Football in China, the ultimate talent gap?

Last week we saw some very big news coincide with interesting articles examining the state of Football (not pointyball) in China.  It’s such a great moment, I have to do a massive link dump and analysis of the Nicolas Anelka coverage and the Economists’ excellent article about Chinese Football, which dropped fortuitously only days after Anelka’s signing.  JUMP!

First the news broke that Nicolas Anelka maybe,  may be, then yes he did sign with Shanghai Shenhua.  He stands as the first true European star to come to the Chinese Super League.  I was initially very skeptical, since the early rumors swirled thanks to the presence of Claude Anelka.  I witnessed what he did to the late USL club AC St. Louis, after all.

But Anelka did indeed sign for several metric tons of weekly wages, and we are set to see a vast new experiment in Hongkou Stadium next year.  Anelka isn’t the first talented foreign player to sign in the CSL, but certainly head and shoulders above any previous signing.  So, what have we learned?

Chinese billionaires  are prepared to spend like maverick owners we are used to in the major European leagues.  A season of sell-outs at hongkou Stadium & a respectable round of jersey sales MIIIIIGHT pay Anelka’s wages.  Scalpers run the show, and I paid  350rmb for my season tickets last year.  I expect a price hike, but there is a ceiling to how far ticket prices can go before the stadiums empty out, because (1) as with most other football cultures the kids in the stands are predominantly middle class, and (2) every Shenhua game is broadcast on Shanghai local TV, regardless of ticket sales.   This is a non-economic (or perhaps extra-economic) decision.

In Anelka’s 15 years as a professional footballer, I doubt he’s experienced an on field talent gap as wide as what he’ll see in the CSL, from his opponents but also on his own team.  Talent gap you say?  Oh yes, I sayeth. Queue this Economist article, conveniently released days after the Anelka signing.

In a country so proud of its global stature, football is a painful national joke. Perhaps because Chinese fans love the sport madly and want desperately for their nation to succeed at it, football is the common reference point by which people understand and measure failure. When, in 2008, milk powder from the Chinese company Sanlu was found to have been tainted with melamine, causing a national scandal, the joke was: “Sanlu milk, the exclusive milk of the Chinese national football team!”

Yet, China is soccer obsessed, despite a poor domestic league and national team.  Witness the annual Asian tours of major top flight clubs.  Hell, even the LA Galaxy, who have one famous baller, tour through SE Asia and China regularly.  Satellites, pirate feeds and ruthlessly effective brand marketing have Chinese youth identifying with an EPL team before they can find England or Spain on a map, let alone consider the CSL.  The Economist article also discusses the depths of corruption witnessed in Chinese Domestic League games, and though I’ve never seen money change hands, I’ve seen some awfully suspect stuff happen on the pitch. UPDATE:  Global Times reports that the Bribery and Corruption trial of formar CFA Chair Zhang Jianqiang has commenced.)

So, Will Anelka Matter?  I agree with the Mr, Cheng, this is much like Beckham’s move to the American MLS, but he’s more accurate than he states.  It took a coach (Bruce Arena) who understands the MLS system, to really bring success to a “star studded team”.  Arena knew how to  manage the frustrations of the star about the relative low quality of the players around him.  In fact, Arenas’s 2011 LA Galaxy were the first cup winners to had a major “Designated player” on the roster.  It will be up to the coach to manage the talent gap and the culture clash.

Anelka has been a loud and proud footballer for much of his career; we’ll see if he can keep his composure as he learns the down and out nature of his new league.  His accountant (and brother) would certainly appreciate it.