000 this season, while the league this year announced a deal to show games on Sky Sports in the United Kingdom.
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“China is very similar to India in one respect as they have got very popular players in the ISL, but it is not bringing their grassroots up. It is creating a good viewing, I think it is the fifth most popular league in the world, but with China the same things but they need to do development,” said James, who moved to India aged 44 following his retirement from the regular professional ranks.
“It is more about improving coaching at lower end at the early stages. I am not sure how many A or even pro licensed coaches there as in China.
“If you get them in, the younger players get the better quality of coaching and they become more competitive in every department and when you have a better national side, you have a better league to be attracted to.”
Former newspaper columnist James clearly gets the global game and was also quick to point to the Chinese government’s decision in November 2014, backed by football-mad president Xi Jinping, to make the game compulsory in schools as part of the national curriculum.
The country of 1.35 billion people, compared to India’s 1.25bn, plans to have new football pitches and training facilities in 20,000 schools in 2017 which is hoped to create 100,000 new players for a nation certainly in need of a boost with China currently ranked 84th in the world and all but out of the running for qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
For the record, India didn’t make it to the final round of 2018 qualifiers, are ranked 137th in the world, and unlike China have never qualified for a World Cup.
“When it comes to money in football it is about affordability, and if the owners are able to do what they are doing without costing anything for the fans, then fine. English football has been similar over the years as people have come in with investment and the price of season tickets has gone up, so the fans are the ones who are trying to fuel that,” added 46-year-old James, who made 53 appearances for England.
“But you question whether bringing a big name players in is going to create a better standard of football, I think they are trying to address that with compulsory football in schools now and that is where you are going to get your better international sides.”
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Both former Sheffield Wednesday defender Des Walker, with Italy’s Sampdoria, and ex-Liverpool midfielder Steve McManaman, with Spain’s Real Madrid, took their chances abroad during the peaks of their career.
Walker is a regular visitor to Asia, and particularly Hong Kong for the annual Soccer Sevens event at Hong Kong Football Club, having also played in last week’s England Masters game against their German counterparts in Singapore.
“It is moving forward, you see football growing and it is inevitable that the good players will come out here for the money, which is the first thing that attracts them, but as more players come, more will follow and that is only good for Asia as football is a worldwide sport,” said 50-year-old Walker, who won 59 caps for England.
“They have been watching the Premier League and the Italian league since football started, so it is great for the people as they enjoy their sport over here. This is a huge continent with a lot of people who will supply a lot of players.
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“Over the next 10 or 20 years you will see how many players from Asia get produced. Once you play at a standard with good players it brings you up to that standard and I think it is only a good thing. It is a massive market, and where there is a massive market, football will always get involved.”
This year’s high-profile signing in China saw Brazilian Hulk join Shanghai SIPG for €55.8m (HK$481.8m), with current England captain Wayne Rooney and also Chelsea defender John Terry recently linked with moves to the Super League.
“The Chinese league is growing, there is a lot of wealth in the area and they are tying to entice a lot of the European players and Brazilian players to play for them, and the better players that come will make the league stronger,” said 44-year-old McManaman, who made 37 appearances for England.
Major League Soccer has also attracted its fair share of high-profile names with former Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard and ex-Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard recently ending single season spells in the United States.
Former Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur striker Teddy Sheringham played the majority of his career in England, apart from a brief spell in Sweden as a teenager.
“Frank and Stevie [Gerrard] are doing it at the end of their careers and I don’t have a problem with it, but people who at 28 want to go and play in the Chinese league rather than pit their wits against the best players in the world and see how good they are, it amazes me people would do that for extra money,” said Sheringham, who played 51 times for England.
“I am amazed by how much money they are paying and the players they are able to attract over there, taking people from the best leagues in the world and they prefer to be in China.
“I have not seen an awful lot of their football, I have seen a few clips and they are not packing out houses so it makes it hard to believe people would prefer to play in China, but they have to grow and hopefully it will be the way for them to grow.”