Photo Gallery: Chinese Soccer Gets International

Foto: © Ina Fassbender / Reuters/ REUTERS

Big Spenders Chinese Football Aims to Score with International Talent

Soccer teams in China's first-division Super League are luring top international players and coaches with astronomical salaries. But their close ties to the construction industry do nothing to help Chinese soccer shed its reputation for corruption and mediocre play.

The oleanders are in bloom, there is a smell of bruschetta and espresso, and children are splashing each other with water at a fountain. Then they run over to their parents who are dozing in the sun. In Oggi, a small Italian restaurant in the burgeoning southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, football player Lucas Barrios, 28, is eating his lunch and gazing out at the park. "It's nice here, isn't it?" he says in German tinged with a Spanish accent. "A real aventura that I came to China."

Barrios is taller than all the other guests in Oggi, and his complexion is much darker. He is wearing a tight, black T-shirt that shows off his perfectly executed tattoos. The customers at the neighboring tables recognized him the minute he came limping in. They give him a friendly nod when their eyes meet. He smiles back.

His SUV is parked in the underground garage of the Canton Place luxury apartment complex, and up on the balcony of his apartment there's a huge grill that he uses to barbecue Argentinean steaks. He lives in a part of China that feels like Florida. He has a chauffeur, an interpreter with whom he can have a good laugh, and fans that admire him without being intrusive. Barrios has a contract with champion team FC Evergrande, which paid €12 million ($15.6 million) to bring him from Dortmund to Guangzhou, also known as Canton. He earns nearly €130,000 a week -- more than most professional players in Germany's top division, the Bundesliga.

But Barrios is unhappy in China. "Three more years," he says and gazes again at the children in the park. "I don't know."

In Tianhe Stadium the previous evening, at the season opener for China's Super League, Barrios was in the starting line-up against Shanghai Shenxin. A troop of 500 children from the Evergrande Football School sang the national anthem, and 40,000 spectators sang along with them. Gleaming above the northern stands was a skyscraper belonging to a giant Chinese investment firm, while the towers of the Marriott, the Sheraton and the Bank of China shone over the southern stands. Every few months, some new palace of glass and steel -- be it a hotel or a shopping mall -- is added to the cityscape. Barely 30 years old, the stadium is by far the shabbiest building in downtown Guangzhou.

The match didn't go well for Barrios. Shortly before halftime, he grabbed his groin in pain. He had apparently strained something and was replaced by another player. The final score was 5:1 for Evergrande, but the goals were scored by others: China's Gao Lin, purchased for €900,000; Brazil's Muriqui, purchased for €3 million; his fellow countryman Elkeson, purchased for €5.7 million; and Argentinean Darío Conca -- transfer fee €8 million, annual salary €7 million.

Astronomical Salaries

Making even more is coach Marcello Lippi, 65, who led the Italian national team to a World Cup championship title in 2006. In Guangzhou since last May, he receives an annual salary of €10 million. Along with him came the physician of the Italian national squad. He flies in every few weeks from Rome to check on the knees and ankles of the football-playing millionaires of Guangzhou. The morning after the opening match, he sent Barrios for an ultrasound examination. He diagnosed a torn muscle and recommended three to four weeks on the sidelines. This is already the striker's third injury since he arrived in China.

Coach Lippi can't hide the effort it takes him to justify his astronomical salary. He barks at subordinates and journalists, and likes to skip the occasional press conference, for which he is duly fined.

Barrios tends to be more melancholic. He's not bothered by the half a million euros that he pockets each month without having achieved much so far. He doesn't speak disparagingly of Evergrande -- in fact, he hardly speaks about his employer at all. Immediately after the ultrasound, he spoke on the phone with the coach of the national team of Paraguay, apparently more concerned that he once again won't be able to play for his mother's native country, whose citizenship he adopted expressly for this purpose, than about the fact that he is going to miss three league games in China. Seated in his favorite Italian restaurant on the Pearl River, he hopes that his torn muscle will heal and thinks about Paraguay.

Meanwhile, the rest of the team is in Yujing Bandao, preparing for the next game in the Asian Champions League. With the exception of Barrios and Conca, nearly all of the players live in this facility on the outskirts of Guangzhou, which looks like an absurdly inflated version of Versailles. "Peninsula of the imperial view" is one way to translate the name of this ensemble of imitation Baroque gardens, villas, a hotel and 53 high-rises.

An upper-class ghetto for 20,000 inhabitants, it was built by the Evergrande real estate company, which lent its name to the football team from Guangzhou. The company, which builds offices and residential units, ranks among the largest of its kind in China. Its financial returns can only be explained against the background of the massive urbanization currently underway in the country.

In 2012, Evergrande sold properties worth €11 billion. Its 54-year-old founder, Xu Jiayin, has invested some €135 million of this money in the football club, which he acquired in 2010 and immediately guided from the second division to the top of the first one. The team apparently means a great deal to him. In addition to purchasing the most expensive players in the Super League, Xu houses them in the same palatial hotel in which he maintains his own quarters, in the south wing. He gives the players the use of his yacht, which is moored down at the pier, and he even occasionally sends them to a game in his private jet.

Close Ties

One could call Xu's passion for the beautiful game a foible, perhaps comparable with those of oligarchs and sheikhs who purchase football teams in the West. But that would be overlooking a distinctive characteristic of Chinese soccer: Xu is just one of many Chinese real estate developers. Real estate companies own 13 of the 16 first division teams, and the CEOs of these firms are among the most flamboyant figures of the Chinese economic miracle.

