In Search of Global Soccer Glory, China’s Super League Pays Top Dollar for Latin American Talent

Chinese President Xi Jinping is a dedicated soccer fanatic. He collects jerseys in his spare time, and his collection includes an LA Galaxy shirt signed by David Beckham and one with Lionel Messi’s famous no. 10. Now the president of the nascent global superpower is starting a new collection: Latin American soccer stars.

Chinese soccer has a long history of poor performance. The home of nearly 1.4 billion people has only made it to the World Cup once – in 2002. The sport has been bogged down by corruption scandals and match fixing.

But Xi Jinping wants to change all that. He is looking beyond Chinese borders to bring soccer glory to his homeland. In February of last year, according to state media outlet Xinhua, a committee led by the president approved the “The Overall Plan of Chinese Soccer Reform and Development,” which aims to develop all aspects of the sport, including building soccer infrastructure through local playing fields and major stadiums. The plan also includes a clause to improve the quality of foreign players in the country’s top league, known not-so-humbly as the Super League.

Each team in the 16-member Super League is only allowed five foreign players. Today, nearly half of all the foreigners playing are from Latin America. Most of them are Brazilians.

Nearly half of all the foreigners playing in China are from Latin America. Most of them are Brazilians.

To implement the master plan, China is relying on some national teams that have hefty support from the central government. The Super League’s Shangdong Luneng, owned by the majority state-owned electricity company of the same name, spent $11 million in January to transfer the Brazilian champion centerback Gil from São Paulo’s Corinthians.

Private sector teams are helping as well. Guangzhou Evergrande, a team partly owned by the online business giant Alibaba, bought Colombian player Jackson Martinez from Atletico de Madrid for $45 million in the first week of February.

Just two days after that historic sale, another privately-owned Chinese team called Jiangsu Suning took the European market by surprise when it paid Ukraine’s premier league team Shakhtar Donetsk $56 million dollars for Brazilian winger Alex Teixeira. The eye-popping price tag broke a record for the most China has ever paid for a soccer player. A month earlier, the team had paid Chelsea $31 million for Brazilian midfielder Ramires.

As Brazil’s soccer coach Dunga pointed out at a press conference, “some European countries can no longer buy as many players like before, and China has emerged as a new market, investing in soccer and taking some of the world’s best players and coaches.”

China’s current hunger for Latin American soccer stars looks a lot like the country’s push into the region in search of commodities to fuel its growing economy.

This is not the first time China has tried to build up a powerful soccer league. But previous attempts have been bogged down by corruption and fan violence, according to Rowan Simons in his book Bamboo Goalposts.

In 2010, then president Hu Jintao talked about soccer in a speech that ended with a promise to clean up the sport, which had been muddied by match fixing that fans didn’t bother showing up to the stadiums anymore. Then in 2012, former president of the Chinese Soccer Federation Nan Yong, along with 10 other people including players and administrators, were sentenced to prison for their participation in rigging games.

According Peruvian Julio César Uribe, who managed Yunnan Hongta F.C. in China in 1998, the soccer atmosphere there was immersed in murky waters. In an interview during Copa América, he recalled his time when China’s first division was called Jia-A. Uribe remembered how the team he worked for imposed someone on his technical staff that seemed to serve no purpose, though the guy was always carrying a large satchel of cash. Uribe saw similar guys on rival teams who always seemed to jump on the field before the game and talk with the referees. The Peruvian commentator and coach said he was never exactly sure what was going on.

Now foreigners are helping change the face of Chinese soccer. For many years before the Brazilian talent, it was Hondurans, Costa Ricans, Ecuadorians, Colombians, Bolivians, Chileans, Argentines, and Peruvians. Ever since the Chinese Super League was established in 2004, there have been 257 Latino and Latin American players, more than the 101 African players and 189 Europeans, who hail mostly from Eastern Europe.

“Now the Chinese are bringing down the Brazilian tournament to a D grade.”

China’s current hunger for Latin American talent, particularly in Brazil, looks a lot like the country’s push into the region in search of commodities to fuel its growing economy. But just as Brazil has destroyed much of its forest to plant soy and other crops for export, it might be doing the same to its local soccer talent pool by selling the best players off to the highest bidders.

“It’s a pity. When only the Italians and Spanish bought players, we at least had a B league in Brazil,” said Fabiano Maisonnave, a Brazilian journalist who was a correspondent in Beijng for the Folha de São Paulo. “Then came the Russians and the Ukrainians and we were left with a C league. Now the Chinese are bringing down the Brazilian tournament to a D grade,” he said.

After the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where China won more gold medals than any other nation, the country embarked on a mission to continue flexing its muscle in the global sports arena. But not everything in soccer is money and buying expensive players. Only time will tell if China’s newest collection is as valuable as it seems.