All to play for: China's football revolution
Ben Bland spends a week at Guangzhou R&F football club to see for himself how the sport is growing in China
Filmed and produced by Tom Griggs. Additional production by Sherry Fei Ju. Additional footage by Getty
China is in the midst of a football revolution. The Chinese Super League has grabbed the world's attention by signing top name players on astronomical wages-- Argentine striker Carlos Tevez, Brazilian playmaker Oscar, and Nigerian midfielder John Obi Mikel. By acquiring players like these, CSL's transfer spending rocketed to over half a billion euros this year.
The massive injection of cash was inspired by President Xi Jinping, a football fan who saw a virtuous cycle of health benefits at home and an increase in soft power around the world. But having encouraged the investment boom, the government made an abrupt U-turn earlier this year, calling for a halt to costly foreign transfers because of fears about capital outflows.
So what's the reality? Can Chinese football meet Xi Jinping's ambitious goals, or will it miss the target?
To tell the inside story of China's football revolution, I've come here to Guangzhou R&F, an innovative top flight club that's challenging bigger and richer rivals. With a far smaller budget, their focus is on developing local talent, and unearthing rough diamonds in the global transfer model. If that approach sounds familiar, it's because Serbian coach Dragan Stojkovic is a protege of legendary Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.
His style of coaching is very similar to what I'm doing today. I explain to them also that they should be very patient because football is-- you can't change it in one day or one week.
He's instilled his long-term philosophy right through the club, which is known in Chinese as [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]. The club is taking its future on developing young Chinese players. But the rising interest and the flood of TV money in the CSL today is down to overseas superstars like [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] Israeli international and league top scorer Eran Zahavi.
I think in China, everyone wants to play in attack. Everyone's play your fancy football. Then you'll see many goals.
Zahavi has been a huge success, scoring 27 goals this season. But there have been some costy flops, including Carlos Tevez, who's paid a rumoured $750,000 a week, but has scored only twice.
From my point of view, the money was not played on the pitch. There are some players, they played in many big games in Champions League. And then they come to China, and they need to adapt.
[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] club captain and Chinese national team defender Jiang Zhipeng says it's the Chinese players who have most to gain from playing against Brazilian superstars like Oscar and [INAUDIBLE].
The ultimate goal for China is for the national team to first qualify and then hold its own at the World Cup. But that dream is still a long way off. Nicky Wong, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] vice chairman and former local government graph buster thinks it's up to China's football clubs, not the Communist Party, to develop the game.
Like other ambitious Chinese organisations, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] is looking to learn from overseas.
Some football experts in Europe continue to deride the CSL as a retirement home for overpaid has-beens. But Chinese fans are buying into President Xi's football dream, driving attendances up by 60% since 2010. More people now come to watch the average CSL game than top flight matches in football powerhouses like France, Italy, and the Netherlands.
Situ Jiajin started supporting [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] when it was founded in 2011. He comes to every home game as part of a hardcore group of fans.
[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] also has an international fan club, somewhat appropriately called the "Fuligans."
Never underestimate the [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] because we often surprise these bigger sides.
Today, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] are taking on one of the financial joints of the CSL, Beijing Guoan, which was acquired earlier this year at a valuation of over a $800 million, making it worth more than seven-time European champions AC Milan. To the delights of the home fans, Eran Zahavi scored the winner, after a clinical [INAUDIBLE] on Jiang Zhipeng. It's precisely this combination of global superstars, home-grown talent, and local passion that Xi Jinping hopes will drive China's football revolution in his quest to project Chinese soft power. Ben Bland, Financial Times, Guangzhou.