They're trying.

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Can China Become a Soccer Superpower?

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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China's stock markets are in decline, its debts are rising alarmingly and its mighty steel industry is suffering from a global commodities rout. But amid all the gloom there's a bright spot: Markets in English soccer superstar Wayne Rooney are booming.

According to a report in the U.K.'s Mirror, an unnamed Chinese professional team has offered Rooney's club, Manchester United, $38 million to part with him. If Man U doesn't like that offer, there's reportedly another Chinese club waiting to deal. Rooney, for his part, has signaled he’s not interested -- at least until his contract expires in 2018.

Even two years ago, nobody would've taken such an offer seriously. But Chinese clubs -- enabled by President Xi Jinping's determination to turn the country into a soccer superpower -- have become the world's most aggressive buyers of international talent in recent months. In January alone, Chinese clubs outspent the English Premier League on player transfers by $22 million, and lured four starters from Brazil's top team. It's a transformative moment for the business of global soccer. But in China, it's raising an uncomfortable question: Is this just another unsustainable, government-supported investment binge with limited, if any, returns?

On its face, there's no good reason for China to be a major player in the market for football stars. For decades, the country has been a sorry soccer afterthought. The men's team is currently ranked 93rd in the world (behind Botswana), and has played in exactly one World Cup (in which it didn't score a goal). The reasons for this inglorious history are several, including systemic sports corruption, an education system that doesn't provide opportunities for athletic development and a state-run sports administration that micromanages the careers of Chinese athletes.

Nonetheless, soccer remains wildly popular in China, both as entertainment and as a proxy to criticize -- or praise -- the government. In 2013, after the national team lost to a Thai squad made up of amateurs, even newspapers run by the Communist Party wondered why the world's second largest economy couldn't field competitive soccer teams.

Xi, keen to establish China's "soft power" abroad, took notice. In addition to extending his anti-corruption crackdown to top soccer officials, he spearheaded the development of football academies and carved time out of busy Chinese school days to require students to play the sport (a remarkable step for an education system geared toward preparing kids for a college entrance exam).

When the Chinese government announces a national priority, capital soon follows. And not long after Xi's soccer program took shape, Alibaba's Jack Ma spent almost $200 million on a local team in Guangzhou. Last fall, the state-backed China Sports Media paid $1.22 billion to televise Chinese Super League games for the next five years -- a shocking increase over the $12.2 million paid for the 2015 season.

It didn't take long for the money to flow toward foreign stars. By early January, Chinese teams had lured away four starters from Corinthians, Brazil's national champion, and in late January, Chelsea lost star midfielder Ramires to Jiangsu Suning.

That's good for the imported talent, but it probably sets back the development of Chinese players. Tim Cahill, Australia's all-time leading international goal scorer who now plays in the Super League, expressed that concern in a recent interview: "With this investment in the players, there's a catch-22. Does it help the Chinese? To a certain extent, no," he said. "The most difficult area for the Chinese national team is attacking, they can't score goals. … But when you sign players like this, everything is up to us."

It’s a lesson that U.S. soccer learned a few decades ago, when the now-defunct North American Soccer League offered record-breaking salaries to Pelé and other imported stars. In 1984, the league collapsed under the weight of its own extravagance and over-expansion, and the U.S. didn’t see another top-level league until Major League Soccer played its first match in 1996. MLS has generally taken a go-slow approach designed to avoid many of its predecessor's mistakes, including an aversion to chasing high-priced foreign talent.

China should do the same, but so long as Xi is interested in soccer, big-spenders will keep trying to impress him with big signings. Sooner or later, however, people will start to ask whether all this money is helping China become a soccer superpower. If it isn't, then the bubble in international talent could pop just as quickly as it expanded over the past few months, leaving Chinese players no closer to being world-class competitors and Chinese citizens wondering where all that money went.

Wayne Rooney might want to consider that possibility as he contemplates his next contract.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net