Are Chinese clubs getting value for foreign players?

By JOHN DUERDEN ,

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Brazilian soccer player Hulk gives a thumbs-up as he arrives to fans waiting at the airport in Shanghai.

Brazilian soccer player Hulk gives a thumbs-up as he arrives to fans waiting at the airport in Shanghai. (Photo: Color China Photo via AP)

Chinese Super League clubs spent more than $350 million on high-profile foreign players in the winter transfer window and as soon as the summer window opened in June, Shanghai SIPG paid more than $60 million for Brazilian striker Hulk.

While the league's profile has soared, some question if China is paying over the odds.

In March, CIES Observatory,a Swiss-based research group of the International Centre for Sports Studies, released a study of winter transfers that suggested Guangzhou Evergrande's $47 million purchase of Jackson Martinez from Atletico Madrid and Jiangsu Suning's $32 million signing of Ramires from Chelsea were among the over-priced deals.

"There has been more investment made by Chinese teams in recent times," Shandong Luneng General Manager Dong Jan told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "It is important to find the right players and make the right investment. Talented foreign players can make a difference but good players obviously cost money."

Karish Andrews, partner in the sports business group at law firm Lewis Silkin, believes it is inevitable that Chinese clubs have to pay above market value.

Chinese teams "are trying to entice players away from the lure of playing in the Champions League, which remains the elite tournament in club football. Wages and fees have to be high," he said. "That is also a consequence of having to compete with English Premier League clubs who are richer than ever now that the new TV deals have kicked in."

It has resulted in a growing number of stars playing in China, including Brazilians Alex Teixeira and Ramires, Argentina's Ezequiel Lavezzi and others such as Gervinho, Freddy Guarin, Jackson Martinez and Asamoah Gyan.

"Most players signed by China were in the shop window prior to arriving," said China-based player agent Christopher Atkins, who added that Chinese clubs were driving up the contracts. "The more they spend, the more (European) clubs are automatically raising their price upon hearing of interest from China."

The spending has had some positive impacts. No Chinese Super League club had won the Asian Champions League until Guangzhou Evergrande, which started the recent wave of spending, lifted the trophy in 2013 and again in 2015. And, for the first time, China has two teams in the quarterfinals of the Asian Champions League this season.

The average attendance in the Chinese Super League is close to 26,000 this year, up from 22,000.

Investment is also being made in youth development following the desire of president Xi Jinping that the country become a power in the world's most popular sport.

There may be more value for Chinese investors in buying European clubs rather than players according to Daniel Lowen, a lawyer at specialist sports law firm Couchmans, because the location of the purchasing party is not a major issue.

In June Tony Xia bought English club Aston Villa, which was relegated from the Premier League, for $87 million. Retail group Suning paid 270 million euros (then $306 million) for an almost 70 percent stake in Italian powerhouse Inter Milan.

"Dr Tony Xia's acquisition of Aston Villa is a case in point," Lowen said. "The final purchase price was a fraction of the sum former owner Randy Lerner was understood to have originally been seeking."

For Chinese investors, the purchase of clubs is often not just about football but strengthening brands in the domestic market.

"Suning's acquisition of a controlling stake in Inter Milan is part of its global strategy in the highly competitive e-commerce space," Lowen said. "Its association with a famous football club in Europe can assist in cultivating loyal customers in the Chinese marketplace."

-AP

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