Xu, who is currently the seventh most affluent man in China, is a member of the Communist Party and the People's Political Consultative Conference, which held its annual meeting in Beijing this past March. He was not available for an interview. The previous year, he had caused a stir because he had arrived at the Communist meeting in the Great Hall of the People wearing a Hermès belt which, as China's bloggers discovered, had cost over €700.

The close ties between the construction and the football business are driven by a force that moves a great many things in China -- the prospect of ever-increasing profits. Just how this works is something that is not immediately understandable. The most expensive tickets for Evergrande games cost the equivalent of €17. Even a sold-out stadium is barely enough to pay even one of Barrios' monthly salaries.

This business model apparently works differently. "Building contractors need land to build on," says an observer in Guangzhou. "To acquire that, they need political connections. And for that, it helps if they own a team." Football is by far the most popular spectator sport in China, which is why the tycoons invest so much: "The model still pays off," he concludes, "or they wouldn't do it."

So stars like Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka come and go, and Europe's top teams have big plans for the Chinese market. Every summer, clubs like Arsenal, Manchester City and Bayern Munich fly in to appear before their Chinese fans. Last year, Juventus and SSC Napoli played the Italian Super Cup in Beijing's Olympic Stadium.

Spanish and Italian football leagues have long since discovered the business potential of the Asian market. Since 2010, Sunday games by top Italian league Serie A, and even some Primera División matches in Spain, take place at noon -- in violation of the Mediterranean siesta tradition, but to the delight of hundreds of millions of fans who can watch European football live on Asian primetime television. In Spain, they call this "horario chino" -- the "Chinese schedule."

No one has taken this further than former England captain and self-marketer David Beckham, 37, who has not ruled out following up his late-career stint at Paris Saint-Germain with another one in China. For starters, he has signed a €2 million deal with the Chinese Football Association to promote the Super League. A little over three weeks ago, he flew to China and kicked around a few balls with youth teams in Beijing, Wuhan and Qingdao.

A Microcosm of Society

The Super League could certainly use some positive publicity. Indeed, the delicate flower of Chinese football is thriving on a dung heap of scandals. When Georg Meyer, the German physiotherapist at Evergrande, first came to China in early 2012, he says that players warned him that he shouldn't be surprised if some of the referees' decisions seemed unprofessional. "Most of the good referees are in prison," they quipped to him.

It took the Chinese justice system three years to drain the swamp of corruption and match-fixing scandals plaguing the professional league, which wasn't established until 1994. A total of 33 players, referees and functionaries were banned for life from the game in February, and an additional 25 were given multi-year bans. But no one is willing to bet that the league is now clean.

"Chinese football is a microcosm of Chinese society," says Cameron Wilson, a Scotsman who operates a high-profile website in Shanghai called "There is a lack of transparency, and things are not always done according to the rule of law."

But as a reflection of the Chinese model, which is globally glorified and demonized in equal measure, Wilson says that the sport serves an important function: He contends that football acts as a magnet for the anger about much of what is pervasive in China but cannot be openly criticized in politics, business and society: injustice, arbitrary decisions, nepotism and incompetence.

The latter pertains primarily to the national team, which is criticized by China's sports reporters in a way that would land their political colleagues in jail. In early February, when the team lost to Saudi Arabia in a qualifying game for the Asian Cup, one newspaper used a strong pejorative to insult the coach. The object of their criticism was not so much the coach himself as the state football association, which hired the Spaniard José Antonio Camacho in August 2011 -- for a Lippi-class annual salary of $8 million -- but with pathetic results: China, which ranked 66th in football's world standings a year ago, has now dropped down to 109th place and failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Evergrande owner Xu and the club's fans apparently refuse to accept the notion that even in China, which has grown so accustomed to success, the country's own abilities occasionally fall short of expectations. Lippi is expected to lead the team to a third championship title -- that's a given. But above and beyond that, Xu plans to establish Guangzhou Evergrande as the top club team in Asia -- and finally put an end to the annual humiliation when teams from Japan, Korea and the Persian Gulf outplay the team of the great nation of China.

The names are right. The salaries should be enough. The initial results in the Asian Champions League -- three victories and a draw -- are good. But what happens if success still eludes them? If Xu simply grows tired of this project? Or if he finds a more effective method to network his company among the powerful and influential in China?

Barrios, the South American player, isn't really interested in whether China becomes a major football power or not. He won't stay around that long. He feels cut off from life in the country that sees itself as the new center of the world. Viewed from Guangzhou, his hometown of Buenos Aires lies exactly on the opposite side of the planet. There are no direct flights from China to South America, and he can no longer expect his parents to fly over 30 hours via Brazil and Qatar to China, where they can fall exhausted into the arms of their prodigal son.

"It was different in Dortmund," he says. Ah, Germany, whose language he has tenderly preserved, whose bratwursts he longs to eat again, and where he is investing the money he earns in China. "The southern stands! You can't imagine it!" he says in describing Borussia Dortmund's legendary stadium to his perplexed interpreter: "I scored twice against Bayern!" He'll never talk like that about China.

It's a Saturday afternoon at the Oggi restaurant in Guangzhou. The last people are turning in for the night in Paraguay, while the early birds are getting out of bed in Germany. Barrios also gets up. He limps into the park and takes the elevator to his empty apartment. He has to program his television recorder. In another nine hours, the Bundesliga games will begin -- and he wants to see Borussia Dortmund play.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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