China’s Huge investment for future’s football team

FILE - In this Aug. 20, 2011 file photo, Chelsea's Nicolas Anelka celebrates after scoring a goal against West Bromwich Albion during their English Premiership soccer match at Chelsea's Stamford Bridge stadium in London. Shanghai Shenhua says it has reached a deal with Chelsea for Anelka to join the Chinese Super League club. The club said Monday Dec. 12, 2011, in a brief statement that the French striker would join the team when the transfer window opens in January. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant, File)

The rise of the Chinese Super League as a lucrative destination for high-profile footballers has done little to stifle concern about the underachieving national team or the grassroots development of the game in the world's most populous country.

Shanghai Shenhua's signing of Nicolas Anelka from Premier League giant Chelsea made headlines around the world this week when it emerged the ex-France international will join the Chinese club from January with a wage exceeding $300,000 a week.

Shenhua doesn't plan to stop its recruiting drive there, either, with reports circulating about a push to sign Anelka's Chelsea teammate Didier Drogba.

While Asian Football Confederation director of competitions Tokuaki Suzuki is happy to see the big names introduced to the 2012 Asian Champions League, the continent's flagship club competition, he hopes that equal attention can be given to grassroots development in China.

It's only a month since China was bundled out of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.

"We welcome such players to come to Asia to play for domestic leagues, as well as the AFC Champions League which can provide the platform where players showcase their capabilities," Suzuki told The Associated Press. "We expect that such moves will become more common in Asia.

"In the short term, it will definitely help promote the game in China, but in the meantime we think that it will be very important to keep investing in grassroots level to ensure the sustainable growth of Chinese football as well as considering the financial balance in the long term."

For the moment, however, China's long-suffering fans are enjoying some excitement after years of watching the national team struggle and its clubs lose to those of Japan and South Korea in the Champions League.

AFC acting president Zhang Jilong has welcomed the big spending by clubs in his native China.

"It is always good to see world-class players signing up for Asian clubs," Zhang told The AP. "Football fans around the world will pay more attention to Asian soccer because of these big signings."

Zhang expects the arrival of big names from Europe will aid the development of the game in Asia, adding that the recent recruiting "also proves that the gap between Asian football and the best of world football is closing fast."

"Asia has been an attractive destination now for international football players for some time and this confirms it."

Shanghai Shenhua is owned by Chinese businessman Zhu Jun, who made his fortune through online gaming. Zhu is fast catching up to big-spending rival Guangzhou Evergrande which has been splashing cash on players for two years.

Guangzhou's riches are more representative of the current situation in Chinese football.

The club is backed by the Evergrande real estate firm. In 2011, 13 out of 16 top-tier clubs were owned by similar companies, or those involved to some extent in property or construction, as is the league's sponsor Dalian Wanda.

After building a team full of Chinese internationals and expensive Brazilians, Guangzhou spent more than $10 million in the summer to sign Argentine star Dario Conca from Brazilian side Fluminense. Conca then helped the team to its first title by a margin of 15 points.

Coach Lee Jang-soo told The AP he isn't finished spending, and the club has set a target of reaching the quarterfinals at next year's Asian Champions League.

"We hope we can add two or three high quality players to the roster before the start of next season," Lee said. "We want to defend our title and perform well in the Asian Champions League next season."

Despite the money being spent at the top level, there are reportedly fewer than 10,000 registered junior players in China compared with more than 300,000 in Japan. Amid the excitement at Anelka's signing, there have been some concerns expressed as to whether the money could be better invested elsewhere.

"One million yuan (around $160,000) would help fulfill the soccer dreams of 50 boys a year, but it is really a huge number for us," Chen Ze, a youth coach was quoted as saying in the state-run China Daily.

The country's Deputy Sports Minister Cai Zhenhua blamed the national team's failures on systematic problems.

"We were far behind the international level in many aspects including the soccer population, the training regimen and the professional league," he said.

Cai headed a recent fact-finding delegation to visit Japanese clubs and officials. While China may be far behind Japan in youth development and football infrastructure, the increasing wealth of its clubs could pose a challenge to the J-League, traditionally the region's wealthiest domestic competition.

Japan's 2010 World Cup coach Takeshi Okada has reportedly turned down an offer from one of the country's biggest clubs, Urawa Reds, and is set to take over at China's Hangzhou Greentown. He is expected to take Japan midfielder Yasuhito Endo from Gamba Osaka and Omiya Ardija's star Brazilian Rafael with him.

Already there have been worries expressed in South Korea over the possibility of the K-League being sandwiched between two richer competitions. A number of well-known South Korean players are working in China and last season, four of the 16 clubs started with Korean coaches.

As yet none of South Korea's biggest stars have been tempted to cross the Yellow Sea, but that could change as Guangzhou has been repeatedly linked with a big-money move for Manchester United star Park Ji-sung.

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