If you are a soccer fan, then in the past couple weeks, you have probably heard of this thing called the Chinese Super League. Teams in that league have been buying players you have heard of, in some cases players in your local league, including reports on Sunday that the Seattle Sounders will be selling Obafemi Martins to Shanghai Shenhua.
You want to sound informed about Chinese soccer. I feel you. I lived there back in 2004 and watched a lot of soccer, including the CSL. Things have changed since that time, but I still keep an eye on what's going on. So here's a guide to what you need to know about the Chinese Super League.
What is the Chinese Super League?
This one is pretty easy, and you've likely figured it out already: It's the top flight of Chinese pro soccer. The CSL has existed as such since 2004, although pro soccer stretches back beyond that.
There are two main reasons the league has not become a powerhouse in world soccer sooner. First, the Chinese national team is bad. They've been to one World Cup, in 2002, and have never won the Asian Cup. Regional rivals don't regard China as a rival in a sporting sense -- Japan, South Korea and Australia can easily beat them most of the time. Basically, the Chinese national team is in a position somewhat similar to the U.S. Men's National Team in the 1980s -- a disorganized organization, with potential but still unable to get anything going, really.
The second reason the CSL has been held back is because there have been matchfixing problems in the past. I don't need to tell you that's bad, and while the league appears to have slowly brought itself into repute, the problems at some points stretched to the very top of the league and national federation. Any league that has the whiff of matchfixing tends to carry that stench around for a very long time.
Why is the Chinese Super League suddenly transferring in a bunch of good players?
Not to be all "Well, actually" but the CSL has been buying well-known foreign players for years. Notoriety is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but Didier Drogba went to Shanghai Shenhua (the team Obafemi Martins is apparently going to) way, way back in 2012. He didn't last long, going back to Europe the next year. Tim Cahill is currently with Shanghai Shenhua, leaving the New York Red Bulls and joining the CSL side last season.
Dario Conca was one of he Brazilian league's best players when he was transferred to Guangzhou Evergrande in 2011. You may have not heard of Conca, but he was considered someone who could go to Europe and instead he went to China. Spurs bust Paulinho went to Guangzhou Evergrande, too. So this spending spree didn't literally happen overnight, but it has picked up pace in a big way this year.
Why are so many foreign players going to China right now?
It starts with the news back in October that the Chinese Super League's television broadcast rights were going for 8 billion yuan (this news story pegs the exchange rate at the time to 1.25 billion dollars) for a five-year contract. Reportedly, the previous TV contract was 60 million yuan for one season. Needless to say, that's an enormous cash influx.
Assuming the new TV contract was not made because the rights themselves were wildly overvalued, the 8 billion yuan influx is a roundabout way of putting in major investment into the league. Just like the English Premier League is getting so much money for TV rights nowadays that the likes of Swansea and Watford can buy very good players who would normally go to teams higher up in the table, CSL teams now have the spending power to kind of go nuts in buying foreign players.
In addition to Cahill and (probably) Martins, another former MLS player, Fredy Montero, has gone to Tianjin TEDA this transfer window. Ramires, Alex Teixeira and former Premier League forward Jo have all gone to Jiangsu Suning. Fredy Guarin went to Shanghai Shenhua. Turkish striker Burak Yilmaz is going to Beijing Guoan. They aren't Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, but they are definitely a class above most of the players who previously arrived, and they're all coming at once.
Some people say the Chinese Super League will now surpass MLS. Is that true?
Well, "surpass" is a very subjective term. But I think it's a mixed bag as far as how much global attention will go to China now instead of MLS.
First, if you notice the names going or in China, nearly all are South Americans. There aren't Italians in China (although there were for a time, with Alessandro Diamanti and Alberto Gilardino once with Guangzhou Evergrande), there aren't Germans, there aren't English stars going to China right now. Most of those players choose to stay in Europe, frankly, but it doesn't look like we have reached the point where European stars will ignore MLS and go to China instead. It could happen, but it hasn't happened yet. And frankly, when South Americans leave Europe, whether it's to go home or go to MLS or to Asia, Europeans don't really care and quit following them.
That said, the way to get global eyeballs is to sign big names. It's like clickbait, though, most of the time. Folks will hear Thierry Henry has gone to New York Red Bulls, but most around the world aren't going to look for a stream to watch him play. Ramires has gone to Jiangsu? 'Must mean China is doing something right!' some think. But it doesn't usually go deeper than that.
Add to that the fact that most global fans only pay attention to the big names and not the domestic players who form the basis of the league. For all that MLS fans may gnash their teeth of the lack of appreciation Michael Bradley, or Dax McCarty, or Matt Hedges gets internationally, practically nobody outside of China has heard of any active Chinese players. So there's only so much that bringing a Didier Drogba will do for the league overall.
The second reason the CSL won't necessarily be zooming ahead in global prestige is that it still has some internal instability. Of course, moving a team doesn't always mean the league is in huge trouble, and MLS has gone nuclear and folded three teams and still seems to be pretty healthy. But the CSL still has teams changing names, often changing ownership and moving around the country pretty frequently. Six teams have folded in the CSL, although the league beats MLS in that the last one was in 2012.
In some cases, like with any league, a change of ownership and maybe switching locations or branding makes sense in the grand scheme of things. But it is hard to keep track of teams when they're moving around all the time, and with that, coupled with the past matchfixing issues, means the CSL needs more stability to truly become a global player.
But seriously, is the CSL going to surpass MLS?
Let's put it this way: If the CSL TV rights deal isn't a very temporary bubble and if teams use the money prudently, they will almost certainly compete with, and probably often beat, MLS to sign a certain class of players. The CSL has roster restrictions on foreign players, too, and they are more strict than MLS, but they will most likely be able to pay more in most cases than MLS. And money talks.
There's also the quality of life issue. Many players who come to MLS say they want to live in the United States or Canada, and for all of the financial limitations MLS has, that fringe benefit plays a big role in attracting international players.
What about China? It varies depending on where you live. In the biggest cities, the richest players will probably be pretty comfortable. Some players will love being in a new culture, while others will find China to be too different to what they're used to. Of course, some players get culture shock coming to North America, too. China has Brazilian steakhouses, and some cities have good sized ex-pat communities, so some players will be ok.
Mandarin is a tough language to learn, although it can be argued English is equally difficult. But most soccer players aren't exposed to any Mandarin until they move to China, and most of the time players won't be able to get around a city speaking Spanish, Portuguese or even English, so the isolation can be very real.
Many people expect most of the big names coming now to depart China in short order. We shall see, although it probably seems a good bet. When players really start staying for multiple seasons, then we'll know that the CSL is becoming a real competitor for players.
Where can I learn more about the CSL?
As far as I'm aware, there are no TV deals in the United States for the Chinese Super League, or else I'd catch my own team, Tianjin TEDA, in action. And since many videos posted will be in Chinese, good luck searching for those.
However, there is one blog that's been around for years, Wild East Football (@WildEastFootbal on Twitter), that covers Chinese soccer in English. I'd definitely recommend you read that if you want to get some day-to-day coverage. It's my go-to source for CSL coverage.
What do you think? Leave a comment below!