Will Premier League teams ever come back to China?

Thousands of Chinese soccer fans went home very disappointed last Monday evening, following the cancellation of the much-anticipated Manchester derby, after rain the previous week had left the pitch at the Bird’s Nest stadium in an unplayable state. Coupled with less than stellar pre-season tours in previous years, it’s hard to see many top Premier League teams jumping at the chance to return to China, especially when trips to the US and elsewhere are so much more enjoyable.

The expected resumption of hostilities between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, the new coaches of City and United respectively, had shone an unusually bright spotlight on this pre-season friendly, which, unfortunately, only served to highlight the inadequacies of the event’s preparation.

When the dust has settled on the Match That Never Was, it can only be hoped that the post-event internal report – assuming one is actually written – does not place the blame solely on a freak weather occurrence that could never have been foreseen. Yes, Beijing experienced some heavy rainfall in the run-up to the match, but the worst of it came nearly a week beforehand and the city’s drains – not known as among the world’s best – had long since cleared standing water from the streets.

In fact, Manchester City’s deputy head groundsman had been dispatched to Beijing ten days before the game, by which point it would have been abundantly clear that the pitch was in no fit state to host some of the best players on the planet. Moreover, despite the fact that officials waited until early afternoon to call off the game – perhaps waiting for the forecast rain (which never materialized) to use as an additional excuse – witnessed said the players has earlier taken one look at the pitch and immediately turned around, either because they knew that the game would never go ahead, or because they would never agree to play on such a poor surface.

Guardiola: It wasn’t the water, it wasn’t the rain. It was just the state of the pitch.

Explained: What’s behind Chinese takeovers of football clubs

I spoke to Sky Sports reporter Johnny Phillips last week for a piece he did on the increasing amount of Chinese investment directed at English football clubs in recent weeks. Editors being as they are, only a few selected highlights appeared in the finished article, but we covered a lot of ground, so here is an uncut version (completed shortly before the Wolves deal – the latest of the Chinese takeovers – was announced), touching on why rumours spread so quickly, West Brom’s possible owner and his plans for world domination, Sven spouting nonsense and why Wolves fans are probably sleeping better than Villa ones at the moment.

Where has this rise in Chinese takeovers come from?

There are several underlying trends. Firstly, as China’s double-digit growth over the past 30 years has started to slow, the government has been actively looking for new areas to drive the economy and the sports sector is one that has been actively targeted. For example, Beijing wants to the domestic sports industry to be worth $750 billion by 2025, making it the largest in the world by some margin.

A typical scene at Guangzhou Evergrande, winners of the past five Chinese Super League titles

Within the wider sports industry, the government, led by Chinese President – and football fan – Xi Jinping, has announced a long-term vision to overhaul the football industry from top to bottom, with the aim of making China a true global soccer power by 2050. More generally, Chinese companies are being encouraged to become more global in their outlook and diversify their businesses to become more competitive both domestically and overseas.

Horrific injury overshadows CSL’s latest star arrivals

The CSL’s summer transfer window saw yet another record fee paid, as more international players arrived in China, but the league’s top scorer, Demba Ba, is looking at months on the sidelines after a bad leg break.

It is a measure of how much the pulling power of the Chinese Super League (CSL) has exploded over the past year that the summer transfer window, which closed last week, contained a handful of blockbuster deals, but was still considered quieter than expected.

Topping the list was Brazilian international Hulk, whose $60 million transfer from Zenit St Petersburg to Shanghai SIPG broke the Chinese transfer record for the fifth time this year – although the other four times occurred at the start of the year when the current football frenzy truly began in earnest.

Hulk appreciating the flowers (and his pay packet)

But if Hulk’s move from Russia to China – or from one second-tier league to another – can be dismissed as a player who is more interested in maximizing his bank account than testing himself against the best in the world, Graziano Pelle’s move from Southampton to Shandong Luneng certainly raised some eyebrows.

