The Chinese Super League has continued to send shockwaves across the football world over the past month, with huge amounts of money being spent on big-name players from Europe – something MLS has become popular for doing in recent years – but should the North American soccer market be threatened by the size of investments being made in China?
Well, to put it simply, yes. The CSL is fully committed to making its mark on the game and has no shortage of money at its disposal.
The Chinese government, headed by president Xi Jinping, has financially backed the growth of the CSL, with huge football fan Jinping claiming he wants to see China invest hundreds of billions into sport, with the overriding goal to host and win a World Cup, according to The International Business Times.
‘China’s president Xi Jinping announced a goal to create a domestic sport economy worth $850bn by 2025. At the heart of this goal and the accompanying plan is the aim of hosting and winning the World Cup,’ claims the report.
Wealthy businessman are pumping money into the game alongside the government, partly to improve their political relations, and partly to make profit themselves.
The impacts have been seen over the past few years, but the last few weeks has seen the Chinese transfer record broken four times in a very short space of time.
Alex Teixeira, who was a January target for Liverpool, has just moved to Jiangsu Suning for £38 million, smashing the £31 million Guangzhou Evergrande paid for Jackson Martinez days earlier.
Chelsea sold Brazilian midfielder Ramires to Jiangsu for £21 million before that, with Shanghai SIPG’s £13.9 million move for Elkeson initially breaking the record before being eclipsed three more times over the course of the winter transfer window.
In fact, so much money has been spent by CSL clubs over the last month (£194.2 million) that the league beat the Premier League (£175 million) in terms of January spending, with three more weeks of the Chinese Super League’s transfer window still left to run.
These are figures MLS clubs could only dream of spending on players, with the North American transfer system more complex. Transfers are more of a rarity in MLS, with most big-name signings joining on free transfers, with the money being invested in contracts as opposed to transfer fees, although the CSL isn’t worried about throwing money at both.
Major League Soccer’s Designated Player rule still means clubs can have just three players on their squad whose salaries don’t count towards the club’s salary cap – a rule that was created after David Beckham’s famous move to LA Galaxy in 2007.
Star MLS players such as Steven Gerrard, Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard, David Villa and Kaka are just some of the league’s most renowned Designated Players.
CSL clubs don’t have any such restriction, however. They are free to spend what they want, on who they want and can offer whatever they want.
This is where the threat to MLS comes in. Big-name players from Europe’s top leagues have been moving to MLS over the past few years, although most of them in the latter stages of their careers.
Still, Sebastian Giovinco (29) and Giovani Dos Santos (26) both joined MLS in 2015 – two players in the peak of their careers, and this gave the league a huge boost. Similar moves could take place over the next month or so, with Major League Soccer’s first transfer window not yet open.
But the CSL has brought in several players supposedly in, or approaching their peaks in recent times. Gervinho (28) made the move last month, while the aforementioned trio of Jackson Martinez (29), Ramires (28) and Alex Teixeira (26) have also made headlines across the world.
They have joined other famous names in Demba Ba (30) and Paulinho (27) in making the move to Asia and more are expected to follow.
CSL clubs are reportedly chasing the likes of Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, both of whom have been linked with an MLS move after they decide to quit their respective European adventures. The competition between the two leagues is likely to be dominated by how much is on offer financially.
Rooney has reportedly been offered £25 million per year if he decides to join the CSL – an amount MLS would baulk at, given the fact the highest paid player in MLS is former Ballon d’Or winner Kaka, who earns over $7 million (approximately £5 million) per season.
Aside from the money, attendances, high-profile managers and even the timing of a season are all key factors that are helping the Chinese Super League to grow at a rapid rate.
MLS boasted an impressive average attendance of 21,574 fans per game over the course of the 2015 season – a rise of 12.5% from 2014. The CSL, though, saw its average attendance rise 16.8% in 2015, with 22,193 fans attending games on average.
The regular season in Major League Soccer runs from March to October – something that makes the league an attractive watch for those who need their football fix over the course of summer’s without international competitions. But the CSL runs over the same period, giving MLS something else to seriously think about.
MLS currently outperforms the CSL as far as international TV exposure is concerned, but this is something Chinese officials will be looking to change quickly, especially with several big names now plying their trade in the world’s most populated country.
There are currently 16 teams in China’s major league – four less than the 20 clubs who compete in MLS, although the Chinese football system allows promotion and relegation – something MLS does not offer.
It’s clear that the CSL is making lots of noise. Many are sceptical that the league can sustain its huge spending sprees on talented players from across the world, but for now MLS officials needs to ensure it doesn’t fall behind China in the race to become the world’s most attractive football league outside of Europe.
Should MLS be worried about the CSL’s plans to dominate world football?