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Column: Is China the new Klondike of soccer?

By John Leicester
AP Sports Columnist / December 13, 2011
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PARIS—With more than 100 billionaires and counting, it was only a matter of time before China's financial muscle started making dents on world soccer, following in the designer-clad footsteps of moguls from the Middle East and Russia.

This, after all, is a sport happy to be a play thing for those with money to burn, with players who don't give two hoots who signs their paycheck -- just so long as it has lots of zeros on it.

But becoming wealthy enough to buy the twilight years of a fading star like Nicolas Anelka, who is moving from Chelsea in the English Premier League to Shanghai Shenhua in the Chinese Super League, is not the same thing as spending wisely on Chinese stars of tomorrow. Anelka will deliver to Shanghai that thing craved by many rich owners in sports -- attention.

Yet such glamor buys, alone, aren't going to help China unearth an Anelka of its own in decades to come or stop it from being, on a per capita basis, arguably the most underachieving soccer nation on the planet. The next World Cup in 2014 will take place without China, which again failed to qualify.

Anelka is making Chinese soccer noticed outside China. But, if being talked about is all that comes of this, then China won't be much closer to becoming a respected soccer nation or fielding a homegrown 11 of top-notch players in the foreseeable future.

"This is just the beginning. Every transfer window from now on you will expect to see more 30-plus world stars, or previous world stars, starting to take big salary payments for a couple of years in China," said Rowan Simons, a Beijing-based expert on soccer in China and author of "Bamboo Goalposts," which recounts his efforts to help grass roots soccer take hold there.

"It's egos, isn't it? Egos of very rich men. And soccer is a very obvious -- you see this all over the world -- place to splash cash. It's toys for very rich boys," Simons said in a phone interview. It's "massive games going on with huge amounts of money that are linked into politics and the egos of oligarchs while having absolutely zero effect on the health of the game of football in China."

Forget the $300,000 Anelka will reportedly pocket each week. Don't dwell on the $10 million that another club, Guangzhou Evergrande, splurged in July to sign Dario Conca from Fluminense, smashing China's transfer record and making the Argentine reportedly the third-highest paid player in the world. Such sums are like a garage of expensive sports cars -- nice to look at but not, ultimately, terribly useful in getting you from A to B when faced with challenging, steep and bumpy terrain.

No, the most eye-grabbing figure from China these days is 7,000. That, says the China Daily, is the number of players aged under 18 that the Chinese Football Association had on its books at the end of last year. Just 7,000, from among 1.3 billion people. In the early 1990s, the total used to be 650,000, the newspaper says. Furthermore, it notes that Japan, with a population one-tenth that of China's, now has 70 times more registered youth players.

Anelka hasn't played for France since he was sent home from the 2010 World Cup, in disgrace for telling coach Raymond Domenech in no uncertain terms what he could do with his tactics. At Chelsea, new manager Andre Villas-Boas didn't appear to have much further use for the 32-year-old striker. But Anelka will be the biggest name Chinese soccer has ever seen -- which, in itself, is a measure of how far behind the sport is there. His renown should lure the curious to Shanghai's Hongkou Stadium, where Shenhua plays with one-third or two-thirds of the 30,000-odd seats often empty.

Which is all very nice for Anelka and for Zhu Jun, the 45-year-old businessman who bought Shenhua in 2007 having made his fortune in computing and online gaming. But where are the hordes of soccer-mad youngsters that China will need if it is to become something more than merely the next Klondike for soon-to-be retirees from overseas?

Well, when I was based in China a decade ago and, most recently, traveled there for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, they either seemed to prefer basketball, to watch broadcasts of the English Premier League and other foreign leagues, or were too focused on cramming for exams to play soccer. Corruption and match-fixing so rampant that bribed referees even had their own nickname -- "black whistles" -- also turned fans away.

"It's kind of one of those love affairs where the partner kept on cheating on you and cheating on you and you kept on forgiving them and they kept on cheating on you," Terry Rhoads, a former Nike executive who runs Zou Marketing, a Shanghai-based sports consultancy focused on the China market, said in a phone interview. "It got to the point where the Chinese soccer fan ... is very jaded. They have just been abused in the relationship for 15 years."

Anelka's move is another signal that Chinese soccer is bouncing back, having hit bottom. Rhoads likened money coming from Chinese tycoons as "the beginnings of an arms race" and said he's advising clients "that Chinese soccer now is a buy." The government coaxed Wang Jianlin, a real estate tycoon who turned his back on Chinese soccer a decade ago, to help out this July with a $77 million, 3-year-investment, some of it to sponsor youth leagues and to send young players overseas.

One of Wang's goals, a yardstick by which he says he will measure whether his company's money has been well spent, is to get more teenagers playing.

"If China's soccer population increases to 700,000 or 800,000 in three years, then our cooperation will be successful," the China Daily quoted him as saying.

Now that, not throwing money at must-have trophy players from overseas, sounds like a goal really worth having.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at twitter.com/johnleicester

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