The Southern China Tigers seem set to take a place among global football’s elite, opening the door to the country’s ambitious soccer goals, Simon Chadwick writes.
Following the latest round of football matches in the Chinese Super League (CSL), Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao are now just one win away from becoming champions. With the season finishing at the end of October, the Guangdong club looks set to take the winner’s trophy for the seventh consecutive season.
The victory will go some way towards compensating for Guangzhou’s early exit from this season’s Asian Football Confederation Champions League (AFCCL) competition. Last season, they won the Final and qualified for FIFA’s World Club Championship (WCC), but this year they failed to get beyond the group phase.
Even so, with another CSL title this year being added to last year’s WCC semi-final appearance against FC Barcelona, some observers have hailed Guangzhou Evergrande as being Asia’s first super club, and even the world’s richest football club. Irrespective of whether either is or will become true, China could be on the verge of having its very own equivalent of Real Madrid.
Although the club has been around in various incarnations since the 1950s, it is only since 2010 that Guangzhou has risen to the top of Chinese football. This followed the club’s US$16.4 million purchase by the Evergrande Real Estate Group, which subsequently began heavily investing in player and managerial talent. In 2014, China’s biggest e-commerce firm Alibaba then bought a 50 per cent stake in the club at a cost of around US$192 million.
With heavyweight investment, ongoing success, a squad comprising of players such as Jackson Martinez and a World Cup-winning manager in charge (Brazil’s Luiz Felipe Scolari), Guangzhou have started to appear in lists produced by some of the world’s most influential business publications.
Forbes recently identified the football club as being China’s most valuable, worth US$282 million, while the Wall Street Journal has considered whether its value could be as high as US$3 billion. Elsewhere, in England, the Independent newspaper similarly labels it as being the world’s richest club, while The Guardian newspaper has portrayed Guangzhou as being Asian football’s first ever super club.
One suspects that Guangzhou Evergrande is already central to China’s football ambitions, not least because of the club’s association with corporate poster boy Jack Ma (owner of Alibaba). But it is the club’s appearances in the AFCCL and, even more importantly, the WCC that potentially contribute the most to China’s football ambitions.
Club co-owner Alibaba last year became a sponsor of the WCC, through its E-Auto division. Guangzhou’s appearances in the tournament make this a logical fit, although rumours suggest there is more to the move than one might imagine.
FIFA’s WCC is held annually, normally in Japan, and is contested by the world’s top teams (FC Barcelona won last season’s tournament). With a team regularly competing in the event and a Chinese sponsor in place, speculation has arisen that China will seek to wrestle control of the WCC from Japan and stage the tournament itself.
This would not only appeal to those in China who hold anti-Japanese views but also provide a quicker route to global football prominence than the World Cup. Although China’s football development plan is conservative in specifying the date by which it wants to stage the World Cup and to win it, in both cases the country would rather it be sooner rather than later.
The problem for China, however, is that FIFA has a policy of World Cup rotation, which is designed to ensure that continents across the world are each given an equal opportunity to organise the tournament. With Qatar – part of FIFA’s Asia federation – scheduled to host it in 2022, this means in theory at least that China won’t get the chance to host the tournament until the 2040s.
FIFA may yet step back from this policy, but for the time-being securing the WCC may be China’s (and Guangzhou Evergrande’s) chance to propel itself into football’s spotlight much faster than it could by chasing the World Cup.
As such, Guangzhou’s value to China may be as much political as it is financial, although with such prominence comes the potential for commercial success. That the club is no Manchester United or Bayern Munich right now seems obvious, but the WCC potentially provides a basis upon which to create a level of fan engagement and brand loyalty never before witnessed in Asia.
Research in sports marketing shows that engagement and loyalty are functions of perceived quality, awareness, and associations. Winning the CSL seven times and being successful in the WCC immediately marks Guangzhou out as being different to and better than its frequently derided Chinese rivals. In turn, playing in games broadcast worldwide not only helps to accentuate quality, but also raises global awareness of Guangzhou.
Fan associations pose more of a challenge for Guangzhou’s managers, however, both at home and overseas. Domestically, Chinese fans often have deep associations with the teams they support and don’t readily switch to being fans of other clubs. Yet if Guangzhou ultimately came to represent the face of modern China and its football, then there could be opportunities to build a large Chinese fan base.
Building such a fan base would nevertheless prove more difficult overseas. There is general cynicism around the world, about both China and its football. Moreover, most foreign football fans would probably struggle to name either the club’s manager or its players. It is likely too, that many of them may not even know where Guangzhou is.
We therefore shouldn’t expect Guangzhou to become the next Arsenal or Atletico Madrid anytime soon. However, with a dynamic, well-managed marketing strategy, the club’s continuing rise does raise the prospect of it being able to engage fans across the world in ways Asian football hasn’t seen before.
These are exciting times then for Guangzhou Evergrande. It is the leading club in a nation with massive football ambition, and now starting to appear in international competition alongside some of football’s global icons. Indeed, as hard as it may be for some Europeans to accept, over the next decade it is entirely feasible that the Southern China Tigers take a place among the sport’s elite.