New soccer tournaments could see China gain global dominance

China’s long-term soccer plan calls for the country to be a global force in the game by 2050, but if China’s latest football project comes off, it would arguably become a major footballing power long before that.  

The plan has been laid out by the Chinese government, backed, of course, by President Xi Jinping, but the latest moves have come from one of the country’s biggest companies – Wanda, whose boss just happens to be China’s richest man.

Details came out earlier this month regarding a new European football league, proposed by Wanda Chairman Wang Jianlin, someone who has already backed his country’s soccer drive to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, doubling down on his Infront purchase (which went somewhat awry when the Philippe Blatter to Sepp Blatter connection failed to materialize) by sponsoring FIFA and exploring club investments.

There will always be a certain amount of skepticism greeting any radical new proposal, but the Financial Times quoted a senior official from one of Europe’s big five leagues – namely those in England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France – as saying that the idea was both “very well planned” and “realistic”.

China Sports Insider’s Mark Dreyer (left) discusses China’s football industry – including Wanda’s proposed new European tournament – with senior executives from CCTV-5, LeSports, the Asian Broadcasting Union, Alisports and Shankai Sports at the World Football Forum in Paris.

Why Beijing Will Win the 2022 Olympics – and Why It Shouldn’t

All the talk in this part of the world is how China is bound to win the 2022 Olympics, given that its only rival in this two-horse race is so nondescript that many haven’t even heard of it, let alone be able to place it on a map (for the record, Almaty is in Kazakhstan, only a few hundred miles from the Chinese border).

But there is one very obvious hurdle here: this is a Winter Games, and while Almaty was described in the IOC’s evaluation commission report (ECR) as “a winter sports city, with easy access to the mountains and some world-class winter sports venues”, check out pictures from the same ECR of where China’s bid plans to hold the skiing event:

Not a whole lot of snow, right? But China can get very hot in the summer, I hear you cry. The trouble is, these pictures were taken in January of this year, smack in the middle of cold season. Here is another one:

Man-made snow is a necessity at many ski resorts all around the world, but in a country where some have argued that the water shortage could be the largest problem facing China today, think about what would be involved to ship that much water up to these mountains to ensure that the Games would be a success. I have no doubt that China could do it, but it’s not hard to construct a case to vote against China based on environmental concerns alone.

That’s the bad news.

Beijing vs Almaty: The Final Countdown

In a few hours’ time, IOC President Thomas Bach will announce either China’s capital, Beijing, or Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, as the host of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. Here are some reasons why China should be confident of success – and some reasons to worry:

Why Beijing will win

PEOPLE. There are not quite 1.3 billion reasons why Beijing will win, but Chinese President Xi Jinping has claimed that 300 million people will take up winter sports should Beijing win the Games. Misleading Chinese stats is a particularly bugbear of these pages, and that number seems extraordinarily high at first glance – plucked, as it is, from thin air – but even applying the Weibo rule and dividing by ten, 30 million participants have the potential to revolutionize the winter sports industry.

EXPERIENCE. Beijing is in the unique position of having held an Olympic Games in the very recent past, so a number of people who were directly involved in the success of 2008 will be directly involved in making sure 2022 is an equal success. The 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing didn’t hurt either. In short, the IOC voters know that China has what it takes to put on a great show.

TELEVISION. Don’t underestimate the power of television networks – led, of course, by NBC’s billions – to influence decisions of this nature. If you think that NBC executives would want Almaty to win out over Beijing, you are either certifiably insane or Kazakh. Visually, Almaty’s stunning panorama would trump China’s brown mountains, but the depth and range of feature stories produced for an American audience would be far, far greater in China.

China’s medal contenders

The World Athletics Championships kick off in Beijing today, with the world’s media focusing more on the doping allegations that have engulfed the sport than on the sporting action. This is completely understandable, given the revelations that have come out in recent weeks – for example, that one third of the athletes who competed at the 2011 World Champs in South Korea had suspicious tests during the previous 12 months.

