China has a clear warning for the Indian Super League

Chinese Super LeagueThe activity currently underway in India this summer is exciting many of the pundits and analysts who have pinpointed the country of a billion residents as being the new global footballing “super power”.

This winter, the Indian Super League will welcome footballing stars from all over the world to participate in a three-month campaign between various franchises based in the major Indian cities, all of whom have captured the signatures of individuals such as Zico, Alessandro Del Piero, Michael Chopra, David Trezeguet, Peter Reid and David James.

It has already been extremely successful in garnering publicity all over the world, and will no doubt capture the attention of various outlets throughout its existence, but what will it actually do to further football in India?

The Indian Super League is a circus. It is populated by coaches and players who are looking for a large pay cheque, a warm winter in a beautiful hotel and another line on their CV – and that is absolutely fine if that is the only purpose of this Frankenstein’s monster.

However, if it is going to make football a participation sport for hundreds of millions of people, then creating a rootless, Las Vegas show full of foreigners is utterly pointless. For a perfect example of this, Indian football fans just have to peer over to the east and look at the situation in neighbouring China.

China’s volatile and oppressive history in the 20th century made organised sport impossible, but as the nation has entered the 21st century and creaked open the doors to international consumerism, football has flooded in. The current Chinese Super League has appeared in various forms over the past decade, due to regular dalliances with corruption, lack of interest and financial mismanagement, but at the moment the CSL contains sixteen teams that have attracted players in the past such as Didier Drogba, Frederic Kanoute, Yakubu, Nicolas Anelka, and Alessandro Diamanti with huge salaries and luxurious lifestyles.

The impact of all of this, however, has been minimal: there is no real existence of a participation culture within the country, equipment is almost impossible to attain unless you buy expensively from Western stores and very few people could be located that had any affiliation or relationship with a Chinese club.

Building showcase pieces for these countries offers nothing that actually helps grow football in new environments. There is no youth structure put in place for people looking to take up and excel at the sport, there is no feeling of warmth towards local clubs (who are much more interested in pulling in marque signings than getting anyone sitting in the stands), visiting clubs on pre-season tours dash in and dash out rather than engage the few devoted fans there are and money is splashed on international audiences rather than those living in the streets surrounding the grounds.

Despite all of these obstacles, Rowan Simons, founder of ClubFootball in Beijing and author of Bamboo Goalposts, has spent many decades in China trying to create a grassroots project that will engage people in the sport, has lobbied the Chinese government to help increase participation and used his considerable influence on Chinese television to get people to support his cause. Rowan very kindly gave up his time to speak a little more on the issues in Chinese football.

Are the Chinese starting to see football as a game they can participate in at a local level, rather than a sport that you watch foreign teams play on the television? My time in China has revealed it is much easier to buy any European football short compared to purchasing a simple football.

Good comparison! It is starting to change now that many families have reached middle-class status and are looking at quality of life, but there is a long way to go before it could be called a participation culture. There is also a change in thinking about education, with a generation that studied overseas now looking at their own kids and demanding a more balanced upbringing in which sport plays a part.

Bamboo Goalposts finishes with you expressing high hopes for the legacy that the 2008 Beijing Olympics will have on football (and other sports) at a local level. Did it live up to expectations or are there still a lot of promises that need fulfilling?

The 2008 Olympics was responsible for delaying sports reform in China by more than a decade.  Since we launched CF in 2001, we have only seen business fall in one year – 2008 – when all public sports in Beijing were banned for the whole Olympic summer. Many small sports organisers did not survive.


Although China was castigated for everything from pollution to Tibet and human rights, nobody (including the IOC) ever used the Olympics as a mechanism for changing Chinese sport itself, the one area in which criticism would have been fairly targeted.


As it is, China topped the medal table by manufacturing athletes in minority sports using the old Soviet model. Football was one of the team games to expose the inherent lack of public participation.

What are the significant challenges you at ClubFootball face when trying to grow grassroots football in China, particularly in Beijing?

We have overcome every political, moral, legal, economic, cultural, social and educational challenge and now have a good working model. The new challenge is to build and replicate in more markets.

The Chinese Super League is rightly scolded in your book for the poor example it sets for Chinese football fans, thanks to the corruption, violence and lack of local identity. Have any of those perceptions changed or has the league in any way tried to change the situation?

Since then, CSL has collapsed again and re-built using unsustainable investment from entrepreneurs spurred on by government. Attendances are up, but if you have a chance to see a match, you will note that the crowds are not football fans, per se, but young couples using football as an excuse to let off steam in public, something it is hard to do elsewhere. The insult chanting has not changed.

How important is the upcoming AFC Asian Cup, in Australia next year, for capturing the country’s attention? The qualification process was very mixed and not particularly inspiring (2 wins, 2 draws, 2 losses and -1 goal difference).

Expectations are very low but there is always a danger that they will over-perform and suddenly people will believe everything is alright.

Where do you think Chinese football will be in 15 years, both domestically and internationally?

It is hard to say as President XI has only recently been appointed. There is certainly now another big push on football, but as I described in the book, it didn’t really work out when Deng Xiaoping did the same thing in the 1980s, so we should be very sceptical. We are already seeing huge investment into football that does not seem to be coordinated, but more to serve short term political interests.

The Author

Callum Farrell

A History graduate from the University of Westminster, where I am the sports editor for the QH newspaper. I've been writing for Back Page Football for the past year and am particularly interested in the more obscure and less-frequented areas of world football.

2 thoughts on “China has a clear warning for the Indian Super League

  1. Greetings from India.
    It is a nice article comparing the CSL and ISL.
    But we cannot deny the optimism surrounding the upcoming ISL.
    I personally feel the fan frenzy surrounding club football is more in India than in China. You must come once to witness a derby between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan at the gigantic Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata and thenn probably you will opine differently.
    I run a dedicated news site for the Indian Super League fans.
    Have a look

  2. I think you’re being extremely unfair, indeed, to me the CSL would be a great example for the Indian league. What the ISL is doing looks a lot like what the NASL did and its a formula for disaster as its financially viable.

    Football has a ways to come in China as a participation sport, but at the youth level its growing unbelievably fast, with the School Football program really taking off in the last few years. Equipment impossible to obtain? You can buy a decent enough football at any grocery store for under GBP2 and shoes for GBP10-15. The CSL has helped things along a lot as well, right now league wide attendance is just short of an average of 20,000 per match, with two clubs around 40,000. In Beijing and Guangzhou, it’s hard to go a day without coming across multiple fans of the local side.

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