Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Will European Football be Shanghai-ed?


Anelka & Drogba
The announcement that Chelsea star Nicolas Anelka is moving to play for Shanghai Shenhua of the Chinese Super League for an undisclosed transfer fee and a $14 million a year paycheck sounds like a logical development.
Right now, if the Chinese want to watch top quality football live they usually have to stay up late into the night- a 3pm kick-off in Manchester means 11pm in Shanghai, and residents wanting to catch Saturday’s El Clasico could either go on an all-nighter or get up at 5am.
Like everyone else in the world the Chinese want more sport as they get richer. So far soccer and basketball have made the most inroads. National pride plays a big role- soccer enjoyed a huge boost when the national team qualified for the 2002 World Cup, and more recent poor form has slowed development. Yao Ming’s success in the NBA is the single largest factor in that sport’s penetration.
Other Far Eastern countries, like Thailand or Malaysia, accept that their domestic leagues can never rank with the Europeans simply on the grounds of size. That surely can’t be the case for China. According to Forbes, China now has more than 100 billionaires, who must soon realize (if they don’t already) that investing in sport is a relatively cheap way of gratifying the ego and buying celebrity. Currently attendance per game at the Super League is slightly higher than for MLS. The addition of big stars from Europe would change all that.
If the Super League buys up international talent it will be a big headache for the presently dominant Europeans. With high levels of gambling there are already serious concerns about matching fixing and frequent scandals. Unless sports gambling is legalized in China there are likely to be persistent problems which might undermine the credibility of the sport globally.
Perhaps even more serious is the threat of a “talent drain”. Chinese owners could buy up European clubs as feeder for the Super League, with emergent talent being immediately shipped over to play in the Far East. Moreover, Chinese development might spark the growth of other Far Eastern leagues such as Japan and South Korea. It might also provoke the Gulf nations into staking their own claim to a share of global talent, creating a bidding war in which the Europeans would be unable to compete.
Anelka’s wages represent a small investment for a billionaire, but they make him one of the best paid soccer stars in the world. If this trend continues, Europe’s relation to the Asian economies could end up like South America’s relationship with Europe- a cheap source of talent suffering underinvestment and persistent lack of competitiveness at the club level.

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