Premier League clubs need not worry about losing their best players to the China, says former Manchester City defender Sun Jihai who predicts a slowdown in spending from the emerging football power.
Chinese teams’ spending has exploded as some of the country’s richest men acquired football clubs in the wake of President Xi Jinping revealing in 2014 his plans to build a sport economy worth 5 trn yuan by 2025, with football at the forefront.
A study published last month found that China had 17 players earning €100,000-a-week or more — the same number as Spain — and all had arrived within the last two years, with 13 joining in 2016 alone.
Former Chelsea midfielder Oscar became the latest when he moved to Shanghai SIPG in a £50m deal this month, while across the same city former Premier League star Carlos Tevez is to become the country’s highest-paid player on more than £30m a year.
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte described China’s apparent blank cheque approach to signing new players as “a danger for all teams in the world”, while Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger has said “it could become a problem for the future of the Premier League”.
But Sun, who finally called time on a 21-year playing career in December, dismisses the idea that English football is under immediate threat of losing its stars and status to the Chinese Super League.
“Actually, there’s a real limit to the amount of star players Chinese Super League can sign,” the 39-year-old told City A.M.
“Even when you count China League One [the country’s second division], there’s only 32 clubs and each club can only have four to five foreign players. So the demand is not great. I expect the spending we’re seeing now is not going to last for long.
“They’ll get more money, but it’s not good for young players to come here if they want to develop. It’s good for older players coming to the end of their career looking to boost their income.
“But there’s nothing for the Premier League to worry about.”
Similarly, the former City, Crystal Palace and Sheffield United player expects a slowdown in the number of football clubs being taken over by Chinese investors.
Aston Villa, West Bromwich Albion, Wolves, Birmingham and Sun’s old employers City have all received investment in the last 18 months as part of a flurry of acquisitions across Europe.
Instead, Sun says stakeholders in the sport in China will have to start turning their investments inward. Just last week the Chinese government’s sports administration said it would step in to regulate high-priced signings and encouraged clubs to spend more money on infrastructure and youth development.
“This is definitely good news for the development of Chinese football in the long run,” he said of the government intervention.
“The interest [in foreign clubs] will remain but the investment will continue to a certain extent. Sooner or later it’s going to die down.”
Yet while Sun expects the lavish spending in Europe to cool, he believes the 5 trn yuan by 2025 target is reachable and aims to contribute to its growth through a sports technology company — HaiQiu Sports — that he co-founded last year.
The former China international does not expect President Xi’s enthusiasm for football to dissipate and says he has seen the leader’s deep interest in football first hand. The pair met during a state visit to Britain when the footballer was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame.
“When I was with him in Manchester he asked questions in detail down to the type of grass used in the training ground,” says Sun.
That same Manchester meeting with the president in November 2015 also introduced Sun to China Media Capital (CMC), the state-backed media investment vehicle that purchased a 13 per cent stake in City for £265m the following month.
CMC, which reportedly paid $1.3bn (£1.1bn) to buy the Chinese Super League television rights, has led a multi-million dollar investment into Sun’s HQ Sports alongside internet company Tencent.
HQ’s portfolio is comprised of companies geared towards reaching and engaging a nation of burgeoning sports fans and includes MiaoHi, a social media platform for sports stars, and the Jihai app, a match results service. And in a mirror strategy to China’s football clubs, the company plans to use its new funds to bring expertise from the UK to help fuel its growth plans.
“As I was approaching the end of my career I thought about the ways in which I could continue to help build football in China,” he said.
“By creating HQ I thought I could help in building fan engagement and fan culture. We’ve got lots of sports fans here, the market is really big. MiaoHi has been developed just for a few months and we’ve achieved more than 1m users.
“Part of the investment will be used to make strategic investments in sports and technology companies in the UK.
“I want to be a bridge in the industry — a sports ambassador — to bring the two countries closer together.”