However, Chinese media – led by national broadcaster CCTV – have been putting more of a positive spin on things, as is their government-directed wont. Wall-to-wall coverage of former meets (including the 2008 Beijing Olympics) has been shown on sports channel CCTV-5 in recent days, educating and encouraging the public in equal measures, in the hope that they embrace these championships.

2004 Olympic champion Liu Xiang

The problem is: Liu Xiang, China’s 110m hurdles 2004 Olympic champion and the sport’s only real domestic star, recently retired.

Here is a list of all the Chinese contenders hoping to step into Liu’s size 11s:

Astonomical CSL broadcast deal stuns China’s sports industry

CCTV, IMG and Infront – all huge names in the sports industry – were among the suitors to buy the rights to produce and broadcast the Chinese Super League. But these three, and others, were obliterated by the bid submitted by the comparatively little known Tiao Power, worth a staggering 8 billion yuan over five years.

Reports say that Tiao’s 8 billion yuan bid – worth 20 times more than the existing deal – dwarfed the 4.3 billion submitted by Shanghai’s Great Sports channel, 4 billion from CCTVSE (the sports marketing wing of the broadcaster) and 1.75 billion from Guangdong’s GDTV. IMG, Infront and two other parties didn’t make it through to the final after failing to satisfy all of the CSL’s requirements in the submission process.

Under the terms of the deal, Tiao will pay 1 billion yuan in each of 2016 and 2017, followed by 2 billion yuan each year from 2018-2020. It’s a huge amount of money by Chinese standards for a product that, while improving, is still way behind the top European leagues, and Tiao is clearly gambling that losses in the first few years of the deal could be compensated by profits 4-5 years down the line.

The company, run by media mogul Li Ruigang (above) – also known as China’s Rupert Murdoch – won the broadcast rights to Chinese national team matches earlier this year for 70 million yuan, ending the CFA’s long association with CCTV. Of course, CCTV could still end up broadcasting both Chinese national team and CSL games, but that is far from certain, and they would have to pay handsomely for the privilege.

Ti’ao Power’s GM, Ms Zhao Jun, earlier this year dismissed talk of a pay-per-view model, citing previous failures in China, although English Premier League games are now available on a wide variety of online platforms, some of which cost 5.99 RMB (standard definition) or 9.99 RMB (HD) per game.

Did China really ban golf or not?

Headlines last week left readers with little doubt about the state of golf in China:

“Golf banned for China’s Party members” (CNN)

“Communist party commands its 88 million members to abstain from playing golf” (Guardian sub-heading)

“To fight corruption, China officially bans golf for party cadres” (Washington Post)

“China just banned 88 million people joining golf clubs” (USA Today)

10 sporting questions for the Year of the Monkey

After a breathless few weeks during which the entire sporting world has been talking about Chinese football (with yours truly quoted by AFP three times, FT twice, El Pais, Hicimos, Vice Sports and interviewed by CCTV, BBC and Al Jazeera among others), let’s take a look at a few stories that could be cropping up over the next 12 months…

1. Which high-priced foreign import will be the first to flee the CSL?*

Well, you didn’t really expect all these new signings to have a happy ending, did you? The days when Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba left abruptly after not receiving their promised piles of cash may be (mostly) over, but it’s hard to believe all of Alex Teixeira (below), Jackson Martinez, Ramires, Fredy Guarin, Gervinho and others will settle seamlessly into their new teams on the other side of the world.

Brazilian Alex Teixeira arrives in Nanjing after signing for Jiangsu Suning

That’s not to say that they will all disappear next week – Asamoah Gyan and Demba Ba, for example, hardly set the league on fire last year and are still playing in China – but if these players’ agents can attract interest from a serious contender in Europe (and their pay cut is at least softened by a hefty signing bonus), then you have to think there could be some further moves this summer.