Amongst all the transfer activity and the astronomical fees going on in the Premier League this summer, one move caught my eye. Just over a week ago West Brom secured the signature of Chinese front man Zhang Yuning. Probably not on everyone’s radar, particularly as he was sent out on loan for two years to Werder Bremen upon penning the contract but this could very much be the start of a trend.
I think over the next few seasons we may see a whole string of Chinese players move over to England to the Premier League or otherwise. It is no secret that the Chinese economy is growing ever bigger by the day and the ambition to break the Chinese market is shared by all. Of course you have your super teams like Barcelona or Bayern which for obvious reasons naturally attract a large following everywhere, but China is a market many less fortunate clubs would still like a piece of.
So, in the absence of having Messi, or a whole host of World Cup winners, one quick fire solution to catch the attention of the fans out in China and hopefully their wallets as well, is to sign a Chinese player. There have been similar moments in the past with clubs deemed to have made signings to boost awareness in target markets, such as the early naughties when Japanese players were somewhat popular.
Whether or not this kind of tactic truly works is up for debate is up for debate, it’s hardly as if everyone in Japan is walking around in Perugia or Bolton Wanderers shirts after Nakata played for them. Apart from a few column inches here and there, the traditional giants of Europe are still going to take the majority of the coverage, support and money from the Chinese market. But I am sure this will not put too many clubs off. Indeed, the recent success of Korean Ki Sung-Yueng at Swansea will only act to encourage those teams not traditionally in the international limelight.
In the history of the Premier League, there have only been five players from China, with the most established being Sun Jihai who regularly played for Man City over the course of six seasons. It’s true to say that this did not lead to Man City becoming the most popular team in China, but it is important to remember China now is very different to the China of a decade ago (when Sun last played in the Premiership). China is now the world’s second largest economy, with the world’s largest and still growing middle class. So the benefits of even attracting the attention of a small part of the population could be immense for a team like West Brom..
Another crucial difference is that football is now more in the limelight than ever before in China. More people are interested then at any previous time, with more coverage in traditional media and the fact it has truly taken advantage if the mobile revolution in the country. It is easier then ever to keep up with a player in Europe and to be sure a Chinese player in the Premiership would get exposure, one way or another.
One other factor to think about is the ownership of teams. An increasing amount of Chinese money is going in to buying clubs (or shares in clubs) and the buying of a Chinese player may well be encouraged. It’s no coincidence the owner of West Brom. is Guo Chanlai, a Chinese business man.
I would also wager that in the current climate buying Chines players could also be good business when coming to sell players on. With so much money currently floating around in Chinese football and with limits on international players, the prices of domestic players are starting to rise. With this background buying a youngster for a small sum, giving him some exposure to a major European league (including the Championship) and to the corresponding training would surely add glamour, but most importantly value to the player who could then be sold back at a profit.
We are still quite a way away from seeing Chinese players take to the pitch as often as, say, Spaniards. Because ultimately unless a player is good enough they will not be able to hold down a place in a high level competitive league. However, over the next few years I would not be surprised to see a lot more Chinese names then over the past 25 years of the Premier League’s existence.