What threat do China’s millions pose to the future of Gulf football?

Could China soon construct something of a glass ceiling above the Gulf game?

Graham Ruthven
Graham Ruthven - Special to Al Arabiya English
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Football is seen the world over as something of a status symbol. It’s why so many foreign businessmen find themselves the owners of Premier League clubs. It’s why Qatar committed so much to their bid for the 2022 World Cup. And its why China is becoming the sport’s most lucrative destination for players and coaches.

The Chinese Super League (CSL) has made footballing headlines of late, with Brazilian playmaker Oscar making an astonishing £60 million move from Chelsea to Shanghai SIPG and Argentinean striker Carlos Tevez joining Shanghai Shenhua for a staggering £71 million. Cristiano Ronaldo was also the subject of a world record £250 million bid, although the four-time Ballon d’Or winner resisted their overtures.

China is even targeting the best referees, with Premier League whistler Mark Clattenburg admitting his head has been turned by the riches offered to him out east. With the transfer window in the country open until mid-February it’s likely even more cash will be splashed, and with the money available no player is off limits. To many the CSL’s presence is ominous, a threat. To others such globalisation of the sport is only natural.

But the CSL’s rise comes at a compelling time for Gulf football. The sport in the region has enjoyed significant progress in recent years, with Arabian Gulf League clubs making the final of the AFC Champions League in each of the last two seasons. Emirati and Saudi clubs in particular are now imposing themselves on the Asian game, with UAE and Al Ain playmaker Omar Abdulrahman also named AFC Player of the Year for 2016.

So could China soon construct something of a glass ceiling above the Gulf game? Could the gap between clubs in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE and those in the CSL become so wide that upward mobility might be eliminated completely from Asian football?

With the money being splurged by CSL clubs, it’s entirely possible. How can anyone else in the Asian game compete with the millions they have to spend in the transfer window? The AFC Champions League - a competition UAE clubs have made great strides in recently - could become the domain of the Chinese.

Of course, any complains of competitive imbalance might be somewhat hypocritical. The Gulf was once football’s destination for those willing to drop down a level to add an extra zero to their pay check. Xavi Hernandez was lured to Qatar as a figurehead for the sporting revolution the country is hoping to lead over the next decade or so, of which the 2022 World Cup is the cornerstone.

To a certain extent, players are still enticed to the Gulf by the money on offer, but Emirati, Qatari and Saudi clubs can’t reach the top shelf of the transfer market like the Chinese Super League can. And so the onus will now fall on Gulf clubs to produce their own homegrown talent capable of sustaining them at the highest level of Asian football.

The CSL’s rise won’t necessarily make much of an impact on football in the Gulf, though. After all, it was a similar story last season, with Hulk, Ramires, Jackson Martinez, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Alex Texeira all making big-money moves to China over the winter. Yet Al Ain still managed to make it to the final of the AFC Champions League. That offers encouragement that the CSL’s millions might not see them dominate the continental game in the way that is feared.

Nonetheless, with the CSL treading on the toes of the Arabian Gulf League, the Qatari Stars League and the Saudi Professional League football in the region must find something of a new image for itself. Considering how Al Ain played the AFC Champions League final this year with only three foreign players in their starting lineup, the Emirati game might have already placed its faith in its own homegrown quality.

China might well become a top-level footballing destination in the same way as the Premier League, but just like in Europe, where England’s millions doesn’t see it dominate the Champions League, there remains hope that the Gulf game will still be able to compete. In fact, the signs are that it will continue to thrive.

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