LONDON: A leading Chinese football agent has warned that the financial issues facing the Chinese Super League serve as both an opportunity and a warning for Saudi Arabia.
His views come in the wake of seismic events that have rocked Chinese football and look set to have a ripple effect on the rest of the continent.
A series of mishaps, among them being Chinese champions Jiangsu FC ceasing operations last week, have for a while at least, removed the Middle Kingdom as one of the premier transfer destinations in the world. Riyadh and Jeddah, rather than Shanghai and Guangzhou, will have an increased opportunity to become Asia’s go-to destinations for big-name foreign players, but caution is needed.
“For a number of years, we were getting lots of inquiries from China to contact European clubs, and getting lots of interest from European agents to get their players into China,” a leading Chinese agent, who wished to remain anonymous, told Arab News. “Outside the big leagues of Europe, China was the place to go, but that has changed. We are already seeing attention switching to West Asia.”
Around a decade ago, Chinese president Xi Jinping made it clear to the world and the Chinese Football Association, as well to conglomerates and state-owned enterprises, that the underachievement of the country in the world game had to end. Within months, clubs in Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing were signing some of the biggest names in the sport.
In the short-term, China wanted to match the likes of Saudi Arabia and become an Asian powerhouse — The Green Falcons have been to five World Cups and won three Asian Cups, compared to one and none for China — but the longer-term ambition was a global one.
The transfer activity certainly reached world-beating levels during the winter transfer window of 2016-17, when China’s top tier spent more than any other. Oscar left Chelsea for Shanghai SIPG in December 2016 for around $80 million. In total, more than $470 million was spent, considerably more than the $300 million that left the bank accounts of English Premier League teams. Never had Asia seen such activity.
The sums spent helped bring the AFC Champions League to China for the first time ever, increased attendance to the number one spot in Asia and lifted the league’s profile to be one of the highest of any outside the traditional “Big Five” of Europe.
But ahead of the new season, headlines around the world are talking of a “China crisis.”
On March 1, Jiangsu FC ceased operating just three months after being crowned champions for the first time in their history. Owners Suning, who also control Inter Milan, have pulled the plug.
There are others. A year ago, Tianjin Tianhai went bankrupt, and at the moment, according to reports in the Chinese media, Tianjin Tigers are also close to folding. Over the past 12 months, 16 teams in the top three tiers in China have gone out of existence.
While Saudi Arabia has outperformed China in football, there are some similarities. The coronavirus pandemic meant that many Chinese clubs, already in debt, saw less revenue and were relying even more on cash injections from corporate owners who were also feeling the effects. Clubs in Saudi Arabia often struggle to be self-sustainable, and depend on owners putting hands in pockets.
The temptation to get out wallets may be hard to resist in the coming months. Already, the likes of Alex Teixeira, the Brazilian who helped Jiangsu to the title last season and is now a free agent, has been linked with moves to Saudi Arabia in the hope that clubs there can match the kind of salary he received in China. He would join stars such as Bafetimbi Gomis, Pity Martinez, Odion Ighalo and Andre Carillo, who bring talent and attention, but do not come cheap.
There have been examples of Saudi clubs overextending themselves. Al-Nassr have become embroiled in a dispute with players Maicon and Giuliano Victor de Paula, with FIFA getting involved and recently slapping the Riyadh club with a transfer ban that could last three windows. There have also been reports that Al-Ahli have been late in paying players this season.
“Now that China is not part of the conversation and won’t be for a while, Saudi Arabia will become the focus of more and more players and their agents, especially as there are some clubs and leagues in Europe that are struggling financially at the moment due to the pandemic situation,” the agent added.
“Teams may be able to sign some big talents, but China shows that you have to be careful. To see the champions go out of existence means that something is very wrong.”