Global Observer

Can China buy itself a successful soccer league?

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BEIJING -- China's soccer clubs are are going on an unprecedented international spending spree. But foreign talent alone won't save Chinese soccer.

Nigerian soccer player Ayegbeni Yakubu left his English club to sign with a little-known Chinese side.

BEIJING -- Surrounded by Chinese reporters, Nigerian soccer player Ayegbeni Yakubu holds his new team's blue shirt aloft. Two white Chinese characters standing out against the blue translate as 'Wealth' and 'Power.'

The characters translate as the name of his new employer - Guangzhou RC, based in China's third largest city. But they increasingly name the forces transforming China's top soccer league, where an investment bonanza is sucking in world-famous talent from abroad.

Yabaku, who played in England's Premier League for almost a decade, is the latest in a string of high-profile signings by Chinese soccer teams. Shanghai Shenhua secured the services of Nicholas Anelka and Didier Drogba, two of the world's most famous players, from English club Chelsea earlier this year.

Its not just world-class players who are heading to China. Famous coaches including the former heads of Italy's and Argentina's national sides are now plying their trade in the Middle Kingdom. Such signings didn't come cheap. Shenhua is reportedly paying 314,000 dollars a week to secure the services of Drogba, while Anelka's contract is reportedly worth 307,000 dollars a week.

Star-player Nicholas Anelka arrived in Shanghai in January.

The craze for bringing expensive foreign players to China started in 2011, when southern Chinese team Guangzhou Evergrande secured the services of Dario Conca, then considered Brazil's top young player.

Making all this possible are private investors who've made massive fortunes in China's booming economy. Guangzhou's two biggest teams are owned by real estate magnates, while Shanghai Shenhua's owner made millions selling the rights to online games.

Given China's explosive economic growth over the past three decades, the real mystery is why an influx of money into the country's soccer league didn't happen earlier, according to Cameron Wilson, founder of Chinese soccer blog Wild East Football.

One factor which previously kept potential investors away from Chinese soccer was the dark history of corruption in the Chinese game, involving bribed referees and shady betting syndicates. In the face of endless scandals, millions of Chinese fans transferred their allegiance to European teams.

But a gradual clean up of the game in the last few years led to rising attendance at Chinese matches, which set the stage for the current investment boom. "The league was slowly heading in the right direction," Wilson said.

Few Chinese football clubs are remotely profitable, casting doubts on whether current levels of investment are sustainable. I think such a trend might probably last for two to three more years. Because this involves a lot of financial support to keep it going, Lou Yichen, a football commentator in Shanghai, told Reuters.

In the short term, the influx of foreign talent will help raise the profile of Chinese soccer. "It will help solve some of the image problems soccer still suffers from in China." Wilson said

But the country's soccer system still suffers from a lack of investment in grass-roots teams for children. "[Chinese Clubs] need to take the increased interest that they'll get from these signings and turn that into increased particiaption," Wilson said. "Making expensive signings is not the long term answer to the Chinese League's problems."

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Tom Hancock

Correspondent (Beijing)

Correspondent, Beijing Tom Hancock has written for Geographical Magazine, The Asia Society, China Dialogue and AsianCorrespondent.com. He previously worked at CNN's Beijing bureau. He holds a degree from the University of Cambridge and studied at The Renmin University of China. He is based in Beijing, China. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure