In the January transfer window, one league surpassed all others in total spending. Take a guess. The Premier League you say? Nope. La Liga? The Bundesliga? Serie A? Ligue 1? Keep guessing. Alright I’ll tell you: it was the Chinese Super League. Following Chinese president Xi Jinping’s vision of China becoming a soccer superpower, wealthy owners started to splash the cash. High profile names such as Ramires (bought for £21 million from Chelsea), Jackson Martinez (bought for £31 million from Atlético Madrid) and Alex Teixeira (bought for £38 million from Shakhtar Donetsk) all moved to clubs in the far east. The CSL not only outspent the Premier League by over £19 million, it also outspent the other four major European leagues combined by almost £60 million.
While it is all too common for European clubs to scoop up the best talent from leagues around the world, a movement in the other direction is almost unprecedented. It is true that the MLS has recently been a landing spot for legends of the game (David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Kaká and Frank Lampard to name a few), but all of these players were in the latter stages of their careers. That is what makes these transfers so surprising. These aren’t players looking for a relaxing end to a long career, these are players in their primes. Money is surely a factor (Ramires will earn over £200,000 a week). But the question is, are these players really just mercenaries in search for the biggest pay check, or do they share President Xi’s vision?
I suspect the former. The Chinese president’s vision is simply unrealistic for really one reason: the UEFA Champions League. While the World Cup is the premier competition for footballing nations, there is no comparable international competition to the Champions League in club soccer. It has always been the most prestigious club competition, a competition exclusive to European clubs. In this way, Europe has had a monopoly on elite soccer talent. To forgo the opportunity to test oneself against the best players in the world is to take oneself out of contention to be the best player in the world. When the recipients of the Ballon d’Or (soccer’s most prestigious individual award) were reevaluated for the years before 1995 when the award was only considered for players on European teams, only Pelé (who it is unanimously agreed would have won many times) came from a non-European club. How could one have aspirations of being the best without beating the best?
But to forgo Champions League soccer is also to forgo superstardom. The 2015 Champions League Final had an audience of 380 million. The 2015 Super Bowl, which set the record for the most viewed Super Bowl ever, had an audience of 114 million. To win the Champion League is to become immortalized in soccer history. The Chinese Super League will never truly be an elite league because it will never be able to compete with that. It can offer money, and maybe even a competitive league, but what it will never be able to offer is the opportunity to secure a place in the pantheon of football legends.