By Gustavo Spanholi

In the second of his UCFB In Focus series, Brazilian Gustavo Spanholi, a lecturer in Football Business and Sport Management, takes a look at how Brazil can fit into the Chinese football market.

Gustavo’s blog has been split into three sections, which will be published week-by-week over the Christmas period, looking at what Brazil knows about China, where it can fit into the market, and finally, how it can affect goings on and off the field.

In his book ‘About China’, former US Secretary of State and football fan Henry Kissinger addresses the differences between styles of international relations established by the Chinese and Americans. In short, while the US seeks to impose its culture on other territories, China shows little need to go to other civilisations. In the historical concept China is civilisation itself; the centre of everything; a superior culture. So it is the other countries that should come to it. The eastern giant is open, provided visitors arrive with respect and willingness to understand and contribute to its culture.

In this context, one of the main themes addressed in the 2016 World Soccer Congress was the reflections of a major national plan launched in March by another football fan, Chinese President Xi Jinping. The goal is to transform China into a superpower of the sport by 2050, with clear initial goals for 2020: 70,000 football schools, 50 million practitioners and at least one pitch per 10,000 inhabitants by 2030. The announcement and message was clear: the doors of the country are open for the best that the world football industry can offer to add to the President’s vision.

Even before the announcement, work had begun to turn China into a powerhouse: thousands of foreign coaches working in the country’s grassroots football; several projects are already in place involving children and adults learning the skills of the great stars; sport marketing agencies specialising in the feasibility of these initiatives; specialised suppliers rubbing their hands counting the numbers and calculating the money that can be made. And, of course, the strategies of European giants based on the development, training and exchange of Chinese talent. It is easy to imagine that among one billion inhabitants it’s possible to discover a new Asian Messi. Why not dream of a Chinese player capable of lifting not only a Champions League trophy, but also gaining audiences, online engagement and online sales at stratospheric levels?

Under this bias, one also understands the strong investment in importing talent into the professional Chinese league which started about five years ago. Nurturing the Chinese Super League with world-class stars was the way to boost the league and begin to encroach on the space occupied by the Premier League and La Liga in the hearts of the fans. The logic though behind all this is a bit different.

Buying stars at astronomical prices is in fact more of a local game of exchanges between private initiative and public power. Once again, one is not reverencing what comes from outside, but using foreign assets, the players, to seek prestige within Chinese society. If it is too simplistic, strengthening the club in the region is to win credit with the local government and get the concession of good benefits.

Understanding the functioning of this during the 2016 World Soccer Congress, when connecting with agencies, personalities, authorities and other important local stakeholders naturally made me wonder: where can Brazil fit into all this?

Like Kissinger and Jinping, as many footballers, when these contacts found out that I was Brazilian, they didn’t take a second to smile and say: “Brazil! Football country, land of the football stars!” Crazy, but it was the same for Brazilian executives, managers, authorities, partners of agencies, business executives, coaches, etc. Proof that Brazil’s biggest asset is still this. It’s so powerful that it resisted a 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat, scandals of corruption and organisational structures still wasteful because of its fragility.

However, the biggest question remains: how is Brazil capitalising on all this?

  • Are the certifications for coaches in South America as respected as UEFA’s?
  • How many key executives from our leagues, clubs and federations dominate at least the English language?
  • How many Brazilian clubs, leagues and federations have an international relations department?
  • How many times have our teams, professional and grassroots, held exhibition matches in Asia?

While we are looking for answers, it is worth remembering that Brazil is the country that won the only World Cup to be played in Asia. Even so, today, the expectation is to find within China a new Messi, not a Ronaldo (The Brazilian one!).

How does Brazil change that? The next chapter will shed some light on this.