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31 January 2017

Hefty paychecks are luring our football stars to China – but what awaits them there?

China’s attempt to disrupt the global football market lacks one crucial element: love for the game.

By Ed Smith

In 1987, the Atlanta Braves baseball player Bob Horner signed for the Yakult Swallows in Japan’s Central League. The 29-year-old home-run hitter arrived in Japan to huge fanfare. After a series of ­ageing American imports, Japan had finally attracted a player at the top of his powers. Overnight, Horner became a superstar.

Horner, alas, was not a natural cosmopolitan. Pudgy, red-faced and recurrently injured, he struggled to adapt to the relentless discipline of Japan. He imprisoned himself in his apartment, glued to Clint Eastwood videos. After matches, he would find temporary release at the Hard Rock Café, one of the few places where he felt at home. Islanded by fame and loneliness, he abandoned Japan after one season – the prompt for Robert Whiting’s classic sports book You Gotta Have Wa. The gaijin, the foreigner, had failed again.

Thirty years on, it is Chinese money ­luring away some of football’s biggest stars. Argentina’s Carlos Tevez, who played for Manchester City and Juventus, and Chelsea’s Brazilian attacking midfielder Oscar have signed deals in the Chinese Super League, worth £615,000 and £400,000 a week, respectively. (Horner earned $2m for his season’s work.)

The global lifestyle has changed even more than the numbers. Football aside, what kind of leisure will Tevez and Oscar enjoy in Shanghai? It will be similar to the lives they could enjoy in London or Milan. They can eat eye-wateringly expensive sushi in the same exclusive restaurants. They can buy Italian suits from luxury brands in air-conditioned malls. Their personal trainer and masseur will remain on board. And, should the need for a newly tattooed limb become urgent, then the city’s celebrity tattooist will bring ink and needle to the footballer’s penthouse.

The globalisation of luxury markets has ultimately tracked the globalisation of lab­our markets. The two forces are connected, of course. But when poor Horner ploughed his lonely existence in Japan, it was easier for him to make money happily than to spend money happily.

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Globalisation’s two strands have converged. A couple of years ago, on a tour of Riva’s famous boatyard on Lake Iseo in northern Italy, I saw how the brand’s target market had changed over time. In the 1950s – old-world Mediterranean; 1980s – Wall Street on holiday in the Hamptons; 2000s – Asian industrialists (and footballers) splashing about in their luxury yachts with Shanghai’s skyline in the background.

What about the football? Here things become more uncertain. At first glance, China’s entry into football’s talent market resembles the Indian Premier League’s disruptive effect on establishment cricket. The IPL, however, was a market correction. Most of the world’s cricket fans were in India even before it. As India became richer, without losing its passion for cricket, it was inevitable that it would, eventually, become the central force in the cricketing family. ­Indeed, if India manages its talent base even moderately efficiently, it ought, in time, to win every international cricket event.

Something like the IPL would have happened eventually. Cricket’s West-East pivot was only postponed by the sport’s innate conservatism and India’s economic illiberalism. The disequilibrium in cricket was before the IPL rather than after it.

Football in China is different. The money is there but what about the love? Football is at an early stage of integration into the Chinese mainstream and the quality of the league is mixed. The foreign stars are joining an experiment.

Last year, the Chinese Football Associa­tion published its plan for becoming a “first-class football superpower” by 2050. There is a historical precedent, but it’s misleading. China invested in state-led talent identification programmes to harvest a generation of Olympic medallists at Beijing (and afterwards). Yet as we Brits know, it is much easier to use state coffers to muscle into Olympic sports than it is to buy footballing prowess. President Xi Jinping has said he wants to win the World Cup within 15 years. However, having lost to Syria and Uzbekistan, China won’t even qualify for the 2018 tournament.

China’s footballing model resembles one of those vast skyscrapers hastily hoisted in a country that wants to announce its economic arrival. The super-brands do not connect with the culture.

All that said, there are several assumptions to resist. The first is the idea that a sport, or a trend, has a “real” home. Pasta, now so intrinsically Italian, first came to Europe from China. Ivy Style clothing, just as it began to seem staid in 1960s America, became the signifier of edgy chic in Japan. Now Americans pay top dollar for Japanese Ivy Style labels such as United Arrows and Beams.

Taking the long view, it is possible that future historians will describe cricket as an Asian game once played in England and Australia. But football and China? I’m not yet convinced. Three things could go wrong: the football, the politics and the money.

When Horner signed to play in Japan, it looked as if he was joining the world’s strongest economy. Japanese interests owned 54 per cent of all the cash in the world’s banks, two-thirds of all Manhattan property, and 3 per cent of the US national debt. Surely, in time, all the stars would play baseball in Japan? No one saw a generation of stagflation looming.

Besides, isn’t the whole privilege of being wildly wealthy refusing to do things you don’t want to do? Do already vastly rich young footballers want to play in a vacuum in China? If they are torn between the game of football and the game of making money – for beyond a certain level of utility, that’s all it is – my guess is football is a lot more fun.

This article appears in the 26 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The eclipse of the West