For all that few Manchester United fans right now would presumably argue against a big-money sale of the out of form Wayne Rooney, even his most ardent critic would have been surprised at the story broken by the Daily Mail that the England captain is set to be offered a gargantuan £75 million deal to up-sticks and make his way down the ill-trodden path to China.
In an appeal to the former Everton starlet’s well-known love of cash, Shanghai SIPG are keen to unite Rooney with his former England manager, Sven-Göran Eriksson.
The benefits of this would extend far beyond Shanghai; for the Chinese Super League, Wayne Rooney would become their footballing Marco Polo, the European who ‘discovered’ China.
It would be an interesting move for Rooney. For all that the United striker is unlikely to take it, having been more heavily linked with moves to the MLS in recent months, when it comes to defining his legacy ‘Wazza’ may want to take advice from the poet Robert Frost. “And I”, famously wrote Frost, “took the road less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.”
The news from Shanghai follows hot on the heels of revelations from Watford’s new messiah, Odion Ighalo, who claims to have turned down “crazy money” to join Hebei China Fortune in the summer for £10 million.
For all that the Nigerian’s admission is presumably calculated to endear him further to the Hornets faithful, it is highly telling of a broader trend in football: the rise of China.
The status of China as an emergent football market, and its traditional lack of local quality, belies the amount of money afloat in the Super League. Jack Ma, founder of the Alibaba Group, seems to have stumbled himself upon the treasure of the Forty Thieves; in the summer, the Chinese businessman bought a 50% stake in Guangzhou Evergrande for a cool sum rumoured to be in the region of $192 million.
This was topped further when, on the first day of December, City Football Group announced that a consortium of investors headed up by CMC Holdings and CITIC Capital had invested $400 million in return for a 13% stake. Aside from the relevance to the Premier League, this is deeply indicative of trends in China.
The investment is merely the latest in a series of footballing investments made by the latest CFG board member Li Ruigang.
For all Li’s footballing interest, the investment in CFG is well within the logic of his business strategy. This year, the media mogul purchased five years of the Super League’s broadcasting rights for $1.3 billion. Although around half the figure for the Premier League, this is a record in China.
As the Financial Times notes, Li’s plan here is very much commercial, gambling on the rise of Chinese football to sell mobile content. Given that Jack Ma owns Guangzhou Evergrande as part of a portfolio that, as of last week, also includes the South China Morning Post, China’s tycoons are increasingly seeing football as the latest in a list of shrewd investments in the media, entertainment and leisure sectors.
Gone are the days when Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka left Shanghai Shenhua in response to apparent unpaid bonuses; Shenhua’s chairman and The9 CEO, Zhu Jun, is part of a wealthy footballing elite. Xu Jiayin, mainland China’s richest man, owns the other half of Guangzhou Evergrande.
The Super League has a similar attitude to the MLS. For all that the two superpowers of China and America have never historically attracted large footballing attendances, both seek to change this with massive investment into the world’s sport. As Kevin Costner hears from on high in the 1989 baseball film Field of Dreams, “if you build it, he will come.”
Yet investment has rarely been the problem. For all the attempts of various tycoons to commercialise football, the Super League has been dogged by footballing issues. With Shenhua coach Jean Tigana fired upon turning up to a match, and with his staff no longer there, Shenhua played with no home bench.
At the apogee of the match-fixing scandals at the beginning of the millennium, which saw sponsorship flee the league, top referee Lu Jun was jailed in 2012 for five-and-a-half-years. The Super League has long suffered from the plagues of unprofessionalism and disorganisation.
The league has been able to attract a relatively high level of coaches. Eriksson is the least successful of a trio of former international coaches that has seen World Cup winning managers Marcello Lippi and Luiz Felipe Scolari take up reins in China. Yet the league struggled both to attract and retain key players.
The capture of Didier Drogba and Nicholas Anelka proved a false dawn, whilst the arrival of Robinho last summer on a free transfer comes only as the Brazilian reaches the nadir of a career in which he is now less relevant than the club he serves.
Yet Chinese football is changing.
Xi Jinping assumed office in 2013, the first Chinese premier to hold a special interest in football. Xi, who visited the Etihad with Li Ruigang on his recent visit to Britain, (and was part of a baffling selfie with David Cameron and Sergio Agüero) seeks to enact a ‘football revolution’ that has China winning the World Cup as the ultimate aim.
Both domestic tycoons and international opportunists seek to ride the wave of this revolution; alongside figures like Li and Ma, both George Osborne and Ronaldo have pledged money to aid Sino footballing development. The huge Evergrande football academy seeks to train a generation of indigenous footballing stars.
It will be some time until any of these stars are ready; do not expect to see the products of the Evergrande academy soon. Yet in the meantime, China’s business community is providing the foot soldiers for Xi’s revolution, helping to build the infrastructure necessary for footballing success, drawing upon all the dynamic and thorough attributes that have helped them succeed commercially. Now, it is the matter of acquiring players.
Tomorrow, it might just be Xi’s dream of winning silverware.
Wayne Rooney may be the first coup in this ‘football revolution’, providing a spur to a league that is already gaining traction at an exhilarating pace. Most likely, he will not. Yet what is for sure is that we haven’t heard the last of China.