Everyone loves an outsider. Fans of the English Premier League -- the world's richest -- are currently reveling in the unexpected success of Leicester City, a 5,000-1 underdog at the start of the season that's now riding five points clear at the top of the table.
Leicester isn't the only dark horse making waves in the beautiful game. Guess which league was the biggest spender in this year's European winter transfer season? The answer is: China. Clubs from the Chinese Super League invested 337 million euros ($379 million ), outspending the English and Spanish leagues that typically lead the rankings, according to data from website transfermarkt.com.
Is that so surprising? China is, after all, the world's second-largest economy and its most populous, with more than 1.3 billion people. In a word, yes. Two years ago, in the 2013/2014 transfer season, China's main competition featured in 10th position, spending less than the Turkish or Ukrainian leagues.
In footballing terms, China is perhaps even more of a minnow than little Leicester. The country has qualified for the World Cup finals only once, in 2002, when it played three games and failed to score a goal. China occupies 96th place in the latest FIFA world rankings, behind powerhouses such as Guatemala, Antigua and Barbuda, and the Faroe Islands. The domestic league has been riddled with corruption and match-fixing, and until recently was regarded by many Chinese fans as a joke.
Yet it's now awash in cash. Among recent acquisitions was Brazilian Alex Teixeira, bought by Jiangsu Suning from Ukraine's Shakhtar Donetsk for 50 million euros. That's a 60 percent mark-up to what English team Liverpool bid in January. Teixeira joins Brazilian stars such as Ramires Santos do Nascimento (better known simply by his first name), who left reigning English champion Chelsea for 25 million pounds ($36 million), and World Cup-winning coach Luis Felipe Scolari, who took the head post at Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao Football Club last year.
China is upping its bet on football even further. Last week, Wang Jianlin's Wanda Group became the first major sponsor of FIFA since a criminal corruption scandal overwhelmed the international soccer federation. Wang, the country's richest man, is already the owner of a 20 percent stake in Spanish team Atletico Madrid, acquired last year.
Wang said on Monday that more of his fellow country companies will follow suit as they seek to sway FIFA toward bringing the World Cup to China. If the country's impact on the commodity markets is any guide, the soccer world may be in for a period of rapid inflation. The willingness to splash out on expensive overseas players is even more striking at a time when China has been bleeding foreign-exchange reserves and tightening capital controls in response.
From one perspective, the spending is easy to explain. Xi Jinping, perhaps the most dominant Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, is an avowed soccer fan. China's president, who engaged in a kickabout in Ireland last year and took a selfie with Argentinian striker Sergio Aguero during a visit to Manchester City, has declared football a national priority and harbors an ambition to see the country host and win the World Cup. Chinese businessmen who support this project of national rejuvenation will surely do their relations with the government no harm.
Politics aside, investment in Chinese football may be a canny move. The country has huge unexploited potential. Soccer is wildly popular in China, and the underachievement of the national team a constant frustration for fans. In 2003, when Premier League matches were broadcast on free-to-air television, an estimated 300 million people watched the game between Everton and Manchester City (a Chinese player featured for each team on that occasion).
There are already some early signs of progress. Guangzhou Evergrande, in which Alibaba founder Jack Ma owns a stake, has won the Asian Champions League in two of the past three seasons. The reigning Chinese champion is valued at more than $3.35 billion, based on recent transactions on its thinly traded stock, making it worth more than Manchester United, Arsenal or Borussia Dortmund, the three next most valuable publicly traded football clubs.
There are risks. Cozying up to FIFA just as Western sponsors are fleeing is a calculated bet that getting in on the ground floor will help to build China's influence at an opportune time. That could backfire should corruption proceedings continue to dog the organization and damage its reputation.
For Wang, that's clearly a gamble worth taking. He predicted on Monday that more Chinese companies will become top FIFA sponsors and said Western companies that chose not to renew their sponsorship agreements ``will surely regret it.''
The lavish outlays on global star players will seem like a small price to pay if they help raise the standard of the domestic league and China ends up hosting the World Cup. As England's Leicester City may be about to show, even long shots win sometimes.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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